In the days before the internet was available for people to access on their home computers, it’s likely that no one thought much about the aesthetics of typography and fonts. After all, the home computer was really used as nothing more than a word processor and was therefore something like a glorified typewriter for the modern age—when the modern age was around 1983.
There was neither the technology nor a significant pool of design talent available yet back in the early days of home computing to bring about an evolution in typography even if people demanded it. But there was also probably no real demand for it when people were using their desktop computers for running basic programs like Bank Street Writer.
This meant that neon green text set against a black screen was accepted as being what the computer age looked like. Even if you were a person who owned a fancy Apple computer—the company now synonymous with making the best-designed computers for people who design things for a living—you were still staring at neon green text on a black screen.
The world is of course much different today: People spend an inordinate amount of time online, staring at screens and consuming content on platforms of markedly different sizes—from desktops to tablets to phones. (And these online habits were there even before the Covid-19 pandemic made everyone homebound).
In order to grab and keep a user’s attention when attention spans are getting harder to control, you need to create a unique brand and identity—and this can include everything from your logo to your headlines or titles on the page.
There are certain steps within the design process that once you’ve developed your skills and gotten your process down, you can probably take a shortcut on and not disrupt the overall UX and UI of your website or app. But choosing your fonts is not one of those steps.
While a simple Google search will lead you to plenty of sites offering free fonts—and it’s hard not to be tempted by anything that you can get for free—it’s important to understand that creating a unique and differentiated brand is significantly harder to do with generic, white-labeled typefaces.
Okay, so before we go further, let us throw out one important point when we talk about typography and fonts: Premium fonts will help you build that differentiated brand you want, but don’t overdo it with custom fonts—the ones you may design yourself or pay someone to design for you—that users aren’t going to have on their computers. You should use fonts from fairly common typography families for the majority of content on your site or else it could seriously diminish the user experience, or else you run the risk of pages taking much longer to load.
“Including custom display fonts for headings and titles is fine; it helps to brand the product and adds some visual interest,” notes a blog post from Pakt, an online library and platform for developers. “However, using custom fonts for body copy is generally a bad idea.”
With that point duly noted, let’s get to the differences between an open source typeface and premium stock. The first and most obvious one to point out is that the former is free, while the latter will charge you licensing fees.
The other difference, which we would argue is the more important difference, is that the quality of the premium font will be superior to the open source in terms of developing a differentiated brand and identity.
Katy French, of marketing firm Column Five, points out how open source fonts are popular with a lot of brands, especially startups, because they don’t cost any money and are also web friendly.
“But, like anything free, you pay a price in other ways,” French explains. “Bland, boring, and basic styles add very little to your brand identity. Since anyone can use them, they can be found everywhere (looking at you, Helvetica!), making it harder to distinguish your brand.”
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that you will have to pay licensing fees when you use premium fonts. French points out the ways in which the fees can add up, including if you need to license multiple fonts within the same type family, or you’re using the fonts for multiple platforms (desktop, mobile, etc.)
It’s also important to read the license that comes with the font to make sure that there are no restrictions to its use. And while French acknowledges that licensing fees for premium fonts can begin to add up, there’s a reason why you should fit these fees into your budget.
“If you want more creative freedom and flexibility, then primary is the way to go,” she notes. “You have options for many more styles, which may be better suited to your brand identity.”
It’s also worth pointing out that the U.S. doesn’t actually allow typefaces or fonts to be legally copyrighted, but if you use those typefaces or fonts to design a logo, you can of course then copyright your logo.
Mark Sims, a UK-based branding specialist, notes that because premium fonts can earn the designers who make them a sizable amount of money, they will put in a lot of work crafting them.
“They balance perfectly, letter spacing is even and there is usually a whole family of variations and weights to play with,” Sims explains, adding that a higher quality font can be the difference between a good logo design and a great one.
Sims also points to the benefit of longevity you can get with a premium font. What this means is that a well-designed premium font will likely not go out of style because it doesn’t become overused like a free font might.
“When it comes to design, timelessness is a great achievement,” Sims says. “This is particularly true in logo design and brand identity. Brands need to be iconic and long lasting in order to become ingrained in people’s minds.”
As with any other service, you’re going to pay more for higher quality design. But as with any part of the design process, if you try to pinch pennies with your font choices, it will make it much more difficult to achieve your design goals. This includes building a brand identity that isn’t “bland, boring, and basic,” as French pointed out.
In the Design Systems Handbook, design is described as a bespoke service in which you are creating “tailor-made solutions for individual problems.” And by including premium fonts in your design system, you can more efficiently create branding that is both tailored and differentiated.
We’ve heard many times that you get what you pay for, which means that the quality of a service or product should match the amount of money you’re willing or able to spend on it. But another way of saying this—specifically when it comes to creating a unique and lasting brand identity—is that you won’t get what you don’t pay for.