Will That Be Vanilla Whale or Rye?

A Guide to Finding Steampunk Fonts (Part 1)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

This is an updated version of a blog post that appeared in April 2017 at sbealeonline.com.

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 projects, but 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.

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Indeed, fonts used in steampunk designs are often based on typography from printed materials of that time. Books, maps, advertising, signage and even old stock certificates have provided inspiration for font designers.

For the most part, these are display fonts, the kind you might use in a title, logo, poster or web page header. It's one of the first things you notice when you look at a design, and it goes a long way toward setting the mood.

Designers are generally advised to be sparing in their use of display fonts, and to combine them with fonts that are less ornate. But the Victorians were not under such constraints, and to emulate the look of a 19th century design, sometimes you have to go a little wild (within reason).

Of course, the choice of fonts is just one factor in giving a design project that old-time look. In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, Victorian design abhorred empty spaces. Filigree and other embellishments were common, and type was often set on curves or angles. The designs were also notable for the clever use of lines and dot patterns to simulate shading and depth. Steampunk has added its own industrial or fantasy flourishes: gears, kraken tentacles and the like, along with warm but dark color palettes.

The logo for the Clockwork Alchemy convention is a good example of a design that works even without fonts that are obviously steampunk or Victorian. The graphic — a gear and watch hands that spell "CA" — plus the rusty metal texture, are all it needs to say "this is steampunk."

Still, I'm an unabashed type geek, and when creating a design for my website, I'll often try dozens of fonts before I find a suitable combination. As a result, the font menus on my computer resemble a circus poster from hell. But I like having choices, and if you know where to look, you can build a sizable font library without breaking the bank.

Free Fonts

For many folks (at least the ones who are not professional designers), the font quest begins with a website that offers free fonts, such as 1001 Fonts or dafont.

Carnivalee Freakshow

dafont, one of the most popular sites, hosts about 2400 font families, so to make the search manageable, you'll want to filter the list by theme. The two that seem to work best for historical fonts are "Western" and "Retro." 1001 Fonts has a multitude of categories: You can filter by decade (1890s-1990s), theme ("Wild West," "Circus," etc.), yesteryear ("Retro," "Vintage," "Art Deco," "Art Nouveau") and more. Its "Retro" category keeps with the common definition — the recent past — whereas dafont uses "Retro" as a catchall for anything old.

As you search, you'll encounter such promising candidates as Carnivalee Freakshow, Vanilla Whale, Kirsty and Bonzer San Francisco.

You'll also find fonts from the early career of Australian designer Paul Lloyd, including Hominis, Helena, Bolton, and Penshurst. Lloyd, who has made a specialty of creating historical fonts, now does business as Greater Albion Typefounders, and his premium work can be found on MyFonts.com and Fontspring. (I used Lloyd's Bromwich Bold in the navbar of this website).

Another designer worth noting is Pilaster Davy, creator of four typefaces inspired by the Sanborn Map Company: Allegheny, Galveston, Providence, and Spartanburg. Our City Guides for Austin, Boston, Denver, Detroit, and Phoenix use Davy's Allegheny in their logos (the others use Dreadnought, a typeface from Letterhead Fonts that's also inspired by the old Sanborn maps).


Personal vs. Commercial Use

One frustration with most free-font sites is that many fonts are free for personal use only, not for commercial use. For example, if you want to use Carnivalee Freakshow or Spartanburg for your business, you need to contact the font creator and make any required arrangements.

There's some confusion on that point with Carnivalee Freakshow, due to conflicting information on the font sites. But I checked with Chris Hansen (who created the font many years ago at age 17), and he confirmed that you should contact him to get permission for commercial use. It's a great steampunk font, but it's so popular that you run the risk of a "me-too" look in any design that uses it. On dafont alone, it has been downloaded more than 2.3 million times.

Even if a font is licensed for commercial use, it's important to read the license agreement, which is typically included in the .zip file that contains the font. The license will allow you to install the font on a PC and use it with your applications, but it probably won't allow you to upload the file to a web server for use as a webfont. For that, you'll need a separate webfont license (if one is available). However, this doesn't prohibit you from using that font in a graphic that you upload to a website.

dafont and 1001 Fonts both include filters that limit 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.) But if you want free, commercial fonts without the hassle of filtering for license type, hop over 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."

Google currently offers 854 font families under open-source licenses. You can embed the fonts on web pages or download them to install on your Mac or PC. This site uses Vollkorn, a typeface by Friedrich Althausen that's hosted on Google Fonts.

In contrast to the other sites, Google doesn't have thematic categories, but you can filter for display faces, which reduces the list to a manageable 291 fonts. Examples that might work in a steampunk context are Amarante, Metal Mania, Rye and Sancreek. When you view an individual type specimen, Google will show you other fonts that are commonly paired with it.

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.

The Drawbacks of Free Fonts

You may be asking: If so many fonts are available for free, why would somebody pay for one? The reasons boil down to quality and selection. Quality considerations include the letterforms themselves, but in many cases, premium fonts also have better character spacing and extended character sets with ligatures, swashes and alternate characters. Free fonts — especially the ones on ad-supported sites like dafont — are more of a hit-or-miss proposition. I'd be particularly wary of using a free font for body text, with Google's fonts being notable exceptions.

You'll also get a much wider selection of fonts on commercial sites such as MyFonts.com and Fontspring, which means you're more likely to find the best fit for your project, and one that hasn't been used a gazillion times in other designs. And don't forget boutique sites such as Letterhead Fonts and The Walden Font Co. that specialize in historical typefaces.

I'll take a closer look at these sites in the next installment.