Tim Shorts made a request in regards to yesterday's typography post, asking what differences to look for between poor and professional quality fonts. Really, there are just two main issues, but I'm lumping in a third (mostly because it irks me as a type purist).
Egregious Type Transgression #1: Bad Form/Shape
Most often, this happens because some jackass with a scanner and a freeware font editor thinks he knows what he's doing. Look at the Quentin examples above. The commercial version is clean, has smooth curves, and (most importantly) has evenly spaced stroking!!! (Compare the white "inline" spaces around the outer edges.) I have no doubt that type offender of this free version below was not intending to create a "grunge" version of this typeface. But that's what you're getting if you download the freebie of this one. A great commercial version of this typeface is available for only $19.95.
Egregious Type Transgression #2: Bad Kerning Pairs
First, I want to make sure you understand the difference between tracking (a.k.a. letterspacing) and kerning. Tracking/letterspacing is the overall spacing between letters for an entire word or line of copy. Kerning, on the other hand, is the spacing between two individual letters. A good way to judge whether a word is kerned well or not (that is, the individual letter pair spacings look good or not) is to look at the spaces between letters and imagine pouring water into the space. For example, the left-hand side of a lower case a" indents a bit, it would hold "a slight bit more water," and the space should be adjusted accordingly. Two lower case l's on the other hand, would not have the same issues. In the Thalia example above, not only is the bad/freebie version guilty of Egregious Type Transgression #1, it's also a victim of bad kerning pairs. Look at the commercial example... notice how the letters are spaced to have an appearance of even spacing (even though if you mechanically measured them left-to-right from letter-bottom-to-letter-bottom they would vary slightly). Now look at the bad example on the bottom... what the hell is going on between the "a" and "l"? (And, no, I did not make it look like that; all I did was type the word in Photoshop.) Most places charge $39.95 for a good version of Thalia. I did, however, find a good commercial version of Thalia for $19.95.
Egregious Type Transgression #3: Artistic License?
I have to admit, I'm a bit of type purist and all-around type nerd. I'm also one to respect an artist's original intentions. I'm not going to go changing stuff just because I can. Let me give you an example... Claude Garamond (designer of the original Garamond typeface) spent his entire life crafting and perfecting his type. In fact, the quality of Garamond's type was so good, he is credited with the elimination of Gothic/Romanesque styles from compositors’ cases all over Europe1. So, here's a man that dedicated his entire life crafting his typeface based on historical Roman forms, but any jackleg with a computer but no typographic training can "on a whim" decide to F up a man's life work in seconds by condensing it to 50%! Messing with type on the computer is like wearing spandex... just because you can doesn't mean you should. So where am I going with this? Look at that T! Otto Eckmann crafted the type he wanted, and it didn't have that style T. Change the font if you want, but change the damn name would you!? I don't know... call it "Eck-Man" or "Eckmannn" or "Eckmon" for all I care, but don't try to pass off your uninformed decision as some other man's work! Especially if does not share the same finesse as the original. Compare the subtleties of the letterforms' curves. The commercial version (directly from Eckmann's original work) is artistic and aesthetically pleasing. The bad freebie is clunky, slightly misshapen, and most importantly, it's not Eckmann. The reason I called this transgression "artistic license?" (with a question mark) is that there is nothing artistic about this designer's license. An "officially licensed" Linotype (the 127-year-old type company) version of Eckmann Schrift is available for $29.
Quality Free Fonts
When it comes to free fonts, I generally avoid dafont (and similar sites). They are upload-driven and have no quality control whatsoever. The best resource for free fonts on the Web is Fontsquirrel. They hand-select the fonts available for the site, and have a great track record and growing collection. I suggest checking out the following fonts:
- Orotund (European, semi-Gothic, calligraphic)
- Molot (a sort of 70s/80s pulp sci-fi-ish vibe)
- Uncial Antiqua (a synthesis of Roman inscriptional capitals and Carolingian writing)
- Heuristica (great versatile serif typeface in 4 styles: regular, regular ital., bold, and bold ital.)
1. Meggs' History of Graphic Design, Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis, 5th edition, 2011.