Your handwriting as a font is like your name in lights

My headline pretty much says it all: Having a font installed on your computer that is your own handwriting is sort of like seeing your name in lights on a marquee… It’s eery and cool at the same time. Design geeks can now make it happen in tools that are entirely familiar.

I’m a pretty heavy Adobe software user, and after over two decades of using Photoshop (I had to go look; I’m pretty sure it was Version 3.0 where I bought-in, back in 1994), it feels like an extension of my hand at this point. It took me longer to warm-up to Illustrator, but I eventually got there, putting-up with its extraordinarily quirky interface that’s only gotten slightly less so in the Creative Cloud era in order to produce scalable vector graphics — a design niche that even most professional designers don’t seem to fully grasp the mechanics of.

It’s hard not to use design tools like these, and wonder why you can’t just use them to create your own typefaces — something I’ve wanted to do since my high school days, at first getting into calligraphy, and later sketching-out letterforms.

Roughly in the same timeline I started using Photoshop and Illustrator, I dabbled with Macromedia’s Fontographer as well to try and make that dream come to life. I found its interface seriously difficult to use, and I don’t recall ever actually successfully creating anything with it in terms of usable computer fonts.

About a year ago, I accidentally discovered a tool called Fontself. I got to it through an article about color fonts, and Adobe’s support for them. One of the example fonts was made with Fontself, so I looked into the tool, and I had one of those ohmygod, where you have BEEN all my life?! moments right then and there.

In short, Fontself is a plugin offered in two versions: One for Photoshop, one for Illustrator. The opportunity to use a familiar and powerful tool for vector creation (Illustrator) to produce typefaces and turn them into computer fonts? I was practically giddy, and I pulled out my credit card almost instantly.

I was quickly reminded why I struggled with Fontographer back in the day: Designing typefaces is nowhere near as simple as it might seem. Letterforms are deceptively resistant to the normal influences and approaches for design, and even once you have a letterform you like, when you see it in actual use, you begin to see flaw after flaw after flaw, not just in shapes, and the balance between positive and negative, but in spacing. I don’t envy type designers, but I have great, great respect for them, and I think they just live in some parallel universe, one where banging your head against the wall constantly has some sort of reward that makes no sense to us mere mortals.

In any case, after dabbling with a more serious typeface design project, I decided to pursue something that should prove relatively easy: Turning my own handwriting into a font.

I started by creating some lined paper so I could get the sizing down consistently. And then using a bold pen, I simply wrote the alphabet and numbers and characters and many common international variations (letters with diareses and accent marks and cedillas and more). Then I proceeded to scan the sheet, and painstakingly manipulate the end result with Adobe Illustrator, cleaning-up the letterforms and aligning things.

I then used Fontself to get those characters one by one into a font design. It took several iterations of outputting, installing and testing the resulting OTF (OpenFont) file to get the spacing corrected, but I eventually got things where I needed them, and the result is what I called Westopher Regular. You can see an example in the context of Microsoft Word in the featured image.

Other than (of course) the redundancy of a single shape for each letter making it look less than natural, it truly does represent a reasonable facsimile of my handwriting. And while I’ve not used it that much in practice, it’s still pretty cool to see my scribbly handwriting appear on my computer screen as I peck at the keyboard. Very cool.