How design freebies cause cancer and eat babies

How design freebies cause cancer and eat babies

Have you ever heard horror stories, how free design assets from teh interwebz should be avoided at all costs? Is that real or made-up?

LGW makes a detour from its usual topics to give you some good old-fashioned nightmares.

“Color management's easy peasy, you just google for an ICC profile”

When I got my first DSLR (Canon 350D), I started grokking color management, but, apparently, not hard enough. I really did think I could just download an ICC profile from the Internet, and I'd be good to go. Ah, youth...

One of those profiles was Canon Digital Rebel XT (0509wg22).icm, fetched from one reputable website. Getting it to work was pretty much impossible, but I had no tools for “debugging” at hand at the time, and, most importantly, no knowledge.

Today I'd have a hard time compiling UFraw from 2005 just to precisely reproduce the issue again. So to give you idea, here is a rendering of a photo with advanced color matrix in darktable:

And here is the same picture rendered with that very profile:

That looks seriously broken indeed, but probably doesn't send a shiver down the spine as such, does it?

In late 2010, Richard Hughes released the first public version of GNOME Color Manager with built-in “horseshoe” diagram view that displays color gamut and, soon after that, a TRC diagram view.

I knew a lot more about color management by the time, and I always had a soft spot for underdogs, so I opened that ICM file in GNOME's ICC profile viewer...

Watcha, here's one DSLR that actually captures infrared, and you never knew:

You could also use it to tune to a radio station

Oh, and the curves feel a bit under the weather too.

Well, fancy that!

While this is a pretty harsh example, it really does serve as a hyperbole to illustrate the point: arbitrary color profiles from Internet are not guaranteed to work as expected.

If you are not sure about what you downloaded or even created, GNOME's profile viewer can work as a basic diagnostic tool. For more serious analysis try ICC Examin.

“I ain't paying for no fonts, I gets'em good and free”

Last autumn I felt like replacing the logo placeholder here at LGW with something more sensible, so I asked a fellow typeface admirer for an advice. (Have I already mentioned that I lack any artistic skills whatsoever?)

He listened to my incoherent explanations, scanned FontSquirrel quickly and pointed out a font that could work as a brand font for the project.

That font was FORQUE.

No problems so far? Just you wait...

I didn't like some design decisions which can probably be explained by description from the designer himself:

A font that looks like it's designer; big, old and fat. I needed a font for a 3D model of an old movies studio, and I made this. No lower case, only small caps.

But it did look industrial enough to me, and so I spent some time trying it this way and that way. Until something annoying grabbed my attention:

Wait, what? Is that a cluster of nodes?

So I zoomed in:

Indeed, it is a cluster of nodes. Could be a whole solar system lurking there.

One might say: OK, no big deal. You need it at small size for screen graphics anyway? End of problem, no?

That is not until you try to use it in Blender. The first thing you see after loading the font for a flat text object is that there is something fishy going on.

That looks suspicios, doesn't it?

So you try to render the scene out of curiousity or mischief, only to find that it's indeed broken.

The font is really broken

Wait, what if we add some extrusion and add some bevel. At first the issue seems to be gone, but as you keep adding bevel...

Bevel results in more damage

OK, in the eyes of an artist a 'W' letter could look a bit like a butterfly, but a fine rare sample of a European swallowtail?

In wireframe mode

As you switch to wireframe mode and zoom in to inspect, you really start understanding how badly mere extra points in a path can screw up a font and a text object.


For checking fonts it's best to use FontForge which will spit out list of bugs it discovered upon loading of a font file. Alternatively you can use fontlint which is pretty much the same problem checker from FontForge, except implemented as a console utility.

FontForge/fontlint are quite paranoid and will complain about every single prank that the type designer ever did. Not all of them need to be done away with, but you wouldn't believe how many free fonts around are lacking such a simple thing as a point at extrema.

Fortunately, you can tell FontForge what problems specifically to look for. Use “Element/Find Problems” command or use Ctrl+E to fire up the dialog with options. Some of the issues that FontForge can detect can be automagically fixed:

FontForge is a helpful lad

By the way, the font that's currently used in the LGW logo, CuprumFFU, is officially unstable. Some people just never learn, eh?

Freebies vs. the world

Despite of everything you read here, don't fall for anti-freebies advocacy. There are excellent free assets, and there are some quite horrible assets that people want you to pay for.

The world is just a tad more complicated than that. But there's always a place for catchy headlines.

The solution? Personally, I strongly suggest checking all 3rd party assets you lay your hands on for using in a commercial project.

While at that, I'd really love to hear some horror stories about 3rd party assets wreaking havoc and bringing more sadness to this cruel world. Along with solutions maybe? Would you like to share some?

Fire photo in the top image is (C) by Joe Skinner, CC  BY NC ND 2.0.

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26 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Open Inkscape
    Type “wow”
    Select the “FORQUE” font
    Go to path menu and select “object to path”
    Select the first w letter
    Go to the menu path and select simplify
    Do last two steps again with the second w
    Save the file as “wow.svg”

    Open Blender
    Import as svg “wow.svg”
    Bevel it the way you want through the curve panel.

    Envoy your wow logo 3D beveled with no more bug ;)

    So as you guessed I fully agree with this article. Sometime it goes faster by paying. And well… sometime earning some time is earning money.
    But also, we can often get the same result with FLOSS once we know how.

    Thank you for your website!

  2. Alexandre Prokoudine 24 July 2012 at 11:42 am

    Simplification changes the shape a bit too much :)

  3. No if you select letter by letter, it’s not changing the shape at all.
    I did it yesterday before giving the tip.

    And if you select all the letters at once and simplify then yes the shape is changing a weird way (Inkscape bug?).

  4. Alexandre Prokoudine 24 July 2012 at 11:57 am

    Let’s just say we have different understanding of what’s acceptable :)

    Look at the bottom: this is not acceptable for me.

  5. I understand. Then there’s one more step for you: move the bottom point where it should be :)

    But as said in my first comment, I fully agree with your article. I’m working with Inkscape and Illustrator, with Gimp and Photoshop and with Blender and… Blender. So yes I agree that expensive softwares are often well worth our money for extensive daily usage.

  6. Then there’s one more step for you: move the bottom point where it should be :)

    Sadly, no :) That wouldn’t solve the issue. Here’s a better screenshot.

    See? I’d have to add new nodes to restore the shape.

    Same for the screwed counters:

    You could say I’m just a complainypants, but simplification does more harm than good here.

  7. Sorry to insist Alexandre but you got this weird result because you didn’t follow well all the above steps. After converting your text to a path, you must simplify letter by letter as I mentionned, and not all the letters at once.

    To do this, double click on the letter. You should now see your selection box around this letter only. Now select simplify.

    I promise the result is clean and even cleaner than the original.

  8. Alexandre Prokoudine 25 July 2012 at 12:04 am

    I actually did select a single letter. What do you want me to do? Record a proof video? :)

    Also, there’s no need for baby talk ‘round here.

  9. Ok maybe of question of version then.

    Sorry for baby-talking, english is not my native language. But anyway my idea was to share tips with you and your readers and now I feel like your getting nervous so bye bye and thank you anyway for your helpful website.

  10. Alexandre Prokoudine 25 July 2012 at 12:27 am

    Ok maybe of question of version then.

    Oh, good point, sir! That could be it. I’m running a build from unstable branch. I think I’ll check it with 0.48 just in case

    ...and now I feel like your getting nervous…

    Mmm? I’m certainly not :) Whatever I say, take it as if I was doing it with a big stupid grin on my face :)

  11. So if really you’re not nervous, I did a screencast ;-)

    You’ll see first what happens when I don’t select only one letter. And then the clean result I got.

    The Inkscape version I’m using is Inkscape r9886

    FYI to record this screencast I used the very last 1.3.0 Kazam I installed on my Ubuntu 12.04 for the purpose of this video. It got great improvements since my last try of this FLOSS software.

  12. Alexandre Prokoudine 25 July 2012 at 1:45 am

    Thanks for that! I filed a bug report:

  13. Alexandre Prokoudine 25 July 2012 at 1:54 am

    Okay, now here is an interesting question: did you try lowercase or uppercase? Because I get different results for them. The lowercase version looks more like your example, while I definitely used uppercase :)

  14. Great. Hopefully our conversation will be useful to every Inkscape user.

    Bye Alexandre and sorry again if I hurt you somewhere. I’m not very comfortable with English speaking yet.

  15. Right, I tried lowercase because in your article the designer of the font wrote that it’s the same: “No lower case, only small caps.”

    Ok now I understand the misunderstanding.

    It’s really an Inkscape bug because the letters have the exact same nodes, only the upper row is higher. So if you try to move them where they are in the lowercase version, simplify works well.

    Ok anyway let’s the great Inkscape dev team find the bug.

    Bye again.


  16. «The amount of simplification (called the threshold) depends on the size of the selection. Therefore, if you select a path along with some larger object, it will be simplified more aggressively than if you select that path alone.»

    The uppercase ‘W’ is simplified stronger because the selection (the bbox) is larger than the lowercase ‘w’.

    IMHO you are trying to use a feature for a purposed it was not designed: typography is based on precise geometry - ‘Simplify path’ not.

    To quote from ‘The Book of Inkscape’ [1]:
    «12.3 Simplifying

    A very important operation on paths is simplifying. When you simplify a path (Path > Simplify or Ctrl-L), Inkscape attempts to redraw that path using fewer nodes, ironing out smaller details but preserving the large-scale features and the overall shape. If this description sound a bit vague, it’s because the operation itself is not entirely deterministic; usually, it is difficult to accurately predict the result of simplifying before you actually try it. Even the reduction of the number of nodes is not guaranteed, although common.

    Despite that, it is a very common operation and a true lifesaver for certain styles of artistic drawing. In technical drawing, on the other hand, it is rarely useful, if only because it considers any sharp corners in a path to “defects” that should be smoothed out.


  17. I find weird to ask something free to be at the level of quality of something not free, especially if your plan to use them for a commercial product

    All the best if it’s the case, but I don’t see how someone can complain if not.

  18. I agree with Radtransf and I find this article inconsistent with the general philosophy of this blog.

    Considering that you have the tools (fontforge) and have demonstrated an affinity with the software, I think it’s an unreasonable waste of your time creating this entry, when you could have quite simply made the corrections to the typeface and submitted it back to the author for appraisal. This is especially the case when the typeface is a display font, where only caps are represented - with such a restricted alphabet it wouldn’t take all that long to alter the glyphs and be done with it.

    I’ve enjoyed the content here, but I think the tone of this article is too negative and a bit pedantic. Perhaps fonts don’t have the same culture as software, and the intellectual property is considered more creative than utilitarian, but I think you should in future consider what the overall benefit of the posts are, rather than illustrating a gripe in detail.

    I agree that free tools shouldn’t necessitate a trade-off for quality, but the author may not be aware of their mistakes, and the ethic should be to contribute back, especially if you’re being financially rewarded in the process.

  19. Alexandre Prokoudine 03 August 2012 at 4:04 pm

    @Radtransf I’m afraid you completely missed the point, the tone and most likely didn’t read all of the “Freebies vs. the world” section. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to discuss the topic until you do :)

    @dmotd I actually tweaked the font and only never finished it because I decided against using it due to certain design decision by the author.

    The article is about checking assets before using them. It doesn’t accuse, it doesn’t make fun of, it merely uses a leight humorous tone to illustrate things that otherwise could go unnoticed and quite possibly screw something badly. If you don’t see it like that, well… It’s not my business to tell people how to think, is it? :)

  20. Excellent answers, Alexandre. My respect! :)

  21. Really like all the information you have shared. Thanks!

  22. waw!!! great.. keep it up

  23. As a designer/photographer I really appreciate typography and the huge amount of work that goes into designing a font. you guys have a lot of patience!

  24. It make me really laugh.. thank you for the post. check my page if you got any time.. Daily deals

  25. Nice design, keep it up!

  26. Freebies may be bad, but paid stuff may be bad too. Tho you’ll have support at least.