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Using Free Resources With Discretion – Working Within a Budget

January 27, 2011

1stWebdesigner recently published an article called: ‘Can Free Design Resources Be Exemplary?'{footnote}{/footnote} The article focused on the problems associated with the distribution of free design resources via marketplace websites. It also touched on a new community called Designmoo which seems to address some of these issues. This article led me to think about a discussion I had via Twitter late last year with @goodwebsitesnz about the over-use of popular free fonts. The truth is, there are some instances where you may need to use free resources due to budget constraints, so where do you turn?

Is there a benefit to using free resources, and how do you know if these resources are safe to use?

The use of free design resources by themselves are not really a problem, so long as the designer uses their discretion and implements them in a way that subtly enhances the overall design of a website.

However, the use of free themes from theme marketplace sites come with a whole host of more serious problems, the least of which is that your site will never look completely unique.

A client may be tempted to think that downloading a free theme to install on their new CMS website may be a lot cheaper than hiring a web designer. However, a client should try to work with their designer to achieve a unique look for their site, even if they are constrained by low budget. This can be achieved through careful use of a few hand-picked free resources. Remember, not every website has to sport the latest and greatest in design trends, the most important thing is to make sure that the site meets the needs of the client.

Much has been written on whether free resource and marketplace sites help or harm designers. {footnote}’Are Too Many WP Theme Sites Hurting the Industry?’{/footnote} This article will mainly focus on how the freelance web designer can find good free resources to produce the best result for the client.

Designer or Free template for Your New Website?

The safety of free resources such as website themes can be questionable. Free themes from sometimes apparently professional marketplace sites may contain malicious code.

The web designer should be able to help the client avoid these pitfalls if necessary in order to find reliable sources that are safe. As Siobhan Ambrose says, you should never do a google search for ‘free templates’. {footnote} ‘Why You Should Never Search For Free WordPress Themes in Google or Anywhere Else’ by Siobhan Ambrose{/footnote} It appears that the results of this kind of vague search term are untrustworthy.

On the other hand, free design elements or resources can be over-used if they reflect a current trend. Free fonts are always popular, and even themes from reputable sites such as Themeforest can look very similar. Then there is the fact that often you are not buying the theme for your exclusive use: you are simply purchasing a license to use that theme on your website. This means that anyone else can purchase a license for that same theme and end up with a website that could look very much like yours.

So with all this in mind, why use free resources?

Sometimes the client may simply be unable to afford the extra cost of a design element that would provide the perfect finish to the website. This is where the web designer has to be flexible, and willing to search for a decent substitute that will not detract from the original design.

This is where sites like Designmoo can be useful. Designmoo’s ‘… goal is to build a great network of designers and community resources and provide a centralized location for finding great-looking free design resources.'{footnote} {/footnote}

By utilizing the high quality free resources on offer at sites like Designmoo, you can be sure that those little details of your site that may have taken a lot of time to design from scratch will still look professional. This will also help you stay within the client’s budget. 

How to Find a Good Alternative to a Trendy Resource: ‘Lobster’ Font

I am a fan of Pablo Impallari’s free font ‘Lobster’. I love the clean yet chunky look. Yet I discovered that by late last year the font had been used so much in web and graphic design, that its impact seemed to be diminished.

Features that made Lobster a popular font during 2010:
– Has a vintage/retro look that has been popular in the last few years.
– Script font
– Open type font – multiple versions of each letter.
– ligatures – to make the font look as if it has been hand-written.
– automatic terminal forms while you type.

– it’s a well-designed font.
– It’s free.

– It’s free and trendy: therefore many people will eventually use it in their designs and it may become hackneyed. 

Finding a Substitute at MyFonts:

At Myfonts you can buy fonts with licenses both for personal and commercial use. You can also find free fonts. How do we go about finding a suitable substitute for the Lobster font from MyFonts that will still be a nod to the trend?

First we’ll do a search for ‘script font’, then look for ‘View Options’ box in the right-hand column. In the drop-down menu, choose to sort the search price by ‘low to high’

I picked out the following examples from the search results as possible substitutes – my criteria were that the fonts had to be under $10, or free if possible.

Gauche Display ($0 for personal use but definitely not as pretty as Lobster)

Mimix ($0 for personal use/ $39 – $149 – commercial)

Fertigo Pro regular ($0)

Reklame script (demo version is free)

Magesta script (mix version is free, others are $4)

At $7.95, Glissando might also be a good substitute.

NOTE –  at this point, always check the licenses before downloading. Some fonts may be free for personal use, but you may need a license to use them on commercial sites. It is worth paying a little more for the proper license, and you will be helping the designer who created the font. Fifty percent of the profits of every font sold at Myfonts goes directly to the designer.

So often, when a new trend becomes popular websites start to look all the same. Don’t regard free resources as a complete solution to your design needs. Make your site different. Don’t follow the trend slavishly, use the trend as an inspiration for your own unique designs. The result should be a well-designed site that is unique, represents the client’s business, and is not a one-size-fits-all template site.

If a particular free font or effect is in fashion, I try to schedule some time to find a similar resource that is not quite as popular. It’s also fun to try and re-create the effect with different tools. This allows me to stay up-to-date with current trends while still maintaining the individual personality of the design.

A Few of My Favourite Resources:

Bittbox – Free Tuesday Textures
Fontsquirrel for @font-face font kits.