Design Domination Podcast Episode #176: The Best Free Fonts to Download

Find out where to get quality free fonts you can legally use for design projects, surprising reasons you should use certain free fonts, and accessibility concerns with certain types of typefaces.


I am going to use the word “font” since most designers use that term interchangeably with “typeface.” Technically, the term should be “typeface” when you’re talking about the family, such as Helvetica. Helvetica Regular, Helvetica Bold, Helvetica Oblique, on the other hand, are the actual fonts.

This is more about technical and legal considerations, as opposed to how to select the right-looking typeface for your project.

Where to Get Fonts

Where you get your typefaces matter because you want to get quality fonts that have been optimized for readability and consistency and are legally allowed to be used in a project. So you want to narrow your search to some solid sources.

There are a ton of free font sites out there. I know you know of them. Many are not legit. It might be tempting to download any fonts you find for free. Hey, I’ve done it!

But like the saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can’t be sure that the font isn’t a stolen copy of a legally sold font.

Early on in my career, I would get so excited about free fonts. I would gather them up wherever I could find them. I built this huge inventory of them. But years ago, I got rid of most of them.

Some reputable font sources are:

There are a ton more resources on the Open Font License website.

Font Licensing

Font licensing is super important to pay attention to. You don’t want to get yourself or your clients in hot water.

First off, make sure the fonts you choose for a client project can be used commercially, not just for personal use, which defeats the purpose, right?

Second, make sure the license says that the font can be embedded. Imagine working so hard on a project, picking out the perfect font, then you go to export it to a PDF for a proof or print file and you get a warning message that you cannot do that, because the font doesn’t allow it.

Sure, you could convert all the text in that typeface to outlines, but that’s super tedious to do and select everywhere it’s used. You won’t be able to edit the text, so hopefully you don’t save over that file. But also that would be circumventing the terms of the license, which is not a good idea.

If you’re going to be creating an EPUB file, you’ll also want to make sure you can use the font there.

Now, a lot of designers will provide clients the fonts as part of the source design files after a project is done. I don’t recommend sending native files at all (at least not unless you’re paid for them), unless it’s a work-for-hire situation, in which case, you would send them the source files.

But unless a font’s license says you can share them, you should not provide the fonts to clients. They should pay for their own license.

Font Formats

Formats are important to consider when choosing a typeface.

OpenType

OpenType is one type of font format. Choosing OpenType fonts that use Unicode character encoding is the best. I don’t know for sure if all OpenType fonts use Unicode character encoding or not.

Fonts with glyphs

This is important because they include hundreds of thousands of characters and glyphs. That makes using them better for foreign language characters and accent marks, math and other types of symbols.

For comparison, PostScript and TrueType fonts, which we’ve used in the past, use only 256 maximum. Big difference.

With PostScript and TrueType, you may need to resort to using another typeface in order to type certain characters properly. You know what I mean if you’ve ever seen a missing glyph in InDesign showing as a rectangle, for example.

Fonts for accessibility

The other benefit to using OpenType fonts and having an expanded number of characters is for accessibility—from a technical, not a visual, standpoint.

You may or may not have ever noticed this if you’ve ever created an accessible document. I see this a lot with clients’ files. A lot of time what happens is that the designer has used the popular Zapf Dingbats font for a square bullet or maybe stars for bullets.

The square bullet is created by typing a lowercase “n” in the Zapf Dingbats typeface. Well, in looking at the page in InDesign or the PDF, it looks like a square, which is what was intended. But in the tags tree, the square bullet appears as a lowercase “n.”

Square bullet showing as letter N in the tags tree.

Why would this happen? It’s because the font is being used to create the bullet rather than using a glyph character that exists in that typeface.

In other words, it’s just the letter “n” styled with the font to look like a square. In its code, it’s really still an “n.”

It’s important to use the correct glyph or character so that assistive technology will interpret it correctly.

In this case, for example, instead of someone who uses a screen reader hearing the word “bullet” and the line of text, they will hear “en” and the line of text, and so forth for each list item. That’s completely different and confusing.

If you use the right character and then change fonts, if that font has the glyph, it will show it. It’s like you can type ABCDEFG and change the font from Arial to Helvetica, let’s say. The letters still appear as what they are.

Fonts for cross-platform use

Another plus to OpenType fonts is their cross-platform use. The same font files, which are .otf, can be used on Mac and Windows.

This is a big selling point for when you design new branding for a client, because they will be able to have that consistency. For instance, you can use the same fonts in InDesign on a Mac and they can use the same fonts in a Word document or presentation slides. If they are a large company and use both Mac and Windows, that’s a big benefit for them.

Web Fonts

A lot of times you can find free OpenType fonts to use in print and digital documents and also on the web, so you have even more consistency.

Again, this may be a consideration when you want to ensure the same typefaces will be used for print, digital documents and presentations, and on the website.

Conclusion

I hope this information was helpful and will guide you in selecting fonts in your next project.

In a future episode, I will go into selecting typefaces from a visual standpoint.

For more typeface talk, check out episode 20, Typeface Design and Inspiration, where I talked with type designer Fábio Duarte Martins and episode 31 on typographic typos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Design Domination Community

Hang out and get advice from designers of all levels in our welcoming community of graphic designers on Facebook.

Join the group