30 Essential Fonts and Their Free Alternatives

Over the years, some fonts have proven to be such classics that any wise designer always makes them part of their essential font collection. However, buying commercial fonts from the major font foundries such as Adobe, Linotype, Bitstream, etc. can get quite expensive. Given an average price of $30 per style and a minimum of four basic styles (typically regular, italic, bold, bold-italic), one is looking at $120 for a basic set of styles for a single typeface family (Note: One can often get a package deal when buying a bundle of font styles, so that’s one way to lower costs).

One option to consider is using free alternatives to popular commercial fonts. But be forewarned: Just because a free alternative and its commercial version look practically the same, that does not mean they’re 100% identical (if the fonts were identical, then that would be copyright infringement).

There will ALWAYS be differences between an original commercial font and its alternative. Usually the differences are small and almost unnoticeable such as an alternative’s lower-case i and j having square dots instead of round dots, upper-case Q having a different tail, letters having slightly different curves, serifs not being quite as sharply tapered, etc. More subtle differences can be line thickness, ligatures, x-height, descenders, leading, etc.

Some alternative fonts can get very close to the commercial font being imitated, so don’t let what I’ve said above about differences deter you. One doesn’t need a genuine Rolex when a quality Invicta can look 95% the same at 1% of the Rolex’s price. If a free alternative looks 95% the same as its commercial counterpart, then a free alternative is certainly worth considering

It should also be mentioned that free versus commercial fonts isn’t an either/or choice. Designers can have a mix of both, depending on the situation and what the budget allows.

I have compiled a list of the 30 most essential (in my professional judgement) fonts that should be an essential part of any designer’s toolbox as well as their best free alternative counterparts. All the alternate fonts listed below are free for commercial use, with a link to a font repository’s page for that font. I have personally reviewed and selected what I feel are the best alternative fonts for the listed commercial versions. However,  I have had to make numerous judgement calls when selecting which alternative to use. For example, one alternate font may match its commercial counterpart almost exactly, but has very few styles and another alternate may have many styles but doesn’t match as well. Another common situation was having to choose between two alternates that closely match the commercial version but each differs in slightly different ways. If you find a free alternative that more closely matches its commercial counterpart, let me know.

Akzidenz Grotesk

Image of Akzidenz Grotesk sample
Created in 1898 by the H. Berthold AG type foundry, Akzidenz Grotesk (originally “Accidenz-Grotesk”) was the first widely used sans serif typeface, and influenced many later typefaces such as Helvetica, Univers, and others. It’s a very versatile font, that can be used in body text and headlines.

Free Alternative: GNU Free Font Sans
Note: GNU Free Font is composed of three different typefaces (mono, sans-serif, serif), each with four basic styles (regular, italic, bold, italic-bold).

Avant Garde

Image of Avant Garde sample
Designed by Herb Lubalin and Tom Carnase for Avant Garde magazine, this geometric sans-serif font family stands out and has a 1970s retro vibe to it. While it can be used for body text, Avant Garde works best for headings and logos.

Free Alternative: TeX Gyre Adventor

Avenir

Image of Avenir sample
Designed in 1988 by Adrian Frutiger, Avenir (“future” in French) is a geometric sans-serif typeface. Although relatively new, it’s widely used and is suitable for body text and headings.

Free Alternative: Prompt

Baskerville

Image of Baskerville font sample
Created by John Baskerville in 1757, Baskerville differed from its serif contemporaries by having greater contrast between the letterform’s thick and thin strokes, sharper serifs, and characters that are more regular and circular rounded strokes. Baskerville is excellent for body text in a wide variety of printed materials.

Free Alternative: Libre Baskerville

Bembo

Image of Bembo font sample
Originally designed in the late 1400s by Francesco Griffo. Bembo’s notable characteristics include minimal variation between thin and thick stroke weights, serifs that are short and bracketed, lower-case letters with angled top serifs, and ascenders that are higher than capital letters. Bembo is appropriate for designs that put importance on classic beauty and tradition, and is a good choice for body text.

Free Alternative: Junicode
Note: Junicode comes in two typefaces: normal and condensed with each having four basic styles (regular, italic, bold, bold-italic).

Bickham Script Pro

Image of Bickham Script Pro font sample.
Based on the 18th century engravings of George Bickham, the typeface was created by Richard Lipton in 1997. It’s an ornate, formal, and elegant display typeface that is well suited for logos, invitations, and any other design that needs to convey ornate elegance.

Free Alternative: England Hand DB
Note: A free alternative that is extremely similar to Bickham Script Pro could not be found, so I selected England Hand Pro. While not nearly the same in form, the alternative is certainly close in spirit and character.

Bodoni

Image of Bodoni font sample
Influenced by Baskerville, Bodoni was designed by Giambattista Bodoni in 1798. A serif typeface, Bodoni is notable for its contrast between thin and thick stroke weights and slightly condensed letter forms. With its thick and thin strokes, Bodoni degrades at small point sizes, so it usually works best for headings, logos, and other display purposes.

Free Alternative #1: Bodoni*
Note:
While technically free, a small donation of whatever amount you deem fair is required before downloading the font. This is fair, as indestructible type has put a LOT of effort into developing high quality alternatives to much more expensive commercial font families.
Free Alternative #2: Libre Bodoni

Bookman

Image of Bookman font sample
A slightly lighter typeface based on Antique Old Style (created in 1858 by Alexander Phemister for the Miller and Richard foundry), Bookman was designed by Chauncey Griffith for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Bookman is a classic 20th century body text and headline typeface.

Free Alternative #1: TeX Gyre Bonum
Free Alternative #2:
Crimson

Caslon

Image of Caslon font sample
Designed in 1722, Caslon was widely used throughout the British Empire and was the typeface used in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Caslon is noted for its shortened ascenders and descenders, bracketed serifs, and moderately-high contrast. A classically versatile typeface, Caslon works equally well in headings or in body text.

Free Alternative: Libre Caslon

Century Schoolbook

Image of Century Schoolbook font sample.
Designed in 1894, Century Schoolbook originated from Century Roman, and was designed by Linn Boyd Benton of American Type Founders for use in The Century Magazine. Century Schoolbook’s design has crispness and elegance with its finely tapered strokes, ball terminals, and fine pointed serifs. In comparison to earlier typefaces, Century Schoolbook has a low contrast, which for smaller point sizes results in a less sharp and highly readable design. It’s a classic typeface that has been widely used for magazines, textbooks, and literature.

Free Alternative: TeX Gyre Schola

Clarendon

Image of Clarendon font sample.
Created by Robert Besley in 1845 for the Fann Street Foundry, Clarendon is a slab serif typeface that has been copied by other foundries. The typeface was widely used in World War I by the German Empire as well as for wanted posters in the American Wild West. It’s an excellent choice for signs, logos (Sony and Wells Fargo being the best examples), and headlines and can work at smaller type sizes.

Free Alternative: Besley*
Note:
While technically free, a small donation of whatever amount you deem fair is required before downloading the font. This is fair, as indestructible type has put a LOT of effort into developing high quality alternatives to much more expensive commercial font families.

FF DIN

Image of FF DIN font sample.
Created by Dutch type designer Albert-Jan Pool between 1995 and 2009 and published by FontFont, FF DIN (DIN being an acronym for Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute of Standardisation)) is a typeface widely used by many designers. A slightly condensed sans serif typeface with over 20 styles, FF DIN is well suited for ads, packaging, publishing, logos, branding, posters, signage, and small text.

Free Alternative: Roboto

FF Meta


A sans-serif typeface designed by Erik Spiekermann in 1991 as part of the FontFont library, FF Meta was meant to be “a complete antithesis of Helvetica,” which Spiekermann thought “boring and bland.” FF Meta has small touches that break with Helvetica’s more rigid geometric formality such as round dots for i and j, an open bottom loop in the lower case g, a slight curl at the bottom of lower case l, and an angled capital M. Like Helvetica, FF Meta is a versatile typeface that is often used for logos and signs, but can also be used for body text.

Free Alternative: Fira Sans

Franklin Gothic

Image of Franklin Gothic font sample.
Created by Morris Fuller Bengon in 1902, Franklin Gothic is a bold sans-serif typeface that has gained a high profile in the past century, as it is often used in books, billboards, ads, and newspaper headlines.

Free Alternative: Libre Franklin

Frutiger

Image of Frutiger font sample.
Named after Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger, this early 1970s sans serif typeface is intended to be clear and legible from a distance or at small text sizes. Designed with the clarity of Univers (designed by Adrian Frutiger too) but with a Gill Sans influence, Frutiger is a distinct and clear typeface with a modern appearance. With its excellent legibility, it works well in a variety of situations, especially signage.

Free Alternative: Eau

Futura

Image of Futura font sample.
Created in 1927 by German designer Paul Renner, Futura is a distinctive geometric sans-serif typeface that is a modern classic. Based on the simple geometries common in the Bauhaus art school style, Renner regarded typefaces as symbolic of modernity. Like other geometric sans-serif typefaces, Futura is based on forms such as triangles, squares, and circles. It’s notable for its stroke weight which is mostly even throughout the letters, long ascenders, and its uppercase letters follow the same proportions as Roman capital letters. Futura has often been used for logos, commercial products, film, and ads and is well suited to any modern design, especially headings and short copy text.

Free Alternative: Jost*
Note:
While technically free, a small donation of whatever amount you deem fair is required before downloading the font. This is fair, as indestructible type has put a LOT of effort into developing high quality alternatives to much more expensive commercial font families.

Garamond

Image of Garamond font sample.
Created in the sixteenth century by French type designer Claude Garamond, this classic old style serif typeface is noted for being a very legible serif typeface, especially in print. It should be noted that there is no single definitive Garamond as many variations have been developed over the centuries, with the most common digital versions being Adobe Garamond Pro (shown here) and Monotype Garamond. Having excellent legibility and readability, it’s very well suited to printed materials such as books and reports.

Free Alternative: Cormorant

Gill Sans

Image of Gill Sans font sample.
Designed by Eric Gill, an early 20th century British designer, the enduring design of this typeface is that it is based on the shapes and proportions of Roman characters, which makes it unlike any other sans serif typeface. Because of the Roman design influence, it also has a warm and human quality, unlike the cold and mechanical feel of most sans-serif typefaces. Gill Sans is best for modern designs an display uses, but it can be used for text at larger point sizes.

Free Alternative: Gillius ADF

Gotham

Image of Gotham font sample.
Commissioned by GQ magazine in 2000, American designer Tobias Frere-Jones’ was inspired by NYC architectural signage to create one of the most successful new typefaces of the 21st century. Gotham has been used for movie posters, corporate identities, and presidential election campaigns. The typeface is best for logos, headings, and signage. Its legibility diminishes a bit when used as body text in smaller point sizes.

Free Alternative: Metropolis

Helvetica

Image of Helvetica font sample.
Designed in 1957 for the Haas Typefoundry by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger and input from Eduard Hoffman, this sans-serif typeface has become the most versatile and commonly used typeface in the world. Helvetica is notable for its excellent kerning and letterforms, it maintains high legibility from large to small point sizes. Considered a “neutral” typeface, Helvetica seems to assume the mood and attitude of its surroundings. When used in a modern design it takes on a modern feel, yet it blends into classical settings just as well. Helvetica is frequently seen in both body text and headings, and is widely used on signs worldwide.

Free Alternative: TeX Gyre Heros

Myriad


Developed for Adobe Systems by Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly, this classic sans-serif typeface was designed to be neutral and general-purpose. It can fulfill a wide range of uses and expand to a wide range of weights and widths. Best known for its use by Apple Inc., Myriad replaced Apple Garamond from 2002 to 2017. Myriad is distinct from other sans-serif typefaces with its slanting lowercase italic e and rounded lowercase italic a. Myriad is best suited for modern designs.

Free Alternative: Noto Sans

News Gothic


Created in 1908 by Morris Fuller Benton for American Type Founders, this classic sans-serif typeface is similar in proportion to Franklin Gothic, but with a lighter weight. What makes News Gothic distinct is its use of double-story lower case a and g, a blunt terminus at the peak of lower case t, and separate tail in upper case Q. Letter forms are compact, with shallow descenders. Widely used in newspapers and magazines in the twentieth century, the typeface is well suited to body text but works as well for headings and titles.

Free Alternative: Archivo

OCR B


Designed in 1968 by Adrian Frutiger for Monotype in following with the European Computer Manufacturer’s Association standard. This classic monospace typeface was created to facilitate OCR operations by specific electronic devices for financial and bank uses, so it includes all ASCII symbols and other symbols for banking. It is commonly used in barcodes and machine-readable passports. While it shares the same purpose as OCR-A, it is a more easily readable typeface with a less technical appearance. Being monospaced, it is a good choice when a typeface needs to convey a sense of being inorganic and mechanical.

Free Alternative: Office Code Pro

Optima


Created by German designer Hermann Zapf for the D. Stempel AG foundry in the 1950s, Optima is a sans-serif typeface that is different. With varying stroke weights and subtle swelling at its terminals, its inspiration came from classical Roman capitals. Optima’s similarity to serif typefaces gives it a more classic look than the usual sans-serif typeface, making it an elegantly conservative typeface that works well with understated designs.

Free Alternative: MgOpen Cosmetica

Palatino

Image of Palatino font sample.
Named after the sixteenth century Italian master of Calligraphy Giambattista Palatino, the old-style serif typeface was created by Hermann Zapf in 1949 for the Stempel foundry. Having larger proportions than most Renaissance-inspired typefaces, Palatino is much easier to read, which is the greatest strength of the typeface. It is widely used for body text, particularly in books and other print media.

Free Alternative: TeX Gyre Pagella

Rockwell

Image of Rockwell font sample.
This classic slab serif typeface was designed at Monotype in 1934 under the supervision of Frank Hinman Pierpont. Its more notable features are that it has no real variation in stroke weight, the upper- and lower case O is more circle than ellipse, a distinctive serif at the peak of the uppercase A, and a two-story lowercase a. Rockwell, with its geometric forms, has similarities with sans-serif typeface, pairs well with other geometric sans-serif typefaces. With its thick unvarying strokes, it is well suited as a display typeface.

Free Alternative #1: Rokkitt v1.0 (2 styles, but close to original Rockwell)
Free Alternative #2: Rokkitt v2.0 (9 styles, but slightly different than original Rockwell)

Trade Gothic

Image of Trade Gothic font sample.
Designed by Jackson Burke in 1948, this sans-serif typeface has been popular for decades. Used for books, newspapers, magazines, and web sites it is a versatile typeface. Being more irregular than later sans-serif families, this variety is popular with designers who want a typeface with a little more character. It is often seen in advertising and media combined with Roman typefaces as well as utilized for newspaper headlines.

Free Alternative: Public Sans

Trajan

Image of Trajan font sample.
Designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly for Adobe, this serif typeface is based on the Roman square capitals used on the inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column. It’s an all-capitals typeface, as old Latin didn’t use lower-case letters. The modern interpretation of the ancient typeface is crisp and faithful to its inspiration. It has been often used for movie posters, TV shows, and book covers. Trajan is at its best when used for display at larger sizes.

Free Alternative: Cinzel

Univers

Image of Univers font sample.
An Adrian Frutiger creation based on Akzidenz-Grotesk, the classic Univers typeface was originally released by Deberny & Piegnot in 1957, acquired by Haas in 1972, and later by D. Stempel AG and Linotype. The main strength of Univers is its large variety of weights and its similarly neutral quality like Helvetica. Being so versatile, it’s well suited to many different designs but it excels in modern designs. Univers also works well in both display and body text.

Free Alternative: Roboto Condensed

VAG Rounded

Image of VAG Rounded font sample.
Commissioned in 1979 for Volkswagen, VAG Rounded (VAG Rundschrift) resembles Futura but has rounded terminals on all its strokes. Many new Web startups have used the soft, rounded typeface in their logos and printed materials. VAG Rounded is a good choice when a modern, yet friendly typeface is needed instead of a more colder and rigid sans-serif typeface.

Free Alternative: BPreplay

 

 

 

Image sources:  Header graphic: Pixabay;  Font examples: Wikipedia entries for Akzidenz Grotesk, Avenir, Baskerville, Bembo, Bodoni, Bookman, Caslon, Century Schoolbook, Clarendon, FF DIN, FF Meta, Franklin Gothic, Frutiger, Futura, Garamond, Gill Sans, Gotham, Helvetica, Myriad, News Gothic, OCR B, Optima, Palatino, Rockwell, Trade Gothic, Trajan, Univers, VAG Rounded

2 thoughts on “30 Essential Fonts and Their Free Alternatives”

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I’m glad you found this article to be of value. I will occasionally update this post whenever I find a free alternative font that better matches its commercial counterpart.

      Reply

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