I’ve felt like my blog has been getting a little heavy over the last few weeks so I thought I'd take a breather from the emotional rollercoaster that is my life and deep dive into font law! Let's start at the beginning by answering:
A font is a computer file, software or program that instructs your computer to display and print each letter in a particular way. The font includes precise details like the weight, style (bold/italic) and point size.
A typeface is a set of letters, numbers and symbols (like glyphs) that have a common design ethos. A typeface refers to the whole family.
Garamond is a typeface.
Garamond, regular 9 point is a font.
People tend to freely interchange these terms today but since this is a serious article I’m going to try and use the right terminology. I like the way Creative Blog describes the difference, We choose a typeface because of its common aesthetic qualities. Then we refine it down to a specific font by setting its size, weight, style and sometimes the character set such as Roman, Cyrillic or Greek when we use it.
“If the font is the song, the typeface is the artist.”
As a brand designer, I create brand guidelines for clients which instruct them on how to use fonts to help create consistency and reinforce the look and essence of their brand. It’s not only graphic designers who need this level of detail, UX and UI designers, web developers and app designers all need to know the exact font, size and weight to write it into a website or app's code so it displays correctly.
The word ‘font’ comes from middle french ‘fonte’ meaning cast in metal and that is how the machine printed letter started. Way back in 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press which used metal letters set in blocks of text that were inked then pressed into paper using a Printing Press. I recommend you watch this video about how the press works, it will give you a new found appreciation for spell check and the backspace/delete key! Also the old guy running it is just delightful!
We take most of the terms around typography from these early days. Upper and lower case literally refers to their position in the cases that held the tiny metal letters.
Most people use fonts without giving it a second thought unless of course you're a designer and you can spend hours looking through new and exciting looks for letters. What most people don’t understand is that fonts are techainlly software and like any software it involves licensing for its use.
A font license is how you’re allowed to use the font. For most fonts this is normally categorized by the fonts intended use. The most common licenses are Desktop and Webfont. Desktop versions are normally what you must purchase if you want to use the font in any type of static application - such as a logo and it is often priced on the number of users. Webfonts are for use online and are priced by the amount of page views they’ll receive per month.
The tricky thing about font licenses is that there is no standard license. Each Type Foundry or shop is going to have its own set of rules. You really have to read the fine print, especially if you're using a font in paid client work!
Fonts can get expensive! If you brought the full Helvetica family today it would cost $474. The thing is, fonts SHOULD be expensive. At some point a typographer would’ve spent weeks, months or even years creating a typeface. Each and every tiny detail has to be considered - the shape of the dot on the ‘i’, the way the ‘j’ sits on the line, the way the letters look together in different pair combinations. All of this takes time and skill. You pay for what you get. From a branding perspective I like to use paid fonts because they are less common and therefore will help the logo design stand out.
There are good free fonts and not so good free fonts. Google fonts is the largest collection of free fonts that are available for use in print and digital. There are plenty of free font websites around, Font Squirrel for example is one of the better ones however quite often free fonts have limited character sets (like only being in uppercase) so aren’t as useful or usable as the fully developed and paid fonts.
Another thing to be mindful of is the licensing around free fonts. Lots of fonts are free for personal use only. This is great for using them in mock ups but if you use them in a design for commercial use then you need to buy the commercial license.
Lots of great font foundries offer a trial version (that might have limited characters for example) so you can try before you buy. This is fantastic as well because you might discover you only need one or two fonts rather than the whole typeface which could save you a stack of cash.
I got stung this week when I did some deeper diving into a font I’ve used in a branding project that was actually an illegal copy made from a typeface that is priced over AU$1000. I’m grateful I discovered it now and can buy the actual license before we launch! I’m also lucky the original website that copied the typeface referenced the font designer so I could research the typeface origin myself!
The short answer is no. Most designers or design studios will buy a font to use it in their designs. When a designer uses the typeface in a logo design for example they’re legally allowed to hand over the compressed version of the design to the client without breaking any laws. By compressed version I mean an image file like a vector, PNG or Jpeg where the fonts have been converted to outlines and are no longer editable.
To receive a logo with live type (where the font is still editable is ALARMING!) As a designer you can spend hours finessing the space between the letters (tracking) so the logo looks exactly the way you want it to look. To then hand over the logo as live type where it could potentially be opened and edited, or heaven forbid, the font hasn’t been installed and it defaults is disastrous!
If the client wants to use the font you have used in their design then they have to buy the font themselves. This often happens since most businesses want to be able to create at least some of their day to day design assets themselves without having to employ a designer. This is why brand guidelines are so important and contain so much detail.
If a client ever asks you for your native design files (so InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop) then they must pay for them. This is a whole other blog but font law touches on it slightly. Lots of clients wrongly assume that if the designer buys the fonts and creates the design then they can have the fonts and the designs that you made for them. This is not the case.
The files the designer creates in the process of making a design, let's say a brochure for example, are the designer's Intellectual property or IP. The normal deliverable to a client in this instance would be a press ready PDF file of the brochure. If the client wants the native files (which by the way would only happen if they planned on reusing or repurposing the design) then they must pay for them. I’ve seen quotes between 100% to 300% of the original cost of the job. They must also buy the fonts that are used themselves.
This is a tricky conversation and I'm just getting my head around it and starting to write it more clearly into my contract. There are lots of great analogies about handing over our native files… Imagine going to a restaurant and having a delicious meal then asking for all of the pots and pans, utensils and raw ingredients that were used to make it. Or buying a piece of art then asking for the artist's paint and brushes, easel and perhaps a few essays on their life story and what inspires them!
I degrees but in a nutshell, read the fine print! Pay for fonts if you can because you’re supporting another creative person out there. The ‘font of the week’ I have every week are normally free trial versions of fonts and I always include a link to the source. We are at week 94 so there are 94 different fonts I have used and of those I think I’ve probably brought 10 of them for paid jobs. I could talk about typefaces all day! Thanks for indulging me!