Back in ancient times--throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s when just 1000 or so fonts were available for desktop computers--designers had a tongue-in-cheek saying among themselves: The one who dies with the most fonts wins! It made sense at the time because fonts were coveted by every designer as a creative resource of unparallelled importance, and prices were astronomical. While supply has risen and prices have dropped in more recent eras, one thing remains true today: Fonts remain incredibly important and valuable to anyone who puts words on paper or pixels.
If your budget is low, or if you just want to experiment with a wide variety of type styles, check out the abundance of free and low-cost sources on the Internet. Warning: not all fonts are created equal. A font file that you install on your computer is actually a tiny program, with a variety of capabilities--including the ability to crash your applications.
Fonts come in three main formats: PostScript (Type 1) and TrueType are the oldest, and are fairly simple--but still capable of taking down your operating system. OpenType fonts can be far more complex, offering applications the ability to intelligently combine glyphs (characters) into new forms, add swashes to characters, convert combinations of numbers that look like fractions to true fraction characters, and so forth. OpenType is also capable of containing tens of thousands of glyphs, instead of the 256 limit of previous formats.
Aside from whether a font is programmed properly, quality is another issue. In some ways, crafting a font is similar to building a house. Anyone with a set of tools and some raw materials can put up a shelter that could be called a house. But the best houses are designed and built by people who have spent years studying and practicing the myriad techniques, history, styles, and materials. The same may be said about crafting fonts. Many masters around the world have devoted their lives to the true art of typeface design. Others are masters in crafting those designs into font files that you can use. Companies such as Linotype, Monotype, FontShop, and Adobe employ those masters to create the typefaces used by professional designers.
And this may be obvious, but you'll note that many fonts are primarily for display purposes, not for setting long stretches of text.
There are also smaller font boutiques whose operators have mastered the techniques of font creation, and produce their own brand and style of font designs. Many of them offer their fonts through distributors such as Fonts.com, MyFonts.com, and Veer.com, while others choose smaller distributors such as FontBros.com and HypeForType.com.
FontBros.com and HypeForType.com work with new and upcoming font designers to distribute and promote their work. While some of the designs are unrefined, some gems are also available for just a few dollars.
This brings up the question: Why would anyone go through the hard work of designing and producing a font, and then not charge for it? The most common answer is that the designer just wanted to be creative, and didn't want to be bothered with the commercial aspect of it.
A more recent trend is for designers to give away a font that showcases their style, hoping that people who discover it will want more of that style and pay for their other designs. Sometimes you can pick up a style or two of a typeface (the regular and italic styles, say), but the remaining styles (bold, light, extrabold, condensed) are available for purchase. Great examples are Jos Buivenga's exljbris Font Foundry and Chank Diesel's Chank.com.
Other websites offer some free fonts in addition to paid fonts. FontFabric has about 50 free fonts, each nicely illustrated so you can see the kinds of designs you could make.
Check usage restrictions
Before we get to the Big List of free font sources, consider this: Fonts have usage restrictions, and while some are licensed for use in any project, many are free only for use in personal projects such as holiday letters and garage-sale flyers. So, if you want a font for use in a commercial project, then look for one that's licensed for commercial use. Some websites indicate the allowable uses for their free fonts, while others leave that chore for you to discover by reading an included text file with each font. (If the font doesn't include a text file that states its allowable uses, then you're on your own to decide what risk to accept in using it.)
Probably the best source of free commercial-use fonts right now is Font Squirrel. It offers free Web fonts (@font-face kits), and a free @font-face kit Generator.
The dafont.com website helpfully indicates whether each font has a full set of accented characters and the Euro symbol, and whether its license is for personal use only.
Abstract Fonts also indicates whether a font is licensed for personal or commercial use.
And then there's Behance, recently acquired by Adobe, which lets members upload fonts they have designed. At Behance.net, click through to Galleries-> Collections-> Free Fonts. In addition, Google has gotten into the free font game, and has already amassed more than 600 free fonts that you can download individually or all at once.
Other websites are more like a simple database of free fonts, with font previews and links to download the fonts.
Here are some of them:
- 1001 Fonts
- Acid Fonts
- Dingbat Depot
- Font Garden
- Font Reactor
- Open Font Library
- Search Free Fonts
- Simply the Best
- Mike's Sketchpad
The business of fonts is constantly evolving. More free, high-quality fonts are available today than ever before, and new websites have sprung up to offer you the best ones, with the least risk. The best ones were designed by real human beings, who gave hundreds of hours of their time to craft a design tool for you to use at no charge. One of the best ways to say "thank you" for a font you particularly enjoy is to explore other font designs by the same designer, and even buy one.