A couple of years ago, I ran into a free version of Cloister Old Style. I was delighted to see the high quality of the font. It was very well rendered. Plus, I was able to download the italic version of the font.
A few months later I was conducting a graduate typography seminar class and one of my students had chosen William Morris and the Kelmscott Press for her thesis project. She wanted an appropriate text font to use for her paper. I recommended Cloister Old Style, rather than Morris’s Golden Type, the typeface he designed for his own bookwork. Cloister was more appropriate for continuous reading. She was able to download it for free, but there seemed to be no free italic version. The going rate was $26.95—certainly not an unusual or unreasonable price, unless you happen to be a graduate student.
If nothing else, this was an ideal teachable moment. Cloister Old Style was a “modernized” version of the Golden type. It, in turn, was Morris’s interpretation of the original Venetian type designed by engraver and printer Nicolas Jenson in Venice around 1470. It wasn’t a slavish copy, for Morris had an ideal he was striving for in his new typographic work. The other fact many designers don’t know is that italic fonts were not designed to compliment Roman counterparts. At that time there was no concept of type families. In fact, originally, there were no Roman counterparts. All those classical books we now venerate were originally set using one font, at one size, even for titles and headings. There was no such thing as bold or even small caps for at least another century and a half.
The first italics were not even developed for 25 years after Jenson’s first Roman type. The first italic used in a book was designed by Francesco Griffo around 1501. Italics were later popularized by Ludovico Arrighi. Neither designer intended to use these italic letters in conjunction with Roman fonts. They were actually used to conserve space on the printed page. The italic style was based upon the chancery handwriting of the day, and was actually more condensed than a standard Roman font. Those first italics didn’t even contain a cap alphabet. So in that sense, they had to have some design compatibility with the companion capital letters used on the same page.
My grad student never got to use an italic with her project, which, of course, is in keeping with the historical tradition. As for me, the first time I used Cloister, it was for something more contemporary that could aesthetically use an italic. Unfortunately, by that time my laptop had been impounded by our IT Department for required upgrades and—the italic had vanished. I was never able to find a site which offered a free download and the project was not worth investing $26.95, so it was time for a Plan B.
[Please Note: For some reason, downloads are fragile. Always back them up—especially if they are fonts.]
In this case, my Plan B was an Italic from a font that I did own. I chose Bembo, a Venetian-style type face that shared some historical characteristics with Cloister.
[Another Note that indicates how we think of font families “today.” I was at my first type conference in the late ’70s when a printer approached me demanding to know why my company didn’t offer ITC Pioneer “Italic.” If you are familiar with this font, you know it’s a blocky, 3-dimensional font, with no curves whatsoever, it’s strictly for display purposes. Had this been a few years later, when digital typesetting was introduced, The user could simply slant the letters. Instead of telling our customer that would be in bad taste, I simply said we licensed designs from ITC (International Typeface Corporation) and only produced fonts from the artwork they provided for us. This only goes to show that people expect a full range of letters with their typefaces now.]
Back to Bembo, as you can see, it bears some similarity Cloister Oldstyle.
This was an educated guess on my part. And it should be noted that Morris Benton, the original designer for Cloister had no model to follow, so he followed the scribal writing of that period as a guide, matching it as well as he could to the roman letterforms.
There’s a “post script” (you’ll excuse the expression) to this story. I recently came across another version of the Cloister family done by the Font Bureau, also a highly reputable foundry.
You’ll notice that the lower case letters are squatter and not as light as the LTC version I began with. Here’s my theory:
Type revivals that come from existing metal type are based upon specific sizes at which the letters were used. The example here was likely from a 10 or 12 point “cutting,” which means the letters were originally designed to be printed at 10 or 12 point sizes. We can tell this by two clues. First, look how far the descending letters (g and j) drop below the baseline of the other letters. This allows the lines of paragraphs to be set closer together without crashing into each other (or touching). Second, I looked in my old Linotype specimen catalog and compared the sample here with the 10 point printed sample. And guess what? The designs are the same. The LTC sample above is really closer in design to the 30 point printed sample. It’s generally lighter in weight and has proportionately longer descenders. So my second test just confirmed what I already suspected.
Next time, I’ll list my top 10 typography books. Um, don’t get your hopes up too much. There’s no particular ranking here. I just grabbed the first ten books from the shelves next to my desk. They’re the ones I use most frequently in my research. There are some that are out of print and others available electronically.
If I had a lot of discretionary capital, I would spend less time looking for free fonts. Many of us acquire fonts because we like them. If you're in business—freelance or otherwise—you get them for client jobs. And if it's a big type family (such as Helvetica, Gotham, or Univers), you may be able to pass the cost on to the customer, But most of us don’t have what we’d call extra funds.
So here are places I go for reference and periodic free fonts:
Originally launched by Bitstream, the first digital type manufacturer. MyFonts.com has tons of fonts, usually the big brands and all professional. And usually full price. BUT, they do have periodic sales or free downloads if you get on the mailing list. EX., I just took a survey and qualified for 15 free (professional) fonts.
The site was bought out by Monotype Typography (a very respected type founder from the days of metal). They provided the original Windows TrueType fonts, so they know about digital type. They have their own site, too, which is specifically for their own type, while the MyFonts.com site has a wider selection from other vendors.
The other site I have to use is the one that no one likes to admit to:
This is probably one of the biggest and most notorious free fonts sites around. Their offerings include anything and everything but it’s pretty well organized. Beware of fonts that lack a full character set. This might typically include (er, exclude): quotes, apostrophe, hyphen, asterisk and even a proper word space). Nevertheless, these problems are not insurmountable. And you might get just the right “look” for a project.
[EX. I just rejected an offer for a free font from an e-mail list to which I subscribe. It was one of those handwritten scripts that are in vogue right now. Being a bit of a type purist, I never thought I'd have any need for it. But this week, I ran into something that looked very much like it as a logo for a web site. And I said to myself, that's the type of request we'd get from one of our pro bono clients. They'd point to this as an example and ask for something just like it. Well, they haven't asked yet, but it enforces the rule/guideline that there's a purpose for every typeface design.]
If you need a text or “body” font, you would do better trying these sites. They have nice headline and display type, as well, but if your newsletter or brochure is just not making it with the Times, Baskerville, or Helvetica that came with your computer, you should look through the wide selection offered here. Even if they are not all free. All these sites have articles and newsletters, so be prepared to spend some time if you have any interest in Typography. These sites include newsletters, articles, and font identification services.
[Word of explanation: The alphabets are antique-looking (i.e., distressed) but very carefully drawn with full character sets including numerals, punctuation, monetary symbols and diacritics for all languages. They available at a few other font sites, such as DaFont.com]
Obviously, other manufacturers have their own web sites. If nothing else you can get ideas of similar fonts to look for; and they might even have stuff on sale.
Try Fonts.com, which is another Monotype Imaging showplace, and the FontShop originated by modern type design legend Eric Spiekermann. Again, both places have have lots and lots of helpful information about fonts and type design.
There are periodic sales from MyFonts.com or Linotype.com on the new revised standards, such as Helvetica Now and Metro, New Trade Gothic, Neue [New] Haas Unica.
Coming up: The last part of this article relates a real-life story about how I procured a good quality classic font for free (and how I overcame some of its shortcomings).
Part of the answer depends upon your standards. Some years ago, when I was trying to build up my font collection, I discovered that all fonts were not created equal.
[If you're not feeling especially geeky today, it's OK to skip this history section, but do continue reading Part 2. . .]
The digital type industry was quite new at the time and everyone was an “expert.” Anyone with a few extra dollars could purchase a font creation program and “create” a font that would be readable on a personal computer running the new Macintosh or Windows operating systems. In my original introduction to my online course I mention a music teacher at Columbia University who occupied his commuting time on the train from White Plains to create fonts on his laptop using Fontographer. Some of his fonts are still available for free download today, which gives you an idea of the durability of digital font technology. While his font choices, mostly pirated and auto-traced from existing photofonts, were eye-catching, their integrity left something to be desired.
He was encouraged in his efforts by one of the new “experts” in the field, whose taste might be called into question. My opinion was that he liked the idea that visually exciting fonts were being added to the mix of new digital fonts. Up to that time, digital type tended to be on the order of the stuff you read in books and magazines. Made for legibility but not particularly flamboyant.
A discussion of this topic would involve the ability of high quality imaging devices to process digital fonts in general and these cheap fonts in particular. This was a time of developing technology and even using the high-quality professional fonts could not guarantee successful output.
A second issue for later discussion, perhaps, is how long it takes to create a font. How much does the manufacturing process cost? This is determined by the cost of your time. As with most items, the time and cost gradually goes usually down over a period years. When I first began my career, veteran designers from companies such as Linotype told me they planned on at least two years. This was because they had to design for brass matrices used to cast metal letters Very time consuming. Phototype, which is where I started in the industry, might be able to do a font in 4 to 6 months since there was no metal involved and our final product was a film negative. And even this timeline was reduced over the years.
It all changed with digital type. The months could be cut down to days if all you did was scan a printed sample and auto-trace it, which, I suppose, doesn’t say much about the resulting quality.
The bottom line, of course, is the bottom line: There are no production or distribution costs, with these new digital fonts if it's is just being downloaded.
End of historical background. You may proceed to Part 2 for some font web sites.
Another Typical Example of Free Fonts in Use
Everything has limits and that includes font data. Each individual letter or character is known a glyph. The shape of this glyph is controlled by, um, control points. They also control shape: curves and angles. The common term for today’s digital fonts is vector type—lines and points. here’s part of where quality and design integrity enters the discussion.
You can use the auto-trace feature in a software program to capture the shapes of letters. I’ve done this with many fonts. Sometimes you start with hand-drawn originals using pen and ink(!). The example above may have been done that way. The typical problem that is created by this method is two-fold. First, the auto-trace may create too many independent shapes within the character. This means lots of extra control points for the the layout program to keep track of. The more points, the more information that has to be sent to the printing device. This is where the limits mentioned above come into play. If you exceed those limits, the document will either look “funny” on the screen or not print at all. The other issue that will undoubtedly pop up is design integrity. Auto-tracing that many points will likely yield some “open paths.” With vector fonts, it’s critical that all the paths/outlines defined by the control points must be closed/completed/connected. If they’re not, you’ll experience more unpleasant results.
To give you a little background, this font was actually chosen for use on a display board for my 9-year old grandson for a science fair project. He downloaded it from daFont.com, known for a lot of variety in both styles and quality. As the resident Font Maven, I sometimes wonder if it would be easier being a plumber or a lawyer, but I had a reputation to uphold so I decided I would get this font working properly no matter what. Step one was to open it in Fontographer, which confirmed my suspicions. There were just too many control points on every letter/charcter for the layout software to keep track of.
The quickest solution was to try a global simplify paths command. This removes any extra control points while usually retaining the basic shapes. It worked and the font began to display properly—or as well as it could) considering the initial design. The next step would have been to go through the alphabet one character at a time to check for missing points (which create broken paths). That would have been tedious. I ended up finding a few of the more obvious ones and after regenerating the font file, everything functioned satisfactorily.
Next time: Sources for free fonts (that work).