Fonts – a sweetie jar with a couple of mouse traps

I like fonts. In designing a layout for a document they’re crucial to giving it the kind of character you want, as well as making it easy to read for the users. I like discovering beautifully designed fonts. I ponder the number of them that seem to have arrived on my computer through no agency of mine. (Many, I think, due to successive generations of desktop publishing software. Or pixies.)

Here’s a quick look at a couple of handy resources for finding and working with fonts, and a couple of pitfalls that have stung me: one a few years ago, and one from the last few days which is still annoying me.


There’s a big universe of fonts out there. For tracking down the ones you want, the Identifont website is hugely useful. You can search for fonts similar to one whose name you know; search picture fonts/dingbats by keyword, and even go through a questionnaire to get a shortlist of fonts with certain features. Each font has a page with a sample of letters and info on where you can get it.

If you use Windows, Microsoft has typography pages with a useful search feature. You can pick a font (or font “family”), click through to “view font information”, and see which Microsoft products have included it. I’ve found this handy when remembering I used to have a font, tracking down a CD to reload it. The rest of the typography pages let you dig into the subject a bit if you’re interested.


A few years ago I ran afoul of embedding permissions when I attempted to output a book in PDF. It turns out fonts can have one of four levels of embedding permission: no embedding; preview and print; editable; and installable. I had picked a font that was set to “no embedding” (bizarrely for something that came with DTP software) and built my layout around it, but it wouldn’t embed in a PDF so users without that font on their system saw a different layout. I had to re-do the design of the document. Since then I’ve checked permissions before I go too far! In Windows 7 you can see that in Control Panel > Fonts. In earlier versions you had to download the font properties extension from the Microsoft typography pages linked above. I think some programs will also tell you about it.


This week I’ve come across another issue I’ve not faced before: licensing costs. There are several websites where you can buy lots of fonts, including and Identifont (see above) links to these. I bought a font for a project, and was about to buy a couple more, then noticed something that’s not very well flagged up.

Different type “foundries” (a term from back when letters were on metal blocks) have different licences for using their fonts, and many of them are actually quite restrictive in what you can do for the basic purchase price. A common one seems to be, “install on up to 5 computers, use within your organisation, print stuff out”. If you want to use the font to embed in a commercial product, as I did, you’ll have to pay more.

I went hunting for further information. For the font in question, one source quoted me ten times the original purchase cost, amounting to several hundred dollars – crazy for a small press publication. Another was more reasonable, an additional amount slightly more than the original cost, but still covering only one publication. As it might turn into a line of books, I didn’t fancy signing up for repeat costs every time I used that branding.

This was a real blow, as by the time the issue had surfaced I’d become attached to the font in question. It looked good, and brought together the two key elements of the product concept better than anything else I’d seen. In the end I did some hunting and found another one that did the job nearly as well (with a bit of work on the settings) and could be used freely after a single reasonable licence fee. (Thank you, Comic Book Fonts.)

I’m still annoyed, though, that paying for a font didn’t allow me to use it; and that the sales site didn’t state this clearly, relying on users clicking on a small text link during the checkout process. I think I’d class that as technically proper but practically misleading. Most users will be completely oblivious to the whole issue.

Moral of the story: if you want to go dipping into the sweetie jar, check the licensing arrangements up front. You’ll have to make sense of wordy and unclear documents to do it, mind, but for me I’d rather rule out the possibility of a licensing challenge involving legal stuff affecting my public, for-sale products.


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