A Word on Fonts: Paid vs. Subscription vs. Free

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  • 1/30/2017
    Picking the perfect font can truly separate a good design from a great design. At thunder::tech, our creative team spends a great deal of time choosing the right fonts for our clients’ brand and projects.

    In the past, for the web in particular, designers had a limited choice of fonts. For example, thunder::tech’s official typeface, Franklin Gothic, wasn’t always available for web usage. As a result, an alternative and similar typeface, such as Arial, was the best option to use. But over the past few years the climate has changed for the better. Now a multitude of fonts that are available for print, can also be used for the web, creating true brand consistency on all platforms and giving designers an array of font choices.

    Decisions, decisions.

    Our designers face countless font decisions such as serif versus sans serif, thick versus thin, condensed versus expanded and of course brand consistency. Perhaps one not-so-obvious choice that goes into picking out that ideal font is whether we use paid fonts or free fonts.

    There are many sources available with extensive libraries to get the perfect font for our clients. These are broken down into three categories:: paid fonts, subscription-based fonts and free fonts.
    • Paid fonts include a vast majority of the premium fonts out there, which can be found on Font Spring, Fonts.com or My Fonts. This purchase includes the ownership licenses, but typically requires buying separate licenses for desktop or print use. Additional fees for web, based on the number of page views your website receives, might be required as well.
    • Subscription-based fonts allow access and usage to a full library of premium, high-quality fonts. With a subscription, you’ll have all the needed licenses for all platforms without the need to purchase multiple licenses individually. These libraries are often updated to provide more choices, which can be found on TypeKit.
    • Free fonts on the other hand, don’t cost a thing and the license is included. These can be found on Google Fonts, Font Squirrel or DaFont, as well as some of your computer’s system fonts. Some of these free fonts are pretty close to their premium counterpart, but lack some fine details.
    Pretty close—cool, right? So why not just avoid the extra cost and use a free font that looks “pretty close” all the time? Well, not so fast…

    So, what's the big deal?

    On the outside, free fonts might seem like a great way to go; but behind the scenes there are potential downsides. There aren’t a lot quality, free fonts.
    By quality we mean::
    • A full range of weights ranging from extra light to extra bold
    • A large set of glyphs
    • Multi-language support
    • True italics, small caps, ligatures, fractions, etc.

    The other downside, when we do find a quality font that is free, it’s often overused, not ownable and can dilute our client’s brand.

    You get what you pay for...

    Paid fonts are usually superior to free fonts. These fonts are created by professional typographers and designers who understand good design, legibility and usability. Not to mention, they work exceptionally well in multiple platforms, devices and web browsers.

    Our design team is truly passionate about the quality of every project we have, and typography is one way we can deliver great work that differentiates our client’s brand from their competitors. Don’t get me wrong, free fonts have their place. They certainly serve their purpose if your budget is very limited, but ultimately premium fonts just create a better product. 

    Font comparisons and examples::

    • Gotham versus Montserrat::
    Gotham (licensed) and Montserrat (open source) are two typefaces that are very similar to each other. Montserrat is one free typeface that is pretty close to its licensed counterpart that is well-designed and works very well both on the web and print. Of course, we’d almost always recommend Gotham, especially if a client’s brand uses it in their brand standards.

    • Garamond versus Merriweather::
    Garamond (licensed) doesn’t have the best free counterpart with an extensive family of weights. Merriweather has some similarities but is a more stocky and rigid than the elegant curves and swoops found in Garamond. Sure, Merriweather is similar, but it lacks the fine details found in Garamond to be used as a preferable alternate.

    • Typekit::
    Typekit, a subscription-based font source, has a great interface giving designers a huge font library with filters to help narrow down the perfect font.

    • Google::
    Google Fonts, a free font source, also has a detailed interface to give designers a huge font library to find an ideal font.

    Does this fit my brand??

    At the end of the day, there isn’t a definitive right or wrong answer for using a paid font or a free font. It really depends on our client’s brand, budget and needs. You almost always get better quality and near-certain brand consistency with fonts that are purchased. As mentioned earlier, what we truly strive for is what gives our client’s brand a better product; something that is unique and ownable. At thunder::tech, we will always recommend the means to achieve that success for our clients.

    Interested in learning what fonts look best for your brand or campaign? Give us call or shoot us a note. 
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