Open–source vs paid: How font choice affects your next project

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Are open-source fonts better than paid fonts, or vice versa? Are you working on a project and are unsure if you should choose a paid or open-source font? Or did you know that there is a significant difference in the two? In this article, I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these two types of fonts.

Disclaimer: The term “free” is used interchangeably with “open-source” fonts for readability’s sake.

Open-source fonts

The good

It’s free! If you’re low on budget, selecting an open-source font would make the most financial sense, rather than purchasing a thousand-dollar type family that would make your business go bankrupt.

The Bad

The second thing is that the quality of the font varies by leaps and bounds, as compared to paid fonts where the quality is roughly the same. I mean that both technically and aesthetically. While there is a growing trend for higher-quality open-source fonts, there still is a swampy garbage dump of sorts that you will have to successfully navigate through. Vendors such as Google Fonts house a monstrous menagerie of unkempt fonts. Just filter the fonts out by selecting the widest font width under the “font properties” drop-down menu, and you should get the idea on what I am saying: There is much unpredictability quality of open-source fonts (or for that matter, the entire open-source world — from libre chatbots to libre video games to libre desktop publishing software). Font designer Matthew Butterick once quipped, “Looking at Google Web Fonts is like looking at rows of babies in baskets left outside the orphanage.”


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Open-source fonts are also spotted much more on the web, and increasingly, on print. You probably already know why open-source fonts are so much more popular. It’s because users prefer going with the easiest, the simplest, and the most streamlined option: It eliminates the hassle of buying. And they also crave to be like everyone else. Design is getting more attention in the corporate world these days, leading to the want to conform, but they also don’t want to invest. Open-source fonts fall right smack in the centerline: They aren’t at the extreme right (boring system fonts such as Arial or Segoe), nor are they on the extreme left (pricey paid fonts), and at least it shows some effort and sophistication. These users also tend to pick the fonts that rank top on sites such as Google Fonts, leading to the popular getting popular, and the unpopular, getting, well, even more unpopular.

This public popularity, of course, comes at a cost. When something succumbs to ubiquity, it becomes bland and boring, and its design becomes diluted. Just ask Times New Roman about its plight. More open-source fonts, it appears to me, have experienced this banality. It isn’t about taste; it’s about usage and popularity.

Refer to the image below:

Do these fonts look vaguely familiar? That’s because they were Google Fonts’ top six most popular typefaces in 2020 (and for many years to come, I’m sure). Their names are, in order of popularity (which by the way is measured by how many times it was used via the Google Fonts APU — that means self-hosted fonts aren’t included):

  • Roboto (the core Google typeface seen by billions on the web every day)
  • Open Sans
  • Noto Sans
  • Lato
  • Montserrat
  • Roboto Condensed

Paid fonts

After rambling on about open-source fonts, I think we should discuss paid (ie retail) fonts. Here are three things about paid fonts that are different.

The good

The first and most rewarding perk about paying for fonts is that you get to support creative people. By paying the designers, you give them a motivation to continue making quality typefaces, and to make their business a sustainable and feasible one. Buying their fonts is also a superb way to show support and appreciation for their trade, even if you are simply buying it for yourself without a client.

Secondly, paid fonts are less abused than their free cousins. I am not just talking about the popularity. I am also talking about the way it is used; specifically the way it is typeset. So naturally, these paid fonts are much more likely to be bought by professionals who know how to select and appreciate paid fonts. The result? Paid fonts are used more appropriately as compared to free, open-source fonts.

The Bad

It can be hard to tell if a paid font really is worth it. Browsing through websites such as Pixel Surplus or Pixelbuddha will reveal hundreds upon hundreds of low-quality fonts which really aren’t worth your money at all. In fact it might as well would blend in when placed in a Da Font catalogue. But a quick look at established, respected foundry websites will tell you that you can get a better font at the same price. And then there are the cheaters, who just copy another paid font and sell it at skyrocketing prices. You don’t pay for what you get.

Conclusion

Choose a paid font if you have a big budget or your client appreciates fine typography. If your audience has the intellectual disability of separating Arial from Comic Sans, you’re better off choosing an open-source font. I’m speaking from experience. They will not appreciate the value of a paid font, or worse, they might not even know what fonts are.

Published by Thomas Rettig

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