In 2006, designer Oliver Reichenstein wrote web design is 95% typography. I agree with that statement, and I’d argue it extends to many types of print design and information design as well. If you doubt it, try removing all of the text from your work and see how much remains. This is all to underscore the impact that good typography and choosing the right font can have on your work. Now I know that there’s so much more to typography than choosing a font, but it is an important step that impacts not just the legibility, but the feel of your project.
Unfortunately, professional fonts are expensive. We’ve all had that moment of finding the perfect font, only to be disappointed by sticker shock. Many people don’t see the value in spending large sums on professional fonts, leading to generic or poor type. But it doesn’t have to be this way! In this article, I’ll share three strategies that you can use to find excellent professional fonts that won’t break the bank.
Before we get into the good fonts, a warning about bad fonts. When looking for affordable fonts, it’s easy to come across cheap, low quality, knockoff, or even pirated fonts. Obviously, you want to avoid these, so here are some tips:
- Good fonts will come from a modern, professional, and well-designed website. These websites will never have ads. In contrast, cheap knockoffs are often found on scammy or cheap-looking websites.
- Good fonts will clearly list the name of the designer, include information about the design process of the font, and will come with a clear license
- Good fonts will usually have features like language support, full glyph sets, ligatures, kerning pairs, and OpenType features. A clear giveaway of low-quality fonts is only having very basic characters (lacking in punctuation, special characters, accents, etc.)
- As with most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can find font bundles that will give you 30 fonts for $20 or something, and similar flash-sale style deals selling fonts for mere pennies. But if you dig into them, you’ll see that most of the designs are clear knockoffs or just poorly designed.
Finally, you’ve probably seen large font marketplaces like MyFonts. These marketplaces are mostly owned by large conglomerates like Monotype, and while they have many good fonts in their catalog, their business practices are less than stellar. I prefer to buy from small independent font foundries, where you know that your money is going to support a real person, not a corporation. It’s the same as buying your books from an independent bookstore instead of Amazon.
Only buy what you need
The first thing to know is that most foundries offer free trials of their fonts. Lean heavily on these trials while designing, and wait to buy the full font until you’re decided on your font and ready to produce the final project.
Second, the eye-popping prices you often see on professional fonts are for a full family that may contain lots of different weights and styles and may include both desktop and webfonts. During your design phase, you should cement which weights and styles you need, and then when it comes time to buy your fonts, you may only need one or two styles, which could be $50 instead of $300. The same goes for your license type: if you’re only publishing your project on the web, don’t bother buying the desktop license (and vice versa), this can cut your bill in half.
Traditional licensing models often result in pricey fonts, but several outlets today offer alternative purchasing models that can be much more affordable.
- Future fonts. This is probably my favorite place to buy fonts, here’s how it works: world-class type designers release an early in-progress version of a font. In the beginning, these may be rough or low on features, but they’re also quite cheap (maybe ~$25). As time goes on, people buy the font, give input on its design, and the designer releases updates that add more features, more weights, more refinements, etc. With each update, the price of the font increases, until it reaches a normal full price when it is finished. But your price is locked in when you purchase and from there you receive all updates for free. So if you’re an early adopter, you can get a huge bargain on a type family. I’ve gotten in early on multiple fonts for $25-$50 which ended up turning into entire families with dozens of weights and styles that were priced for $600 or more by the time they were finished. And it’s a win-win: purchasers get affordable professional fonts and get to have a say in the design process, and type designers get an advanced paycheck that funds their work on the project.
- Font of the month club. For $5/month, pro type designer David Jonathan Ross will send you a new font straight to your inbox. Sometimes it’s just a single style or weight, sometimes it’s a wacky one-off project, and sometimes it’s a whole variable font family. I’ve gotten incredible stuff, like the entire Roslindale font family, for half the cost of Netflix.
- Adobe fonts. One of the benefits of having an Adobe creative cloud subscription ($50/month) is that you get access to what is probably the best font library that exists today, Adobe fonts. I’ve got lots of feelings about Adobe, their products, and their business model, but there’s no denying that the font library is amazing, and perhaps even worth the cost of creative cloud by itself if you use enough custom fonts.
Obviously, I’m a huge advocate for buying professional fonts, but I also realize that no matter how much I carp on the issue, there are many people that will never think it’s worth it to spend money on a font. For them, there are free fonts. And free fonts are wonderful and useful to everyone, I will often turn to them if I’m working with a big team of people who all need access to the same font, or for a large website that gets tons of views, for which I can’t afford a jumbo license. The bad news is the free font world is filled with cheap junky fonts, or worse, pirated fonts. The good news is we also have several trustworthy sources for free fonts that are provided by professional designers. Just beware, keep your eyes open, and try to stick to trusted sources.
- Fontshare. This is my favorite free font platform. It’s run by Indian Type Foundry and features dozens of top-notch professional fonts in a variety of styles. The best thing here is you can be certain that every font is a winner.
- Velvetyne. A French free font collaborative that features lots of experimental fonts, but all quite nicely designed.
- Google fonts. This is it, the big man on campus. I’d estimate that about 90% of dataviz practitioners get their fonts from here. I think that’s rather a shame because although Google Fonts does have many excellent designs, it also has a lot of less-than-stellar fonts, and it can be tough to pick out the diamonds in the rough. We’re lucky to have such a wide and accessible collection on Google Fonts, but that also means these fonts are extremely overused, and if you want something unique, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Try it yourself!
Hopefully, this article has armed you with the info to find a wonderful professional font that fits your price point. Investing in professional fonts will pay off for years to come.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed by advice like “buy from independent foundries” or the idea of sifting through Google Fonts to find the gems amongst the rubble, check out these lists I’ve compiled of my favorite type foundries and favorite free fonts.
And if you’d like to learn more, not just about fonts but about typography as a whole, I strongly recommend these resources: