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How to Create Your First Font from Scratch: A Step by Step Guide

Laura Busche March 31, 2021 · 5 min read
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I have deep admiration for font designers. Their attention to detail, commitment to their craft, and discipline are truly unique. That’s why every time I hear there’s a tool that can turn my handwriting into a font I run to try it. There’s a certain magic to the act of turning your squiggly letters (I know mine are!) into digital fonts. However, as exciting as the whole process is, I know it can be daunting. Throughout this article, I’ll show you how to use Fontself — a simple Illustrator plugin — to go from hand drawn letters to an OpenType font (.OTF) in minutes.
Before I begin, though, I’d like to point out a few things that this article isn’t. This is not about creating a crisp, perfect font with complex ligatures and multiple language support. This is your first font, and I’m here to show you the essential parts of the process so that you can practice your way to perfection — if that’s even what you’re looking for.

How to Create Your First Font

You will need:
  • Fontself
  • Adobe Illustrator CC
  • A 1mm black marker of your choice
  • A pencil
  • A printout of this free template
Font Design Tracing Sheet
Design your first font from scratch
Get your worksheet

Use this worksheet to trace your uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as any symbols that you’d like to add.

Download it now!
Steps

1. Download Fontself and install the Illustrator extension.

2. Print the template above. Be mindful of the fact that each line has three horizontal divisions. Start your letters in the middle division and go up or down depending on whether the (lowercase) letter has an ascender (like d) or a descender (like p).

3. Start drawing in your uppercase and lowercase letters. Work your way through the alphabet considering each letter’s width — use a ruler and pencil marks if you want to keep that size constant.

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4. Add numbers from 0-9 and any special characters that you’ll need in order to create sentences with this font: periods, commas, semicolons, exclamation marks, and question marks. If you feel confident about your pulse and letters, feel free to skip the pencil sketch. If you’d like to be able to erase any mistakes and polish your letters before scanning, draw these in with a pencil first. When you’re happy with the letters, trace them with the black marker and erase the pencil marks.

5. [Optional] If you’ll use the font in a different language like French or Spanish, feel free to draw vowels with accents (e.g. á, é, í).

6. Scan these pieces of paper using at least 300dpi and (ideally) a high-contrast setting. I’m sharing my scanner settings below in case they’re useful.


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7. Open up your image file in Illustrator and make sure everything looks OK. Rotate the image if necessary.

8. Live trace the image using a high-contrast setting like Black and White Logo. The Live Trace action will instantly remove the grey lines in your printout, and should leave you with vectorized letters. There’s also a an option called “Ignore White” that you can check off to make sure that the white background turns into a transparency during live tracing. As a shortcut, you can use Cmd + Shift + D to quickly switch to a transparent background as you work.


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9. Clean up any letters that look odd, too large or too small. Since they are now vector shapes, you can use the Direct Selection (white arrow) and Pen tools to fix any details. My number 6, for example, looked terrible.


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10. When they look OK to you, open Window → Extensions → Fontself Maker.

11. Selecting the whole shape at a time, type the letter/symbol you want Fontself to identify (a, b, c) and hit enter.


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12. You can move faster if your 0-9 numbers are next to each other. Select them all and click on the “0-9” button in the Fontself pane. The same action is possible for a-z and A-Z. In my experience, it’s easier to go letter by letter the first time around, and that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Alternatively, the newest version of Fontself allows you to drag objects (shapes) directly into the extension. Check out this quick video showing how to go about it:

13. As you move through these letters, notice how Fontself is placing them in relation to each other. Should you lower your q to fit their guidelines? Should you reduce spacing between the letters because your y looks too far apart from your h? Just click and drag the guides within the Fontself pane.


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14. Check out the live preview, where letters are lined up alphabetically. Alternatively, write your own words and phrases to see how a real sentence might look like. Fix any minor details.


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15. Click on Export to download your font as an .OTF and enjoy! You should use this button only when you’re happy with the final result, at which stage you will have to install it manually via the Font Book app or your font manager.

Say hello to Unicorn.otf

And that’s it folks. That’s the story of Unicorn.otf, my first font made from scratch. I hope this step by step guide inspires you to finally turn your typography love to the next level.
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Font Design Tracing Sheet
Design your first font from scratch
Get your worksheet

Use this worksheet to trace your uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as any symbols that you'd like to add.

Download it now!
About the Author
Author
Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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40 Comments
  • @Laura Busche Thank you so much for providing this great tutorial! 5 years ago
  • Great steps - very informative! 5 years ago
  • nice...i tried a few font creators and they are time consuming...this is great to try and to have a few original fonts that are aside 5 years ago
  • can we download Fontself for free? 5 years ago
  • @ADRIANA BARRIOS There is no free or trial version yet, but you can get an idea of how the tool works in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ar06jNH3RX8 5 years ago
  • thanks Franz! 5 years ago
  • The only sad part is...it does not work with CS6 ! I hope they have some update in the future that makes it compatible with CS6 5 years ago
  • @Vinay Mittal @Adele Mawhinney @Raquel Ribeiro Glad you found it useful guys! 5 years ago
  • Thanks for the tutorial! I can't wait to try this out. Quick question: Do you go straight from the scanner to the live trace, or is there any image adjustment/clean-up that you would recommend? Thanks! 5 years ago
  • Hi @Ian Kata I found that some images might need a contrast boost before you apply Live Trace just to make sure that they are vectorized properly. Some letters will also turn out a bit smaller than the rest, and you can always tweak height or width once they're vectors. Other than that, have fun and let us know if you come across​ any tips! :) 5 years ago
  • Awesome! Thanks @Laura Busche I appreciate the tips. I will definitely keep you updated if I make any discoveries! 5 years ago
  • Thank you very much! 5 years ago
  • @Laura Busche I never knew about fontself, while not perfect it would definitely speed up my workflow. 5 years ago
  • @Simon Stratford definitely! They are quickly coming up with some great advanced features, so we shall see :) 5 years ago
  • Do you know other alternates to Fontself which might work either on their own or will Illustrator CS5.5? I'd rather not upgrade since they only offer subscription now. 5 years ago
  • @Katherine Davis There's nothing we are aware of for non-CC users :( But we have a few ideas to support CS users in the future ;) You can subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of www.fontself.com if you want to be notified when we release more creative goodness. @Simon Stratford We'll keep perfecting the tool, as kerning, ligatures and more will show up as part of our free updates. 5 years ago
  • @Franz Hoffman I'll be buying it in the next few days, got a font in illustrator that I'm nearly finished. with the future updates it's just what I'm looking for. 5 years ago
  • Fontself looks pretty good! Is there any solution for free? 5 years ago
  • This looks like a fun project, thanks! I'm going to try it whenever I have some time. 5 years ago
  • Great tutorial, thanks @Laura Busche :) 5 years ago
  • Awesome :) I look for long time and try to find simple nice and easy to follow tutorial to get me started with my first font. Now i am definitely ready to jump on it. Thanks for sharing. 5 years ago
  • I just order Fontself on half price so if anyone is interested here is the link - http://buff.ly/28LRdgR 5 years ago
  • Thanks so much! It's always seemed so daunting. 5 years ago
  • Anonymous
    Hey guys 👋 Would you like 20% off Fontself? 👉 Use the code: drawn2type 5 years ago
  • Thanks for great tutorial - looks really simple! Does Fontself works with Illustrator CC 2015.3? 5 years ago
  • Wow, just know how to make a font. Great tutorial. Pin it ! 5 years ago
  • @Elena Paletskaya Yes, Fontself works on CC 2015.3 =) @Malvouz Theme Thanks, we just 📌 it ;) 5 years ago
  • I'm so happy i found this tutorial.. Thank you ^^ 5 years ago
  • @everyone 🎉 This awesome add-on is now available on Creative Market: https://creativemarket.com/fontself/761404-Fontself-Make-fonts-in-Illustrator 5 years ago
  • @Fontself Team does it support Turkish letters? 5 years ago
  • @Cagdas Ilke Unal Yes! You can actually assign any Unicode character to any letter or shape.. 5 years ago
  • this is incredible! Is there any chance you can open your .otf with glyphs to do kerning/ligatures/etc. @Fontself Team 5 years ago
  • @alex joganic Yes, you can edit the exported font files in any other tool. 5 years ago
  • Will Fontself work with CS3? 5 years ago
  • @Gale Simon Fontself requires CC, but we will try to find an alternate solution for all CS users in 2017. Stay tuned ;) 5 years ago
  • so cool, thanks! 5 years ago
  • Thank you so much! Great article! 5 years ago
  • Thanks for the article. I'm just starting out with this but am very excited about it! 5 years ago
  • en 5 minutes… Cactus Bold >>>> https://flic.kr/p/YiaLPp <<<<< ♨︎ ¯_(ツ)_/¯ 4 years ago
  • Hello, where can I find your printout of this free template? Thanks for your help. 1 year ago