Rationalizing font decisions

Every year, I devote about two consecutive months to some dedicated projects for my website, with the intention of adding something new or changing things up.

In 2018, I designed and coded my online portfolio of marketing projects. In 2019, I spent a good part of the summer on a series of restyling projects including selection of a new typeface.

I wanted a fresh and new personal branding, not just for the site but across my resume, business cards, and coming soon… videos.

When you make the decision to change out a font, it’s much more than just a simple change to the CSS code behind your webpages. First, you need to take your time evaluating potential font candidates.

Once the new font(s) are in hand, you need to go in and do trial-and-error tweaks to margins, padding, and line height (the web equivalent of leading in print media), not to mention text sizing and possibly letter spacing (again, the web equivalent of what’s known as tracking in the print world).

The pain of proprietary fonts for the web

The previous font family I adopted, Halyard, is a splendid typeface design for print that works equally well on screens. But Halyard is a proprietary font with licensing requirements.

I had access to Halyard through Adobe Fonts – via my monthly Adobe CC subscription – but wanted a permanent license should I end my subscription in the future. I explored the possibility of buying a license outright for this font.

But for web usage, I quickly discovered that proprietary fonts can be a pain to license. Let me explain.

For desktop publishing and image creation, you typically pay a one-time fee for perpetual rights. The cost is not necessarily cheap, but what you purchase is yours to keep indefinitely.

However, for text content on your website, or web application, it’s a different story. There’s a supplemental license, separate from desktop publishing usage, that’s tied to a specific number of views on your website. It’s a recurring price structure, based on your web traffic, and the costs really can add up if you or your client’s site attracts a lot of visitors. (Also worth noting is that there’s usually a separate licensing structure for usage in native mobile apps.)

(Note: Images created using proprietary licensed fonts are not subject to the supplemental web license. As long as you can’t copy and paste the text in the artwork, you’re OK.)

Heading for open source

Not wanting the unwelcoming surprise of recurring license fees, I made the ultimate decision to adopt open source fonts from this point forward – both for my websites and any future sites created for others.

There’s a great selection of free, open source fonts out there. The most popular, and most frequently used resource is Google Fonts. You can plug into the Google Fonts APIs from your website, or download the fonts and host them yourself.

After evaluating several possibilities for a sans serif, easily readable, modern-styled typeface, I ultimately decided on IBM’s Plex typeface.

IBM designed Plex as part of an extensive effort at modernizing its corporate rebranding. Subsequently, they open-sourced IBM Plex for others to use freely.

IBM Plex font in bold typeface.

IBM Plex font in semibold typeface.

IBM Plex font in medium typeface.

IBM Plex font in normal typeface.

IBM Plex font in light typeface.

IBM Plex font in ultra-light typeface.

I’m really happy overall with the look and feel of the IBM Plex typeface, both for readability in my blog and an essential branding element across my properties. It’s good to know that IBM Plex isn’t very widely used, in contrast to the extremely popular open source fonts like Roboto and Open Sans.

The IBM Plex font is now the sole font for my entire website, and I’m incorporating it into my other, offline properties.