Exploring the Free Font Index (and showing typefaces some love)

Book cover jackets for all three Free Font Indexes, with the first and and third volume being cropped-out and not in full view. Image is re-colourised in red, black and white.
Book cover jackets for all three Free Font Indexes (re-colourised). Image credits: Hans Lijklema.

On this issue of Type Founds, I venture into a decade-plus-old series of catalogues featuring free fonts that you too can get your hands on. Let’s discuss the ethics of free fonts, and take a look at some sweet typefaces in the series.

While browsing an art book library in the city, I chanced upon a book series on a shelf I was never inclined to delve into, until one day I finally caved in. It’s a trilogy written by Hans Lijklema about an amazing online, digital cityscape filled with the nitty-gritty of free fonts and the fight for its prevalence.

I kid about the adventurous storyline, but the Free Font Index indeed documents the many creatives and their type outputs being put out on the web for free. Why? Reasons range from publicity to generosity. But the notion of free fonts does put the reality of type-making out there: it has developed well enough to be accessible for the masses to participate in and enjoy. This couldn’t be imagined during the era of casting and phototypes. The immense effort and monetary expense to make typefaces then is an undeniably unglamorous job for anyone to just do.

Lijklema released each index every two years, starting from 2008 to the last in 2012. He further acknowledges the time-sensitivity of these fonts, being culturally cemented in those years and before. As such, the typefaces you see in those books do seem aged, but old designs can suddenly resurface in new works. This, to a certain extent, has been proven true, as later you will see below some featured fonts that seem to reconcile the yesteryears with recent designs.

A taken image of the spread of the first Free Font Index, featuring typefaces by Dieter Steffmann. Image is re-colourised in red, black and white.
Inside spread of the first Free Font Index featuring typefaces by Dieter Steffmann. Spread contents belong to Hans Lijklema.

While I understand the value and importance of paid fonts (hardworking typographers deserve to get paid!), I love and appreciate the existence of free fonts with no rigid restrictions held in its license/EULA. It’s nice to play with typefaces without having to worry if I have violated anything without my knowledge, considering how unpredictable agreements can be at times.

But free fonts have more important purposes than that. Graphic designer Ellen Lupton’s Free Font Manifesto educates the need for such fonts to “serve relatively small or underserved linguistic communities.” It’s a very wholehearted cause in enabling everyone to be educated in reading and writing, a basic need that it seems very strange to be gatekept. The League of Moveable type encourages free fonts to be reverse-engineered by people, so they can not only learn from them but also build upon established typographic works instead of starting from square one. This idea reflects the aim of Google’s open-source browser Chromium, in which anyone can work on the published source codes and create derivatives to suit different browsing needs.

This whole discourse about free fonts can go on and on (e.g. theft, illegal resales), but we also can’t deny the fact that they can help contribute to the design community for the better. If you would like to read up more on the various opinions of free fonts, consider reading the interview in the second volume of the Free Font Index. It features words from Lupton, the founders of League, and Martin Majoor.

There are so, so many free fonts being featured in Lijklema’s indexes that it can be overwhelming, even from just one of the collections. While there are various genres of typefaces being included in the index, it’s fascinating to see a distinct, era-driven approach to their looks of them. Here are three fonts from the indexes to take a look at:

A type specimen of Relaunch by type foundry Typedifferent.

Büro Destruct’s Typedifferent foundry has not stopped producing fonts every year from 1995 until 2021. For a Swiss, four-men group to carry on this legacy together for so long, that’s an amazing feat in itself. They managed to get one of their types up into an early Radiohead album cover. But what got me was their paper-like twists in Relaunch, a display face that debuted at the start of the new millennium in 2000. Its Katakana version (produced by Cyclone Graphix Japan) was featured on the first index, while its Latin characters made their appearance in the third.

Not much online documentation of Relaunch’s design rationale can be found. Their interview in Font Index however mentions their travels to other countries, where they source non-Latin languages and use those as inspirations for their typefaces. The presence of Katakana could imply an origin belonging to a Japanese vernacular type.

Relaunch emulates an almost-isometric appearance with the way certain strokes slant while it faux-bends with thin, linear gaps in between curved turns. The visual rules sometimes break the illusion of three-dimensionality when it comes to the bottom-left bends, where they are seemingly cropped mid-way into a triangle, like an effort to deter the strokes from going below the baseline. Although legibility is at stake, Büro Destruct’s experimental type approach shines here, belonging to a (literal) aesthetic that one may call Y2K, a visual genre coming into resurgence within the early years of this decade. That can also be said about the many other typefaces they’ve done in the early ‘00s.

A type specimen of IM Fell DW Pica by Igino Marini.

This mildly, grungy-looking serif appears in the first volume of the index. Reproduced by Igino Marini, the Fell Types took 6 years to develop (2000–2006) and made its first release in 2004.

Marini is not your typical typographer; the stated occupation in his bio reads civil engineer. Nothing of his job comes close to the workings of a typeface. But his love for John Fell’s collected Oldstyles, which he collected and commissioned in his lifetime, stirred him to digitise the “franken-type family” of varying optical sizes.

What sets his renditions apart from the usual Oldstyle types in the current market were the retaining textures of ink bleeds seen on printed texts. This is because he extracted the best-printed specimens he could find, and used those for his digital fonts, as opposed to redrawing each of the glyphs from scratch. One could even be mesmerised and utilise the flowery motifs of Fell’s type collection, as Marini took the liberty to digitise that as well.

Marini took a step further in his font creation by engineering a whole tool that kerns type automatically, all to streamline the production of the Fell Types. Marini now offers this tool (called iKern) in the form of a service, where anyone who wishes to auto-kern their fonts may do so by submitting them to be treated by him.

One of the smaller point sizes, Pica (based on Peter de Walpergen’s rendition), was used extensively by Taylor Swift’s album promotional materials for Folklore and Evermore in 2020. Thematically, songs from both albums feature a more organic-sounding production with the major use of real instruments. It’s more pulled-back in nature, featuring Alternative Folk tunes in contrast with Swift’s other synth-heavy works. Pica was thus a good contender with its textural, handmade look while also adopting a tame, relaxed appearance with its low stroke contrast feature.

A type specimen of Personal Computer by type foundry Fenotype.

Initiated by Emil Bertell, Fenotype first started as a teenage passion project (2TheLeft) before evolving into a small, online font marketplace. Earlier works of his and his brother, Erik, were released as freeware between 2000 and 2002. They were done in quick succession, with some fonts being completed within a day. Despite the rapid turnover of typefaces within that period, Bertell’s fonts weren’t lacklustre or haphazard in appearance. All fonts have distinct, crafted personalities with a consistent look from glyph to glyph.

Mechanical and rigidly globule, Personal Computer fits snuggly within the electronica-heavy atmosphere throughout the late ’90s and ’00s. It has visual harmony with the custom type that musician Aphex Twin utilises in their 1992 album jacket and their logo throughout the years. The glyph set interestingly was later revised and given the name Xylem in 2015.

As mentioned earlier (about its aesthetic reigning in the current design sphere), one of the most dominant traits of Y2K-style typefaces too is their boxy appearances with rounded corners. A similar counterpart that was also recently in the design forefront was rounded pixel types. Personal Computer thus puts itself in a favourable position to hit the spotlight now if there is continued demand for a nuanced look of the dawning millennium.

A taken image of the spread of the third Free Font Index, featuring the Lato font family by Łukasz Dziedzic. Image is re-colourised in red, black and white.
Łukasz Dziedzic’s Lato font family is featured in the third Free Font Index. Released in 2011, Lato has seen constant use throughout the years till today. Spread contents belong to Hans Lijklema.

This article merely grazed the thick set of typefaces that the Free Font Index covers. The documented fonts have close relations to a life that was around 20 years ago, where we can see the many different experimental types that paved the breakthroughs of the typographers being listed in the indexes.

While it means that the listed free fonts might not be the most polished or sellable, the Free Font Index however documents a very honest perspective of what’s gaining traction or inhibiting the subconsciousness in those early years of the typemakers’ lives. As such, going through the indexes is like viewing a time capsule. A time capsule where one can learn from past works, and add new life to it.

If you’d like to reinvigorate or reinterpret an old design, consider delving through the Font Indexes, collecting some types in there, and resurrecting them in your design projects. Wishing you all the best if you do!

Get your hands on the Free Font Index series at Amazon, or a library near you.

Note: While all featured fonts stated in this article and the Free Font Index series are free to use, please do heed the different attached license agreements regarding modifications, distribution and other important conditions stated.

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