The appearance of text on a label can be hugely important, even on graphic-intensive designs. Unless you're working on a design project with a big budget, the cost of commercial typefaces can be prohibitive. Mention the idea of free fonts to an experienced designer and they're likely to respond with a grimace. They have a well earned reputation as unattractive and functionally incomplete. There are times, however, when finding a free font is necessary.
Common Fonts Can Blend In With the Crowd
With the proliferation of preinstalled fonts, designers may elect to use widely available commercial typefaces like Helvetica, Impact, or Arial rather than paying top dollar for a unique, modern option. Helvetica and Helvetica Neue are nice, easy to read fonts, but their popularity makes them less than ideal for a brand looking to make a lasting impression (see example at right). Just as an elegant and unusual typeface can help your label packaging stand out on the shelf, common and overused fonts can cause your products to blend in with the retail space.
Fonts To Avoid
Graphic design can certainly be open-ended, and beauty as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Having said that, there is a consensus in the design world about certain fonts. Avoid these fonts like the plague, because even if you personally like them or they are new to you, these fonts make your labels look dated, unprofessional, or amatuerish and humiliate any self-respecting design professional forced to use them:
Regardless of the fonts you choose, never use more than two different fonts in a single design. Just like the old adage "the more colors you use, the cheaper the design will look", using more than two fonts kills readability and design aesthetic.
Missing fonts & poor substitutions
Often when inhertiting a design project, designers may find it requires fonts they do not have installed. Unfortunately, it's also common for a client to lose track of the original fonts, or worse they may only have the artwork with all fonts converted to uneditable outlines. For the designer, purchasing a commercial font for over $100 may not be in the budget and finding a replacement font can take up valuable (and un-billable) time.
Using a knock-off font may be the last result for a designer when a client cannot provide the original font files. In days past, this meant scouring the internet for a similar typeface, hoping it would include all the needed character weights, symbols, and treatments like italics or bold. If a similar but incomplete font was found, they had to resort to hand creating artificial italics or special characters.
Scrambling to match the appearance of text on brand packaging is frustrating and time consuming, and the end result can be far from perfect. It happens frequently enough that many websites and smartphone apps exist to help designers identify a font in a sea of thousands upon thousands of fonts.
Free no longer means ugly or incomplete
Free fonts have come a long way, especially in the last several years. They're no longer just poor imitations of professional commercial fonts or gaudy specialty fonts designed only to (poorly) imitate popular movie or television show typefaces. If you haven't browsed popular free font libraries like those available at Font Squirrel you'll be pleasantly surprised at the range of attractive styles offered free of charge.
So if you're looking for a way to spice up your next label project a free memorable typeface could be just the thing!
Disclaimer: The word 'font' technically refers only to the variations of the lettering design, and the correct word when referring to the stylized design and appearance of the letters is 'typeface'. However, this battle was lost long ago, and most people (even professional designers) will say 'font' in reference to both.
The original Helvetica logo collage used above is part of Thomas Quinn's excellent blog on the subject.
'Too Many Fonts' graphic available for purchase from Zazzle.com.