Absolutely best free alternative fonts for newbie designers?

Predabot's picture

Hi, name's Lars Johansson. ( *ducks for obligatory Swede-jokes*)

I found this outstanding site trough some searching on the web, for resources and information on fonts and typography.

I'm a hobbyist web and graphical designer, as well as an amateur comic-book letterer and colourist.

I'm also an editor for a comic-book fanzine here in Sweden, and one of my duties is the design of logos and promotional fliers. As such, I have been reading up on what is essentially considered to be the VERY BEST of the best, of the best, ( and on and on ;) ) fonts that a modern graphical designer needs to have in his arsenal.

I've also come to the conclusion that quality most definitely don't come cheap. So, realizing that I at the moment do not have the funds to actually acquire the tools of the professional, I have started the search for the best hobbyists tools.

That has led me to this board, mainly because I find an immense amount of knowledge seems to be contained here. Knowledge that I desperately need.

You gents and ladies are some of the very best in the global typography industry. Can you help me out with putting together a list of the very best Open Source fonts that I can use in my work?

I've been gazing the following sites in my quest, and they seem to hold part of the answers that I seek:

Really great fonts there, already dl-ed some of them and used in a project.

Vitaly Friedman seems to be taking a really good look at some of the best alternatives for a newbie like me. It doesn't seem like that many of these fonts can actually replace the true classics that professional designers use tho...

Jacob Cass goes trough the very best of the best... and I have to agree, those types and fonts seem really versatile.

So, do you think it's possible to find replacements for the true classics? As a start I just want to find some alternatives to the top 7-10 fonts, instead of the massive list of 30 classics that the real pro's use. Just want the bare bones, a little something to start me off, so to speak.

Something that will replace these little nuggets:

1. Akzidenz Grotesk
2. Trajan
3. Garamond
4. Futura
5. Bodoni
6. Bickham Script Pro
7. Frutiger
8. Univers
9. DIN
10.Trade Gothic

Any help and suggestions are gladly received, ladies and gentlemen.


fontsquirrel's picture

Take a look at the inexpensive FontSite fonts. They have a lot of what you list there (under possibly different names).


Nick Shinn's picture

As a start I just want to find some alternatives to the top 7-10 fonts

If you want alternatives, why circumscribe yourself by a "similar to" strategy?
Those typefaces define typographic range in an old set of morphisms.

Why not seek a "top ten" that provides a broad palette of contemporary functionality?
That would include relevant genres such as square fonts, ultra-black, handwriting scripts, and slab serifs.

Si_Daniels's picture

Seems strange that a newbie designer would want to cut corners on their workhorse fonts. Does the same apply to hardware and software? If so I have a 286 with Corel Draw 2 I'd be happy to sell you. :-)

Predabot's picture

Fontsquirrel: Those does seem fairly affordable, I must say. I'm actually surprised by the price, tell you the truth.

Nick Shinn: Your words have a ring of truth to them. But some fonts have a timeless look, and I really can't help think that's for a reason. But, new font-genres does have cool looks, and I do want to create some work that looks fresh and inspired.

Do you perhaps have some suggestions and examples of fonts with very contemporary, perhaps even somewhat experimental, morphism? ( I take it morphism in this case means the overall shape and look of the typeset)

Sii: Well, I only make 464$ and 26c a month... and even that will soon dry up. Add to that the fact that I'm living in the most highly taxed country in the world, and you kind of understand why I have to cut some corners. :| I use an older version of Photoshop and Illustrator, and I've got a very basic Bamboo Wacom tablet. This is just another cost-cut in a long line. I'm pretty used to cutting corners.

Cheaper, raw toilet-paper, water instead of dairy in cooking, patching up an old bicycle-tire 5 times or so... it's everyday life.

William Berkson's picture

Check out http://www.ascenderfonts.com/ also. Jos Buivenga's stuff is some of the best free stuff--he gives away some weights, and you can buy others.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

Check MyFonts.com for free fonts. If you fail to find anything useful there, you’re likely to fail otherwise … ;-)

And make sure you check MyFonts for ›Lapidaria‹. That’ll morph your business up!

Predabot's picture

William: Ascenderfonts have a lot of good-looking fonts. But I think they're a bit too expensive for me. Fontspring seems more affordable. But thank you for the suggestion, it will be a site to look for in the future. I certainly hope to afford better and better fonts.

I will definitely be checking out Boivenga's stuff! He has some neat stuff there, and his name has been mentioned on several sites I've been cruising.

Andreas: Lapidaria looks quite fun. A very interesting design, including so many different glyphs in one set. I'll probably check out the free Medior Light, but it might be a bit tricky to work with, since comic-book design favors bold and ultra-bold type to such a degree. Almost everything I do features something that is outstandingly larger than life.

Nick Shinn's picture

I'm living in the most highly taxed country in the world

A mere fifth on the Big Mac Index, however.

I take it morphism in this case means the overall shape and look of the typeset

It's a term borrowed from category theory.
The functors of typefaces are abstract, variable, plastic qualities, such as weight, contrast, angle of stress, serif genre, etc., that can be used to describe any typeface.
Once you limit yourself to a set of particular typefaces, which fix a combination of functor values as specific morphisms, you exclude those functor values not represented by those faces.

blank's picture

If you’re working on non-commercial projects you can get a hefty discount on my Armitage family at MyFonts.

Predabot's picture

Nick: Oh? I thought we were on 4th place? (well, last year..) There's a new index out?

James Puckett: That's really great that you offer that kind of discount ( 50%, aint too shabby). Sadly, not that many of my projects are completely non-commercial.

We're getting a bit off topic tho.

Nick mentioned something very interesting in his first post, that the classics I listed may unnecessarily limit a designer in his work. What kind of NEW free top 10 fonts would you guys recommend?

Perhaps something a little bit like this?

1. Alte Haas Grotezk
2. Fontin
3. Delicious
4. League Gothic
5. Gentium
6. MG Open Moderna
7. Qlassik
8. Myriad Pro
9. Ripe

hrant's picture

So, out of 54 selections there are a whopping total of... one open-source fonts. And that's by Adobe! "It's an evil Font Mafia CONSPIRACY, I tell you!!"


altsan's picture

If you've been looking for high-quality open source fonts, I expect you've found the GhostScript fonts already: http://downloads.ghostscript.com/public/fonts/
These versions are the latest release from URW (from some time in 2011, I think), not the various extended versions available from multiple open source distributions, which are mostly based on the 10+ year-old original releases. The best of these extended versions (which do have broader language coverage) seem to be the TeX Gyre fonts.

They largely duplicate fonts that are distributed standard in most OSes nowadays, so how useful they are to you is an open question. Still...

1. Akzidenz Grotesk
4. Futura

If you're limiting yourself to a basic selection of essentials, rather than Akzidenz Grotesk you'd probably be just as well off with a free Helvetica clone, like Nimbus Sans or Heros (from the above links).

It's not Futura, but if you're looking for a good geometric sans in general, the Avant Garde clones URW Gothic or Gyre Adventor are also part of the same sets.

2. Trajan
5. Bodoni
6. Bickham Script Pro
7. Frutiger
9. DIN
10.Trade Gothic

Can't be much help with these ones, but...

3. Garamond
8. Univers

Whether you can legitimately call them open source is a matter of some debate, but the URW GhostPCL fonts include a decent free Garamond, "Garamond No.8". IMHO it's not quite as crisp as Adobe Garamond but it's reasonably nice, and it's a true Garamond (not a Jannon).

The same set also includes an Univers clone called "U001".

You should also check out the Arkandis open source fonts for some good alternative fonts. Baskervald is particulary good, in my opinion.

charles ellertson's picture

Jeez...I get hung up with "true classics." There isn't much of anything today that mirrors the true classics, because very little was done to emulate them. All you have to do is put a book printed letterpress along side a contemporary book purporting to use the same font, and you'll see the difference. If you want to even approximately mirror them, you need a font editing program to beef things up.

Then there is the notion of "a classic": if you're a car buff, there was something about the 1953 Studebaker and the E-type Jag. What we get today doesn't look at all like them -- today is all bulbous & bulky. Same with fonts, I think. But so what? Remember, the E-type Jag also had electronics by Lucas, and the '53 Stude had that V-8 where the oil galleys meant only cylinders 1 & 8 got adequate oil. (Or was it the other way around?)

In the same vein, there are people designing type today that might become classics. Not much, maybe one or two new families a year, but if you free your eye from the small details of classic dimensions & detail, some of the new designs show excellence, just like some of the new cars.

I hesitate to mention any, because as a comic book aficionado, your needs and taste will run different than mine; my concerns are with long texts.

While the type designers who populate Typophile tend to poo-poo the notion, in your situation, I'd get the best font editing program you can afford, and start to learn. You could start by fixing what's wrong with modern renderings of "the classics," you'd learn a lot.

hrant's picture

Great stuff... until the last paragraph.

The type designers who populate Typophile are exactly the people who most love seeing newcomers learn the craft. We've been helping people learn about type design since day one, while asking for nothing in return. Here's one recent result: http://typographica.org/typeface-reviews/garvis/

It's pretty warped to suggest the only plausible alternative explanation: that we hang around here just to scare people out of learning the craft. It makes me quite upset to see somebody try to twist reality like this.


Delete's picture

Mr. Ellertson: what are the new typefaces that you feel show promise for books over the past few years?

charles ellertson's picture

what are the new typefaces that you feel show promise for books over the past few years?

I'm not a good person to ask that question of. For maybe 10 years now, I've been much more interested in *usefeul* than *like.*

I typeset more than design, but when I do design -- that is, select the fonts for a book -- I find I select fonts that are open source (usually reworked), as this solves a real need in the scholarly publishing world.

Other than that, I occasionally select fonts from a type designer whose work I think has been overlooked & deserves a bit of promotion.

And if none of these seem appropriate for a project, I go with what I know will work, which given my age, throws us back to the "classics." I'm not terribly interested in newness for newness sake, nor do I care how many times a font has been used.

There are other, equally valid approaches, as long as the work serves the reader, and as much as possible, the author. It's old school, but I feel book shows should be just that, not design shows. Too many years of insider stories about the jurying of the 50 best books...


In other words, to return to the automotive analogy, If I were to abandon my truck for a car, it wouldn't be another Studebaker (not even an Avanti), or a new Jag. It would be a new Porsche 911, visually little changed for many years -- but IMSLTHO, one of the best cars available. Not your question, you want someone with an eye for the new.

Delete's picture

Thank you for your comments. I have a fondness for books printed with metal type in classic fonts like Bembo, Sabon, Dante, Bulmer or even Caledonia. However, the digital version many of these (even Bembo Book) do not do the originals justice. The most flagrant example is Centaur (not really a book font, excluding the Oxford Bible) which was beautiful in metal type and pretty much unusable in its digital version. However, the practicalities of the linotype and monotype machines made proportions of these metal types much more restrictive than more modern digital typefaces designed without such constraints.
There are similar examples in typefaces that originated for photocomposition that don't quite work in their digital equivalents.
So if classic fonts mean those in the 1980s and 1990s at least loosely modeled after type from the 1400s onwards created as digital type, then that is only somewhat classic. It seems there have been two trends over the past decade or so: one to make some of the forms more authentic (accounting for ink spread with denser type - like ITC Mendoza) or more accurate renditions (Adobe Garamond Premier Pro vs Garamond Pro) and the other to incorporate newer elements and be less bound by classical forms. Some give a nod to French Oldstyles (like the wonderful Scala Serif and Sans) but are probably most successful because they are not too close a match.
There are a few classics I dislike (probably my deficiencies in taste): Jannon/Kis, Bembo Book, most ITC typefaces including ITC Baskerville, digital Bulmer, Galliard, and a great many Adobe fonts (not to be named in case their fans are here). Some of the more modern interpretations of older fonts are more successful: Mercury, Premiera, Documenta (only if set small), Iowan OS, scala, Albertina, Merlo, Quadraat, Cycles, Collis, Sina, and possibly Dolly (I own it but never quite can use it). Minion is ok but too boring. Lyon is not bad and I am currently experimenting with Sina Nova. My favorite is Trinite, but it is best reserved or just the right situation. I probably should just learn the classics better, since even a great font can look bad if the whitespace, leading, page dimensions, or printing are subobtimal.
I haven't had much luck with finding a free font that works. Some are well designed but don't fit the types of things I do.
I just was hoping for inspiration, but the reality is the best book font is subtle enough to almost be unnoticed - just to create a welcoming feeling to the reader. I am not sure it even needs to be authentic (like a Baskerville for a book about the turn of the 18th century). It just has to be inviting and contribute to enjoyment and comprehension of the novel, poetry, or scientific text.

charles ellertson's picture

However, the digital version many of these (even Bembo Book) do not do the originals justice.

Yes and no. If you mean can be substituted for the metal/letterpress without notice, then no. Each letter was individually cast in metal, so there could be slight variations. Not every letter rested exactly on the "baseline." The height of each letter would not always be the same, and shimming was time-consuming, & impossible with Linotype. If you printed from the type itself, it would wear -- what, 5000 impressions from Linotype, 7,000 from Monotype, a bit more from foundry.

In other words, there was some randomness with metal/letterpress that you do not have with current digital fonts. Perfect order is boring, we need some chaos in any work for it to be appealing. Having said that, there is still enough randomness available, usually with just the Latin alphabet itself.

And having said that, most letterpress printing was atrocious. When speaking of it's beauty, most people pull out a favorite book or two or 100, ignoring the thousands upon thousands that are simply dreadful. (This was first pointed out to me by the designer Rich Hendel, it's not my original thought. But he's right.)

If you like the classic types, you can get the same feel on the printed page. Usually, this will require a font editing program, and a license that permits modification. I suppose I have an advantage here, so many of the fonts I have were purchased with the Adobe license in the 1990s. You can't do that anymore. http://www.adobe.com/type/browser/legal/additional_licenses.html Secondly, I'm old enough that I've met a number of the older designers, and can usually get permission to modify a font. They trust that I won't butcher their work. Anyone can do this, it is just a matter of time & work.

* * *

I like Trinite, and don't particularly see a need to "reserve" it -- Eckersley used it for most everything the last 8 years of his life. Here's a book about early 20th-century radicals Richard designed. A long way from the Italian renaissance.


I like Minion. Boring is good. I did go back to the PostScript Multiple Masters fonts and make up a version for DTP printing, but you could do the same.


From a typeface perspective, the book world is "boring." There is no branding. Nothing to sell with the type or design. If the author writes poorly or has nothing to say, there will usually be no audience, no matter what typeface you pick. And it is easy to do damage with too much exuberance.

hrant's picture

IsleofGough, don't mind the fans - name the fonts you don't like. I don't like Trinité. I used to like it. But back then I also liked Caxton. :-/

Lexicon (which is still not my cup of Lapsang Soochong) is much more respectable.

usually with just the Latin alphabet itself.

Actually the Latin alphabet is too boring. For one thing it uses the vertical space very poorly, especially when you factor in letter frequency.

They trust that I won't butcher their work.

Probably, but much more significantly: they trust you won't redistribute the modified version.

BTW the Adobe Originals still allow modification.

Nothing to sell with the type or design.

Of course this makes no sense. Type design may not transform a horrible author, but anybody making or choosing a font nonetheless has a responsibility; to me anybody lacking a grasp of how text fonts manipulate the reader's unconscious -certainly at the level of texture if not individual letterforms- is only half a designer. Consciousness is over-rated, and "boring" (which is better called "translucency" - not even "transparency") is just another factor in design. So using Minion can make sense, but it makes a lot less sense than some people like to believe.

Branding is everywhere, because humans are awesome observers.


Delete's picture

I am kicking myself for having lost the multiple master versions of Jenson and Minion; but with moves, computer crashes, changing operating systems, suboptimal backup practices, and believing the hype that optical variants of opentype made them obsolete - they are gone.

I am guilty in comparing the beautiful and best books in letterpress against the average today. It is not only the minor variability in letter placement, but also the look of how the ink lies on the paper, the smell and feel of the paper and binding, the book proportions, etc. that sum together into the experience of reading these.

My taste has changed some over the years. At one time I really liked documenta, but now I use it little. I still secretly like Calisto and once liked old style 7, and enjoyed several Bertholdt fonts. Lexicon is ok for newspapers, but I think it made too many compromises and lost some beauty. Many Adobe fonts are not bad, but they always seem to come in a second or third choice for me. Many of their designers are still living and have no doubt a better eye than I do...

I would agree that while type that consciously is noticed is bad for books, an unconscious feeling is desirable. However, these days, the pick may have more to do with extended foreign language support, legalities or embedding or modification, or whether one needs a lot of italics or a matching sans, etc. Even in books about type, I have seen Minion, Galliard, Sabon, and Scala used - and I still think Minion is more boring that just transparent, compared with the alternatives.

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