If you’re reading this then hopefully you’ve read Pt. 1 by Mr. Chase Turberville. If not, go check it out… or not. It’s cool. Chase isn’t watching you or anything.
pssst… he’s always watching
As we learned in Pt. 1, valuable type isn’t cheap and with good reason. But when it comes to “free fonts” it isn’t like the old days. Google fonts has provided a strong platform with some good alternatives to popular fonts. The alternatives chosen below have a similar tone and/or aesthetic to their higher-end counterpart, but of course there may be tradeoffs and won’t be exact matches. When choosing a typeface for a project, it’s important that it have a variety of styles to choose from. Regular and bold weights are necessary; matching italics are even better. For this reason, we have purposefully chosen typefaces with more than 3 weights in their family to maximize utility.
Let’s get to it.
Helvetica Neue Alternative: Roboto
Helvetica Neue (pronounced NOY-YA), the longtime classic, is the newer, younger brother of Helvetica. Helvetica was reworked in 1957 by D. Stempel AG and released 26 years later in 1983 as Helvetica Neue.
Helvetica Neue’s characters always have vertical or horizontal terminals on their strokes, never diagonal, which you can see below in the second image. Roboto follows this same rule with the exception of a few characters: @, %, and () all end on diagonals.
Both Helvetica Neue and Roboto have Condensed and Monospaced styles in their family, making Roboto a strong alternative to the famous Helvetica Neue.
Whitney Alternative: Catamaran
Whitney is a humanist typeface coming out of Hoefler & Cº. It was designed by Tobias Frere-Jones in 2004. Whitney is a wonderful typeface with no shortage of spunk. Unlike the Helvetica/Roboto comparison, where the terminals end on verticals and horizontals, humanist typefaces (tend to) fall at different angles giving them a more human touch.
We can see that both typefaces follow this rule. Looking at the angle of the lowercase ‘r’ and the right leg of the ‘A’, we see how it isn’t fully touching the baseline. Catamaran is a slightly wider typeface overall, but nonetheless makes for a nice alternative to Whitney.
Gotham Alternative: Montserrat
Back at it again with another great typeface from Hoefler & Cº. Tobias Frere-Jones was inspired by the architectural surroundings of New York when he designed Gotham in 2004. Much like Gotham was inspired by its surroundings, Julieta Ulanovsky drew inspiration from her town Montserrat, from which the typeface gets its name, in Buenos Aires.
Gotham and Montserrat share a lot aesthetically but there are some key differences. Montserrat is a touch wider in its letterforms and has a some distinguishing characteristics in the ‘J’, ‘G’, and ‘Q’.
Tisa Serif Alternative: PT Serif
Tisa is a serif typeface that was created in 2006 by Mitja Miklavčič. Its success led to the creation of its sister, Tisa Sans. Alternatively, PT Sans, designed by ParaType, was followed up by its sister, PT Serif, due to its success.
Where PT Serif is sharp, Tisa is soft. When PT Serif and Tisa are set in Bold, Tisa is thicker. These characteristics are noticeable below in the serifs on the ‘E’ and the weight in the last image. Though they may have their differences, they do share a similar skeleton, and both offer sans-serif counterparts, making PT serif a nice alternative to Tisa.
Museo Slab Alternative: Zilla Slab
The ever-so-friendly Museo Slab, designed by Jos Buivenga, is the sister font to the successful Museo. Zilla Slab is Mozilla’s core typeface designed by Typotheque.
While Museo Slab might be more warm and friendly overall, the italics in Zilla Slab really add some extra funk. Looking at the pangram below, we can see the ‘f’, ‘x’, and ‘y’ adding in that extra dose of personality.
Optima Alternative: Arsenal
Designed by the great Hermann Zapf, Optima — though classified as a sans-serif — tends to feel like a serif with its flared terminals and high contrast letterforms. Zapf’s intention was for it to be used as both a display and body text. Arsenal, designed by Andrij Shevchenko, was created mainly for body text.
While Optima is much wider and more full-bodied, Arsenal is narrow and moderate in its aperture. But they both achieve a certain level of class and grace.
Skolar Alternative: Source Serif
From classy to… legible? Eh, I tried; let’s move on.
Designed by David Brezina, Skolar works great in long typographical formats, e.g. editorial or academic text. Source Sans Pro, which now comes as a variable font, was designed by Frank Grießhammer for Adobe in 2014.
While both work well in small sizes due to their larger x-heights, they do have their differences. Skolar brings a more traditional look to the table and Source Serif has a sharper, more modern aesthetic.
It’s a bit of a downer Source Serif doesn’t come with italics, but hopefully soon.
DIN Condensed Alternative: Barlow Condensed
DIN Condensed is based on its popular sister family, DIN, which was made to conform to German Industrial Standards (or Deutsches Institut für Normung). While DIN pulls from its German surroundings, Barlow draws inspiration from typography sightings in California. Designer Jeremy Tribby was influenced by the state's car plates, highway signs, busses, and trains.
While they may strike a similar chord, Barlow Condensed has some subtle differences. Barlow is wider in its characters, shorter in height, and rounded in its corners. Both DIN Condensed and Barlow Condensed belong to much larger families making them both very usable.
Proxima Soft Alternative: Nunito
Proxima Soft, designed by Mark Simonson, is the warmer variation to the ubiquitous Proxima Nova. Similarly, Nunito is the soft, more rounded version of its traditional sans serif sister Nunito Sans, which were designed by the late and great Vernon Adams.
While they appear similar, there are some major differences that begin to separate these two. The letters ‘a’ and ‘o’ of Nunito are slightly more drawn-in, where Proxima Soft is rounder. In letters ‘R’ and ‘K’, we also see a little more personality come out in Nunito.
Letter Gothic Alternative: Fira Mono
I couldn’t do a whole post on type without talking about some of my favorite styles of type: monospaced fonts.
Letter Gothic was created by Roger Roberson for IBM in 1956 and 1962. Like many monospaced fonts, it was intended for documentation and data. Fast forward a few years and Carrois Apostrophe rounds out Fira Sans with Fira Mono for Mozilla.
What’s great about monospaced fonts is that their proportional constraints lead to some very interesting outcomes. Letter Gothic is a taller and slimmer typeface overall, where Fira Mono letterforms are wider and sit closer to one another.