Will That Be Rye or Klabasto? A Guide to Finding Steampunk Fonts

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What makes a good steampunk font? Volumes have been written about the considerations that go into choosing fonts for design projects: legibility, mood, contrast, and so on. The same principles apply to steampunk, but with one added requirement. In most cases, the fonts should look like they belong to the Victorian or Edwardian era, spanning the mid-19th century through the eve of World War I. Indeed, many fonts commonly regarded as "steampunk" are based on typography from books, advertising and posters of that time. (Note the similarity between the Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's "Adventures of Captain Hatteras" and the cover of Jeff VanderMeer's "Steampunk Bible.")

Hetzel Cover

When we consider steampunk fonts, we're generally thinking of display fonts, the kind you might use in a title, logo, label or web page header. It's one of the first things you notice when you look at a design, and goes a long way toward setting the mood.

Fonts used for smaller elements such as body text and subheads should also be historically appropriate, but this is less of a challenge since many popular text faces are based on letterforms used in the 19th century. If you stick to generally accepted design principles, those typefaces are likely to work regardless of whether they seem particularly "steampunkish."

What follows is a brief guide to online sources of steampunk fonts. The tricky part is that the websites don't always make it easy to find these fonts. Some have a handy "steampunk" tag, but they're more likely to use broader categories, such as "Historical," "Victorian," "1800s," or "Vintage." These are the categories or tags you should look for.

Many steampunk tales are set in America's Wild West, so fonts tagged as "Western" might work. Also look for fonts categorized as "Art Nouveau," which refers to a design style popular from 1890 to 1910. "Art Deco," on the other hand, is associated with the 1920s and 1930s, the era of dieselpunk.

Free Fonts

When I was designing my own website, I spent weeks in search of The Perfect Font, and naturally I began by looking at the many places that offer fonts for free. My first stops were 1001 Fonts and DaFont.

1001 Fonts categorizes fonts in many ways: You can search for specific decades, including the 1890s and 1900s, or search various "Yesteryear" categories, including "Art Nouveau" and "Antique." There's also a catch-all "Vintage" category and categories for "Wild West" and "Circus" fonts.

DaFont has a smaller range of categories. Your best bets here are "Western" and "Retro." DaFont uses "Retro" as a general category for historical fonts, even though Retro style is most commonly associated with the mid to late 20th century.

Carnivalee Freakshow

The main problem with these sites is that many fonts are free for personal use only. If you're a professional designer, or you're creating designs for your own business, you'll have to pay to use the font. The font listings on both sites indicate the license type, and both include filters that limit the search results to fonts you can use in business. On 1001 Fonts, click on the small price tag icon next to the "Your text here" field. On DaFont, click on "More Options" next to the "Submit" button.

Carnivalee Freakshow, one of the most popular historical fonts, is listed on some websites as being free for personal use only, but author Christopher Hansen has stated that it's OK to use it commercially. However, that's an exception. If the font is flagged as "personal use only," don't assume that you can use it.

Paul Lloyd fonts

Another type designer worth checking out is Paul Lloyd, who has many historical fonts on dafont.com that are 100 percent free. These include Bolton, Duvall, Grantham and several other faces inspired by Victorian letterforms. You can also find his work at Abstract Fonts and Moorstation.org.

Free Fonts for Professionals

If you want free, commercial fonts without the hassle of filtering for license type, pay a visit to Font Squirrel, Google Fonts or the Font Library. Of the three, Font Squirrel makes it easiest to locate historical fonts — click on "Show More Tags" in the Find Fonts section and then click on "Historical."

Font Library is a non-profit repository of open-source fonts, and provides some useful resources for type designers. It doesn't have thematic categories, but you can filter the catalog to show display faces, which currently total 141.

Google currently offers 818 font families under open-source licenses. You can embed the fonts on web pages or download them to install on your Mac or PC. It lacks thematic categories, but if you filter the list for display faces, you can browse the entire collection in a few minutes. Several fonts, such as Amarante, Rye and Sancreek, have a definite steampunk vibe. When you view an individual type specimen, Google will show you other fonts that are commonly paired with it.

Google steampunk fonts

Though Google offers some nice display faces, its fonts are most often used for body text, subheads and headlines on web pages. In the old days of the web, sites were limited to a handful of common typefaces like Times, Arial and Georgia. Thanks to web fonts from Google and other companies, designers can specify typefaces in much the same way they do with print projects. You choose a set of web fonts and add a line of code to your HTML. When someone visits your site, their browser automatically downloads the specified fonts.

You generally want to limit your use of web fonts to those used frequently on your site, because each font download causes a small performance hit. Logos and headers are best created the old-fashioned way, as GIF or PNG files.

My site uses Vollkorn, a typeface I discovered on Google Fonts. However, I ended up using an updated version that I downloaded from the author's website because it gave me a greater range of styles.

Font Vendors

If you come up empty in your search for free fonts, you'll find a wider selection of high-quality typefaces on commercial sites such as MyFonts and FontSpring. Or consider one of the smaller boutique vendors that specialize in historical typefaces, such as Letterhead Fonts or The Walden Font Co.

I've purchased font packages from both companies. The header on my site uses two Letterhead Fonts: Antique Shop and Fairground. The fonts aren't cheap, but they're beautifully designed and the vendor offers useful tutorials for creating various type effects.

Victorian Printshop

Many of Walden's fonts are sampled from old print materials, and some deliberately retain the rough or grungy look of the originals. They're available in various sets, some of which also include clip art. Of primary interest to steampunks are the three Victorian sets. Each includes a selection of text faces plus symbol and border fonts. You also get a handy booklet that serves as a guide to the fonts and provides a nice example of Victorian-era design. Each booklet uses fonts and clip art from the collection. The packages are priced at $49.95 each, or $129.95 for all three.

Walden also offers sets of Wild West and Civil War fonts as well as fonts from World War II, the Revolutionary War and Renaissance and Medieval eras. Dieselpunks might be interested in The Kraftwerk Press, which features German industrial fonts from the 1920s.

Why Pay?

Why pay for fonts when so many are available for free? Premium fonts tend to be higher quality, and it's not just a matter of the letterforms. Professional type designers typically pay more attention to details such as proper character spacing, and their fonts are more likely to include features such as ligatures, swashes and alternate characters. Free fonts are more of a hit-or-miss proposition, though Google's fonts generally seem to be of higher quality than those on ad-supported sites like DaFont and 1001 Fonts.

Another advantage of premium fonts is that you're less likely to see them in other designs, so it's easier to avoid the "me-too" look.

If you're looking for deals, graphic design marketplaces such as Creative Market and Graphic River provide inexpensive fonts either alone or in bundles. Or check out the many "deals" sites for designers, including Mighty Deals, My Design Deals, InkyDeals and DesignCuts.

If you subscribe to Adobe's Creative Cloud, don't forget that company's TypeKit service, which has a wide selection of high-quality fonts that you can sync to your desktop or embed in web pages. The service is free for as long as you remain a subscriber.

Keep in mind that when you purchase a font, you're really buying a license to use it. As with licensing a software package, ownership remains with the font vendor or designer. Whether you opt for free or premium fonts, pay attention to those license terms. For example, many commercial licenses prohibit you from embedding fonts in e-books or converting them to web fonts, though the vendor may offer separate e-book or web font licenses. Open-source licenses — the kind used for Google Fonts and Font Library — are typically the most permissive.