Often designers will hand me a website design that uses custom fonts (i.e., not the free ones available online). And just as often, they and the client are unaware of the costs and implications of using these fonts on the web.
Web Font Licensing Costs
Unfortunately, just having a font on your desktop (or laptop) computer does not automatically give you permission to use that font on a website. Many fonts have licensing fees specifically for use on the web. And even worse, these fees are often dependent on your web traffic and require recurring payment. It’s not a one-time purchase!
These fees can range from $20 to $85 per font version per year or for a set number of visitors (i.e., 250,000 visits). If you need italic, bold, and extra bold versions of a font, you pay for each of those as if they were completely separate fonts. So, just two fonts on your low-traffic website could cost $300-$400 per year in licensing fees! That’s more than the cost of most shared web hosting plans!
If your web traffic goes up, your font cost could as well.
Paid web fonts also usually require a web developer to install on your site.
And, clients who go this route often call me a year after their site launches saying the fonts on their site are broken. It’s because they disregarded the font renewal email because they forgot what it was for, or because it went to their spam folder. So the site looks like crap and everyone panics until it’s sorted out. This happens ALL OF THE TIME!!!!!
Welcome to the world of web font licensing!
Web Font Loading Time
Another problem with using esoteric fonts is that they’re probably not already in the users’ browser cache, so they need to be fetched when your site loads. This can be hundreds of kilobytes of data and can cause a noticeable flash of unstyled text or a noticeable delay for your text to show up at all.
Free Google Fonts
Fortunately, Google provides hundreds of fonts that you can use on your website with no licensing fees! Most WordPress themes have Google Fonts built in, so no web developer is needed to use them.
These fonts are commonly used so there’s a good chance that your visitor already has at least some of these in their browser cache, so they might not need to be loaded again.
The problem is that many print designers don’t know about these and instead use fonts from their computers which often have those nasty licensing fees. By the time the client approves the design, everyone has fallen in love with the non-free fonts and no one wants to switch to a different font.
Adobe Creative Cloud fonts
If your organization is already paying for a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, you have access to a ton of web fonts as part of your subscription. That could be a good solution at no extra cost as long as no one cancels the subscription without knowing the website needs it.
Of course, there are ways to use licensed fonts for free, either by finding a disreputable source online or by using a tool to convert a desktop font to a web font format. What will happen if you go that route?
Let’s put aside the moral implications of doing that for a second.
If your company is large and in the public eye, then someone could easily notice and blow the whistle, possibly leading to a cease-and-desist letter or a lawsuit and big-time financial penalties. Here are some examples.
Let’s say you’re a small company or organization whose website gets ten hits a day. Probably no one would notice, right? Well, a disgruntled employee could easily rat you out if they want to cause you some pain (that often happens with companies that use pirated software).
Is this really a headache that you want to risk having? Needless to say, I don’t condone using fonts illegally.
What To Do
If you’re a multimillion-dollar corporation with healthy profits, sure go ahead and pay for font licensing if you want!
If you have a famous brand with a style guide that specifies certain fonts, go for it!
If you’re a design firm, or a famous artist, or an organization that has anything to do with visual arts or fashion, then yeah, I totally get using kick-ass fonts. You probably should!
But, if you’re a small company or organization with a small budget, and not in the design or visual arts field, my advice is to use free Google fonts.
It’s a matter of return on investment. What will be the return of spending $3000 over a period of ten years for a slightly better-looking font on your website? That doesn’t include the overhead of billing and a possible fire drill due to the fonts on your site breaking because the bill wasn’t paid, as well as the resulting online embarrassment of having a broken site. For many small or medium-sized companies (and even large ones), it’s not a good use of time and resources.
But ultimately, it’s your responsibility to do the cost/benefit analysis and make the call! – Brian
Addendum: One Caveat About Google Fonts
If you do choose to use Google Fonts, and your site targets users in Europe, you should make sure to source the font files locally, on your server, as opposed to from Google’s CDN. The reason is that Google tracks IP addresses of users of sites that source their font files, which can result in fines due to GDPR privacy law violations.
On the Kadence theme (which I use), it’s easy to source your Google font files locally; literally press a button in the options. For Divi (which I also use), you have to manually download the font files and add some CSS.