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This isn't just a nagging question. It's to help designers (such as myself) to understand the importance of paid for fonts.

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This question is mainly based on my curiosity to why we should pay for fonts (not meaning we should get them for free) when there are a vast number of adequate fonts out there on the interwebs!

I understand that the fonts you have to pay for are (usually) very high quality but I'd rather use a free font from lets say, FontSquirrel that to me, looks just as good as most of the paid for fonts out there, instead of paying £30-50 for just one font family, and sometimes that's not even all styles (bold, italic, etc), just the original font.

I'm probably being narrow-minded (I hope) and I have never really had the need to buy a font so I was wondering apart from owning the license to use a font or to support the font creator, is there any other reason to actually use purchased fonts?

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4  
My personal reasons: a) Support designers, b) Own a resource 'forever'. –  Yisela Apr 30 at 9:37
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Quality. You really do get what you pay for. Show me a free font which contains 16 faces. I don't think I've ever seen such an animal. –  Scott Apr 30 at 9:38
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To additionally add some perspective.. why pay for photographs? Google has billions. Why pay for music? It's all free on the net. Why pay for a designer? My brother has a pirated copy of Photoshop. –  Scott Apr 30 at 9:47
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I think the best answer to this will be explaining what it really means for a font to be well produced, demonstrating the value of quality kerning tables, hinting, tested readability and legibility, glyph ranges, ligatures, consistency across weights and styles, etc etc - all that subtle stuff that isn't obvious when browsing font shops but which proves its worth when you work with a font heavily (I'm probably not the best place to write that) –  user568458 Apr 30 at 9:56
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Another couple reasons: to significantly differentiate a design from many other designs (the more expensive the typeface, the more rare it's likely to be I guess) and arguably the best and most useless reason, because it looks damn good. –  DumbNic Apr 30 at 10:07

6 Answers 6

up vote 23 down vote accepted

To scoop up all suggestions in the comments and add my own reasons, here goes:

Quality

Paid fonts are higher in quality, on average than free ones. Remember that saying: 'Pay peanuts, and you get monkeys'? It applies to fonts as well. Paid fonts most probably have more features than free ones, just like most other software. Examples are

  • lowercase;
  • glyphs like €, æ, å, ç, ß, Ł et al;
  • proportional small caps;
  • lowercase numbers;
  • a decent kerning table;
  • ligatures;
  • the availability of many different styles and weights.

Also, as user568458 mentions, there's probably more experience worked into a paid font than a free one—experience in creating legible and readable type. It will be subtle or even invisble, but the differences are there.

Support

We all make stuff, and some of us even do so for a living. Wouldn't be great if we could actually make that living? If I see something I really like and want to use it, I'd like the creator to know and I'd like to support them. The easiest way is to but their product.

Permanency & security

If I buy a license for a font, I can use that font practically forever. I also know that in case I lost the font file (say, my computer bricked), I can redownload it from the foundry and play on.

I'm also somewhat surer that the font is legit, that it's not some kind of rip-off font that is based just a bit too much on an existing, commercial one and is liable to create legal problems because of that. Of course, I'm never 100% sure, but getting an expensive font from one of the big foundries gives a lot more security than a cheap or free one from a backwater site.

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2  
Good answer, but the last point isn't always 100% true...buying a font isn't a guarantee that's it's not a 'rip off'. Perhaps it makes it less likely, but there's plenty of controversy in the type industry as to who's ripping off who. :) –  DA01 Apr 30 at 17:19
    
...and a couple more practical things particularly relevant to web fonts or use on screens: good, tested rendering across browsers/operating systems, and good hinting (though even some commercial fonts fall down here) –  user568458 May 8 at 9:34

Why should someone pay for your designs? Because you have talent, knowledge, invested time and you create something someone else can't. The same is true for type designers and their product. They don't give away their quality product for free because the invested a lot.

The quality of most free (gratis) fonts is very low. Imagine doing a identity for a startup with a gratis font, soon they are expending to other countries. Than you discover that the free font you picked hasn't the language support your client needs. What to do? Hire someone to design the missing glyphs for you? Edit the font yourself? Most fonts are free to use, but still licensed. Often editing isn't allowed. Maybe you can redesign the companies identity for £30-50? Now you regret not buying a proper font in the first place.

There are very few good free fonts. With good I mean big glyph sets, multi language support, hinting, spacing, kerning, range of weights, true italics, small caps, table figures, fractions, ligatures, swashes, etc. If a font like this exists, it will be overused.

You seem to know there is a quality difference. 'looks just as good' is the wrong comparison. Some fonts are display fonts used to draw attention. They are applied in big sizes. Then you have the workhorse typeface for setting text. It should do well in all situations. Legibility counts. The requirements of those two are very different. Most free fonts are very useful and 'look good' to draw attention, but they aren't workhorses.

You say never to have bought a font. Thats probably not true. All systems and a lot of applications come with fonts. You've probably paid one price for the bundle. So you paid for the fonts.

Like Scott says: 'You really do get what you pay for'. So if you don't see the value, than you should stick to free fonts.

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Short answer:

  • you should use the typeface that is right for the job.

Maybe that's a free font. Maybe it's not.

Longer answer:

Disadvantages of (many, not all) free fonts:

  • limited character set
  • limited weights and styles
  • they tend to be over-used and can dilute your brand image because of that
  • limited range of variety

Advantages of (many, not all) paid fonts:

  • you get to hand pick rather than having to shop from a limited selection
  • extended character sets and styles
  • many more options

If, as a designer, you're balking at a purchase of £30-50, then you're not charging enough as a designer. That's a very small price to pay for a tool that will help you produce a better product.

Remember, time is money. You could spend an hour hunting that freebie font, or you could spend 5 minutes on MyFonts and buy the exact one you need. For most designers, the latter is a better fiscal decision--and often a better design solution decision.

A typeface is a part of your toolbox. Just as your computer, your copy of PhotoShop, your pencil, etc. You could use a freebie hand-me-down computer and The Gimp instead, and likely do OK, but sometimes it makes good sense to invest in the quality of the tools you use. A cabinet maker can do better, faster work with a $200 Japanese finish saw vs. the $12 cross cut saw from Home Depot.

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Apart from all the warm and fuzzies around supporting the artist, etc, here's an important real-world reason: Liability.

Suppose it turns out that the font you've been using for three years turns out to be a copy of X's work. Now X wants to pursue you for copyright infringement.

Now, did you buy the font for $5, or did you find it on the Internets for free? In either case, you still bear some liability, but if you paid money for it, the dodgy vendor you bought it from will (hopefully) bear the lion's share of the hot water.

I am not a lawyer.

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Why is this down-voted, it seems an interesting reason that is not covered in the other answers? Anyway, I'll up-vote to balance it out. –  dumbledad Sep 9 at 8:01

Because fonts are actually tools. And who doesn't want to use good tools instead of bad ones?

The decision of tool will determine your level of design. If you train your eye constantly to "see" fonts and letters you will no longer consider free-fonts a viable option. I guarantee it.

But that sounds rather esoteric. Let's give you a real world example:


I started to work as an in-house designer for a company which had a corporate font for over 20 years. They never had a in-house designer and therefore their corporate design looked rather poor. (Imagine seeing a screenshot of netscape explorer in a flyer from 2013).

When I started to work there I received a carte blanche. From day one it was clear to me, that this font had to die. Here is why:

I did some research on this font and found out that it was a free font created by a game company for one of their games which went bankrupt years ago. The font was a bad ripoff from futura. I guess the game company wanted to circumvent license fees.

The font didn't have any special letters and wasn't available as a webfont. The company needed huge roll-ups with the font being 2m in size. At this size you could see how poorly it was drawn.

So I started with creating a list of what the font could do. The list had nothing to do with design. But rather with technical and content concerns:

  • Has to work on the web
  • Has to work on print at any size (From business card to house sized ad's to powerpoint to in-app fonts).
  • Need special characters like mathematical signs since it's a science company.

Again. This has nothing to do with design. It's just requirements for me as a GraphicDesigner to create decent work. Most free-fonts are unable to meet these requirements.

At stage two the design of the font comes into play. How does the font has to look. Whats it's character. What design attributes does represent the company best… but thats another topic.


Longterm short:

If you are a hobbyist it's okay to use free fonts. If you are a pro it's not allowed to use free fonts. If you do use free fonts as a pro, you have to train your eye.

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I think that just as everyone has pretty much stated, there's a lot of benefits to buying a font vs. using a free font. You simply get more. You get what you pay for sort of deal. But, personally, I think purchasing a font-family is the best way to go simply because an individual had to put so much time and effort into creating the font. They deserve the money for their work.

Think about it this way - how much design are you going to do for free?

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