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Ask a Font Creator: Dear Fonty!

Posted on 12th June 2017

Ask a Font Creator: Dear Fonty

Recently I asked for questions over on the WHAT FONT IS THIS Facebook group, and the readers there did not disappoint. I have a lot of questions from there and elsewhere, so I’m throwing down a whole bunch of answers!

What, exactly, is a “desktop” license?

A desktop license is the most common kind of font license you’ll find. It basically means that you’re meant to install it on a desktop computer (the name originated from the days before laptops were widespread, but of course now you can install it on a laptop computer as well). You’d then use it in your basic computer applications, like Photoshop or Word or Illustrator or any other computer program that allows font choices.

Desktop licenses usually cover the creation of physical items (from business cards to t-shirts) and digital items (such as flat web images, or SVG or other vector files). But there are a number of uses that a desktop license normally doesn’t cover, and that you’d need an additional license for, like:

  • Putting a font on a web server, to display live on a web page (this is covered in a webfont license)

  • Embedding the font in an app or program

  • Converting the font into any alphabet product (such as an SVG alphabet, or an embroidery alphabet or font)

  • Including the font in a video, TV show, or movie (this is covered in a broadcast license

When in doubt, read the license that came with your font. It should spell out the specific kinds of things you can use it for, and will often also name certain uses that are excluded. And remember, if the license doesn’t explicitly allow something, assume that it’s not allowed.

How can I find out which of my downloaded fonts has a commercial license?

This isn’t easy, I’m afraid. It’d be a matter of going through the folders your fonts originally came in, and seeing if they have a license included in that folder. If they do, you’d need to read those licenses to see whether they allow commercial use, or of they're just for personal use.

Some shops don’t include a license in the download file; they just keep a record of your purchase so you can refer back to it. But if you buy from a number of sources, it’d be hard to keep track of where each font came from. I recommend changing the name of the folder of every font you download, to reflect where you got that font. So if the folder you downloaded was FONTNAME.ZIP, change it to FONTNAME-FONTSHOP.ZIP. Even just that little bit of work when you download will save you tons of time later on, when you want to use that font.

What constitutes commercial use vs. personal use?

First off, when in doubt about a specific font, read its license. Some designers have different ideas of what falls under the umbrella of personal use, so some may allow some uses while others may not.

In general, however, personal use projects are those made for family, friends, or as gifts, where no profit or gain (be it money, goods, or services) is made. Commercial use is when items are made for a business of any kind (whether for-profit, non-profit, home-based, or any other kind of organization that takes in money) or those profit/gain items (money, goods, or services) are exchanged in any way for the item that includes the font.

Here are some situations that fall under commercial use. (Some of them may surprise you.)

  • An item made for a friend, where they aren’t paying you for your labor, but they ARE covering the cost of materials. (This still counts as the exchange of money for a finished product.)

  • An item donated to a non-profit organization, which they will be raffling off.

  • Images (banners, headlines, graphics, etc.) made for a blog, if that blog produces any income of any kind. (Including ad revenue and affiliate links.)

  • The header or any other images for an online shop, even though the header itself isn’t being sold. (This is a case of money being made from your design, instead of for your design.)

  • The newsletter for a church, school, non-profit organization, or other volunteer-based business.

  • Flyers or posters for a yard sale.

Bear in mind, some font designers are more flexible on some of these uses than others. So if you think your use falls in a gray area between personal and commercial use, drop the font designer a note to ask!

Can I use the free fonts that came with my computer for commercial use?

First off, let’s talk about the use of “free” here. The fonts that come standard with specific pieces of software aren’t free – you’ve paid for a license to use those fonts. The cost of that license has just been folded into the cost of the software.

Now, can you use them for commercial use? The answer is: usually, yes. They’d be licensed under the same kind of desktop licensing we covered above. The license likely includes print and digital items, and probably doesn’t include embedding, broadcasting, or web use.

In order to know for sure, you’d need to look up the license for the software the font came with. So, for example, you could look at your full End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) for Microsoft Office to find out how you can use Curlz or Comic Sans or Papyrus. If you didn’t read that license when you installed the program (And really, how many of us do? I bet most of us just click the “I Agree” box and move on.), there’s usually an “About” option in most programs that will let you look at your license again. (The “About” option is often near the “Help” option.)

The un-asked follow up question here is: should I use those fonts for my commercial products? My answer: I include “using common fonts” as one of my personal seven deadly font sins, because they’re used so much for so many things. Sometimes a client will want to use one of these fonts for the very reason that it’s familiar to people. But if you have the option to use other fonts that aren’t as widely used, I highly recommend it.

Is it OK to ask a designer (of t-shirts, posters, SVGs, etc.) about a font they used in a specific design?

It’s totally all right to ask – there’s no etiquette rule that you’d be breaking. Just know that some designers will readily tell you, and others will either tell you no, or they’ll ignore you.

It might improve your chances if you indicate to the designer that you don’t intend to copy their design. (That’s one of the primary reasons a designer won’t tell you what fonts they used; too often, they’ll see someone else selling a near-identical copy of the design they worked so hard on.) A sample request might look like: “I’d love to find out what font you used for the word “Mommy” in this t-shirt design – my sister’s name is Megan, and I’d love to use that uppercase M on a water bottle for her. Thank you!”

Just know that every place a designer sells means one more messaging inbox that they have to keep on top of. So some designers have made the hard decision to not answer these kind of non-business-related questions just to keep their inboxes under control.

How can I make a font thicker or thinner for my specific use?

Carefully, in great moderation. 😊 If you need to make a font a lot thicker or thinner, you’d be better off finding a different font in the thickness you need. Most adjustments to a font (thicker/thinner line weight, stretching, squishing, skewing at an angle) will make the font look less good.

If you just need it to be a little bit thicker or thinner, you can try applying either an offset or a stroke (the terminology will vary by what program you’re using). It’d take forever to go over how to do it in all of the different programs we all use, but in general if you search for the name of the software plus the word “offset” (if it’s an Adobe product like Photoshop or Illustrator, search that program with “stroke”), you should get some tutorials and/or videos on how to accomplish what you need.

But seriously, do it gently. And only a little bit. Please.

How will I know if a distressed font is good for vinyl?

Generally, you’re looking for a font that has fewer gaps/holes in the insides of the letters, and you want those gaps/holes to be larger. Let’s take a look at two popular distressed fonts, Edo and Bleeding Cowboys:

Distressed font examples

Edo, on the top, has fewer holes in the letters, and they’re generally larger. Also, many of those distressed areas connect with the white space outside of the letters. All of those things make a font easier to weed. Bleeding Cowboys, on the other hand, has a ton of small holes throughout, which will make weeding out all of those tiny bits very tedious.

When deciding whether a distressed font would work for you before you buy it, you have a few options. Most shops have a previewer where you can type out phrases and see how they look. Crank those up to the largest possible size and take a look at how many tiny bits you’ll have to weed. If you can’t get close enough, or you aren’t sure, ask! You can either ask in a font-related forum or group (where someone else has likely tried that font before), or ask the font designer directly. Even if the font designer hasn’t worked in vinyl, they may have heard about the cut-ability of their work, or they may be able to blow up a sample letter really large for you to look at.

Does it irk you when people alter your fonts (spacing, adding swashes, stretching, etc.)?

In some cases, yes – stretching is probably the worst sin. A little bit of stretch is fine – maybe up to 120 or 125% of the font’s original height or width. But beyond that, you’re most likely better served by finding a different font that has the height or width you need. (This reflects back on the answer about making fonts thicker or thinner.) Stretching a font too far results in the horizontal or vertical strokes getting too thick or thin, and making the letters off-balance.

Regarding spacing: it wasn’t until recently that I learned that both the Silhouette Studio software and the Cricut Design Space site don’t actually honor a font’s built-in kerning. So almost anything you type in either of those is going to end up spaced wider than the font designer intended. Discovering that fact really opened my eyes to why some of my fonts had such huge wide spacing between the letters in some people’s projects. When in doubt about spacing, look up the font online and take a look at the promo images the designer made. Those will give you a real feel for the intended spacing.

As for adding swashes, I’m all for it! As long as the swashes, flourishes, or any other ornaments are roughly the same weight and texture as the font – it’d be funky to have a really thin swash on a really thick letter, or vice versa.

I wrote a blog post a while back about how to do small adjustments to the letters of a font in order to get a more fun, unique design. And things like spacing, stretching, and swashes would all fall into that same area. Just be sure to make your adjustments in sensible moderation.

How can I best back up my fonts? And how do you organize your fonts?

Everyone will tell you something a little bit different, depending on what system works for them.

My personal system for backing up my fonts, as well as how I choose to organize my fonts, is covered in my “Managing Your Font Collection” post from a while back. And as mentioned above in another question, I took some time a while ago and removed all personal-use-only fonts from my collection; I only kept the fonts where I had a commercial license included in the ZIP file, or ones where I'd renamed the file to note where I purchased my commercial copy.

I’ve also started using a feature at Dafont: personalized selections. It allows a logged-in user to create an unlimited number of lists, and add any fonts they like to those lists. I’ve built over two dozen so far, in different styles and categories. I don’t use Dafont fonts myself very much, because the vast majority are for personal use only. But these lists are a huge help when people are looking for a font identification, or if they’re open to finding something similar to a font they’ve seen.

Most of the paid font shops also allow you to mark items as favorites, or build collection sets. Take advantage of it! If you ever see a font that makes you think, “Oh, I’d love to get that someday, when I have a project for it,” hit the little heart button (or star, or whatever “favorite” feature that particular site has). You’ll save yourself tons of heartache later, when you remember that you saw the perfect font 6 months ago, but all you can remember is that the main promo image was blue. Or maybe green. 😊 (Yes, I’ve seen this too many times. And I’ve had it happen personally.)


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