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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
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!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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
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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