Create your own font

Picture of letter "A" in Brush Script MT Italic font

For most of its 500-year history, typography wasn’t exactly a hot topic at the dinner table. No more. Thanks to personal computers, we’ve all become fussy about fonts.

Will your memo to the boss pack more punch in typewriter-like Courier or elegant Garamond? What about your school report, party invite, or for-sale flyer? These days, picking the right font is nearly as important as choosing the words themselves.

With the appearance of inexpensive software typography tools, people can even design their own custom fonts. In this article, you’ll learn how to create the one typeface that you’ll never find packaged with any commercial PC: your own handwriting.

To create it, all you need is a scanner, a printer, and the help of an online font-making service such as Fontifier.

Windows themes, secret codes, and the "homey touch"

You might be asking yourself: Why should I take the trouble to create my own font? After all, professional type designers can take months to create a single typeface. (A typeface traditionally refers to an entire font family, such as Times New Roman or Helvetica. A font is one type size or style within that family—Times New Roman bold or Helvetica 10 point, for example. Some typographers get nitpicky, but the terms are often used interchangeably.)

Microsoft Windows and programs such as Microsoft Office Word, meanwhile, come preloaded with dozens—even hundreds—of fonts to choose from. Why not just use one of those?

People create their own custom fonts for all kinds of reasons. Some do it to give their copy of Windows a digital makeover, changing the look of the buttons, menus, icons, and on-screen text by creating new Windows themes and "skins."

Others want to make digital photos and documents feel more personal. Matt Lichtenberg, a technical writer in the Seattle area, recently created a font of his own handwriting. Now when he e-mails snapshots to family and friends, he labels them with his digital "chicken scratch" instead of an impersonal commercial font.

"It gives them a homey touch," he says. "It looks like I’m writing on them with a marker."

Fontifier creator David Johnson-Davies says it’s a common reason why people use his service. Many customers, he says, want a handwritten font to personalize the look of computer-generated letters, diaries, scrapbooks, greetings cards, thank-you notes, and other materials.

The service has other benefits. Some parents use Fontifier to keep a digital record of their children's handwriting at different ages. People with Parkinson's disease and similar neurodegenerative disorders have used it to preserve their own handwriting before it deteriorates.

A few Fontifier customers even create their own secret codes and Lord of the Rings-style runes, notes Johnson-Davies.

Digitize your handwriting for $9

To create your own handwritten font by using Fontifier, first download and print out a template sheet from the Fontifier website. Then, with a felt-tip pen, fill in the appropriate letters in each box. (In typography lingo, each of these characters is called a glyph.)

Picture of Fontifier website
The online font-making service Fontifier makes it easy to create a font of your handwriting

Once you’ve finished, scan the sheet into your PC and tell Fontifier where to find the digital file. Fontifier will upload the image, digitally trace each glyph, and convert it into a TrueType font. (TrueType is a digital font technology originally designed by Apple Computer, and now used by both Apple and Microsoft in their operating systems. TrueType helps make the letters on your computer screen look good no matter how big or small they are.)

Once Fontifier is done—the process typically takes only a few moments—it displays a free preview of your new font so you can check it for mistakes. If you like what you see, you can download it to your computer by paying $9. Once it's installed, you can select the font as you would any other.

"If Helvetica and Times New Roman work, so will the Fontifier font," says Johnson-Davies.

More software for fontaholics

Don’t expect the finished Fontifier font to have the same level of polish as a professionally-designed font. Due to the quirks of handwriting, for example, you might notice that the spacing between letters—kerning in the trade—isn’t perfect.

If you want to tweak your new handwritten font, or create a design from scratch, you’ll need to pick up professional font-design software. Two good choices for serious students of the craft are TypeTool (available on the Fontlab website) and FontCreator (available on the High-Logic website). Both sell for less than $100 and allow you to try them for free before you buy.