Using Fonts in a Commercial Illustration

Copyright Kathy Konkle

Microstock sites like Shutterstock have allowed the use of fonts for years while iStockPhoto just recently upgraded their policy to include the use of fonts. The contributor must state that they either own the copyright or have a commercial use license for any fonts used in an illustration. Fonts that came with your computer system are not necessarily free for commercial use. You can use the “get info” panel to check the license for each individual font. Many people think that it’s OK to use Ariel but actually if you read the license for Ariel it is not free for commercial use and you must pay a fee for the license. Google "Free for commercial use fonts" to find free fonts you can use for art that you sell such as stock.

Reviewing Font Licenses

A font license is known as the end  user license agreement or EULA. The EULA defines the number of CPUs the font may be installed on and governs the use of the font. Make sure to review your font license carefully even if it is long and hard to read. Look for any restrictions on the use or modification of the font. IStockPhoto requires fonts that are free for commerical use without restrictions since you are reselling the design and because the agency’s license agreement allows modification of files after purchase. Other agencies may not be as strict but you will be protecting yourself against lawsuits if you stick with fonts that allow commercial use.

Choosing the Right Font

Image inspectors will pay close attention to the way you use fonts in your illustrations. Different fonts convey different messages to the viewer so it’s wise to give some thought to the fonts you select for your projects. There are four main groups of fonts: serif, san-serif, decorative and script:

Serif Fonts

Serif are usually small horizontal details or wings at the ends of the stokes of some fonts. Serifed fonts are generally easier to read because the serifs help to guide the eyes horizontally along the page. Many designers prefer to use a serfied font when setting larger amounts of body copy but the font may be hard to read on a computer screen at small sizes.

Serifs come in two forms—bracketed and unbracketed. Brackets serifs have small curves leading up to the character while unbracketed serifs come in at a 90 degree angle.

San-serif Fonts

San-serif fonts are cleaner and generally more modern looking than serif fonts. Many designers prefer to use san-serif fonts for titles or headers and also for callouts and tags when the font will be very small.

Script Fonts

A script font usually has the letters connected and looks more like handwriting which conveys an elegant feeling. Script fonts are often used for wedding invitations and for formal occasions.

Decorative Fonts

Decorative fonts can be fun and entertaining but be careful because thay can convey a strong message to the viewer. Decorative fonts are designed more for style than readability. They may be fancy, elaborate or whimsical and while useful for setting headlines or tiles you probably wouldn’t want to use them as body copy because they are hard to read. Some examples of decorative fonts are Western fonts, Art Deco style or Old English fonts.

Anatomy of a Font

A font family is a collection of related typefaces which share common design traits. It’s a good idea to become familiar with the various parts of a font to help you when combining different font families in a design. Some of the main parts of a font are listed below:


The X-Height refers to height of the lower-case x which is the character that defines the height of the lower-case letters. Modern typefaces often have an X-Height greater than half the height of uppercase letters.

Acenders & Decenders

Acenders are the part of the font that rises above the X-Height and decenders extend below the base line. Keep an eye on the acenders and decenders when setting multiple lines of type to avoid the letters overlapping or crashing into each other.

Swash Characters

Swashes are the extended flourishes at the beginning or end of a character. They can add a sense of elegance but are not intended to use in long sentences or body copy.


The line on which all the letters sit. Use the baseline to align text in your designs.

Cap Height

The distance from the baseline to the top of an upper-case letter determines is the cap height and determines the point size.

Bowl & Counter

The bowl is the curved part of characters such as ‘d’, ‘b’ and ‘o.’ The negative space in the enclosed, or partially enclosed, circular area is known as the counter.


The horizontal stroke across an uppecase ‘A’ and ‘H’ is known as the crossbar. Some decorative fonts may have the crossbars at an angle.


Ligatures are specially designed letter pairs that are used when a lettercombination appears awkward. Ligatures are often used when combining an ‘f’ with other letters.

Elements of Good Type Design

When designing with type keep in mind that decorative typefaces can be hard to read. It’s best not to mix too many different font families in a composition. Try to limit it to less than two or three font families and strive to make the didfferent fonts compatible when it comes to design traits.

Below are some of the main principles to observe when designing with type. To learn more try some books about graphic design and desktop publishing.


The size of the text in the illustration can have a big impact on the composition. Make sure text is large enough to be legible and not too big or it could overwhelm your design. 


The amount of space between the letters of a line of text is knownas the kerning. Poorly kerned text could result in a rejection by an image inspector. Spend a few extra minutes adjusting the kerning and it can make a big difference in the appearance of your composition.

Generally the kerning in body text is done automatically you will want to kern any titles or headings and individual words that appear large on the page. The goal of kerning is to create and even balance of the negative space left between characters.


The leading, or line spacing, is the distance between two or more lines of type. The term leading comes from the days of metal type when they used strips of lead between lines of type to provide line spacing. It is generally measured from baseline to baseline.

When a line of type includes more than one type size, automatic leading can result in inconsistent line spacing. Some fonts with long acenders and decenders read better with increased leading.


Tracking is the amount of space between all characters, while kerning is the space between letter pairs. Take care to not over track your text or it may become difficult to read.


Think about where you place your text in a composition don’t just plop it in there randomly. keep in mind the rules of good design and composition and use alignment, grouping and contrast when designing with type. Try to achieve a balance between the type in your image and the illustrative elements.

Weight & Style

Weight and style can convey a message to the viewer. Using a big bold font could mean formal or stern while a delicate and airy font could evoke a feminine feeling. Usually it’s best not to mix an old fashioned font style with a modern one or to mix a fat font with a delicate one. A great designer can break the rules sucessfully but the beginner should be conservative when combining font styles. 

Mood or Look & Feel

When choosing a font think about the message you wish to send to someone who views your image. What mood do you wish to create? Will it be whimsical or fun? Maybe you want to adopt a more serious tone for your illustration of a bank. Your Valentine’s series of illustrations could have a romantic font and your dog themed illustrations could have a happy-go-lucky feel to the fonts. Think about your intended audience and choose you font styles accordingly.


Try to design your illustrations that use text as if they were going to be seen by an older person without perfect eyesight. Avoid tiny grey text on a black bacground and try to keep your fonts legiible. You know what it says but try to imagine what it looks like to someone unfamiliar with it. Try squinting at the text and see if it’s still readable.

Pairing Fonts

I often pain a more decorative font with a plainer font using the fancy font for big text and titles and the plainer font for callouts and captions. I like to use a simple serif font with a sans serif font if I can match enough of the font characterisics. Be conservative when combining font families or your type composition may look too busy or disjointed.