The strange allure of making your own fonts.

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June 6 2008 1:30 PM

YouType

The strange allure of making your own fonts.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In April, an online font clearinghouse called FontShop quietly uploaded a program that, the company wrote, was meant to be "purely entertaining—something to kickstart creativity."FontStruct, a browser tool that lets anyone create an original font, was so popular that the site's servers crashed within days of the official launch. As of this writing, 1,509 DIY fonts of all types—pixel fonts optimized for the Web, text fonts for documents, display fonts, "dingbat" fonts—are available for free, making the site an instant Web 2.0 community: the YouTube of typography. Although the term typography seems a tad grandiose for a site on which one of the most celebrated fonts, Luchador, is a series of pictures of Mexican wrestling masks.

FontStruct's interface couldn't be more intuitive. The central metaphor is a sheet of paper. You draw letters on the "sheet" using a set of standard paint tools (pencil, line, box, eraser) and a library of what FontStruct calls "bricks" (squares, circles, half-circles, crescents, triangles, stars). If you keep at it and complete an entire alphabet, FontStruct will package your letters into a TrueType file that you can download and plunk into your PC's font folder. And if you're feeling generous, you can tell FontStruct to share your font with everybody else on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. Every font has its own comment page, which tends to fill with praise, practical advice, or just general expressions of devotion to FontStruct. "Hey," comments one gleeful FontStructer, "all of us are going to be little Adrian Frutiger[s]!"

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No disrespect to Adrian Frutiger—who is, of course, the Swiss graphic designer who created the Univers and Frutiger typefaces—but why would anyone want to be a little Frutiger? More broadly, why do people create their own fonts? What's the payoff?

FontStruct isn't the only locus of DIY font-making activity on the Internet. DaFont.com includes download links to 8,031 free fonts arranged into 71 categories, including "Curly," "Celtic," "Fire/Ice," "Sexy," and "Army." Somebody's making these things—obsessing over serifs, tweaking stems and spurs, skipping story time with the kids so they can finesse the "ear" on a lowercase G. It's hard to think of a more frivolous pursuit. I just scrolled through the font list on my iMac, and it took me 10 full seconds. Operating systems these days ship with hundreds of fonts, from American Typewriter to Zapfino. Sure, if you're a graphic designer, you need extra fonts, custom fonts, the kind that happen to be hawked in a small advertising box to the side of every FontStruct window. (The program's creators are using the free tool to drive sales of their fancy, nonmodular fonts.) But the vast majority of FontStruct users aren't professional designers, just enthusiastic font geeks.

I know that because I'm one of them. FontStruct brings back a ton of memories; in college, I used to run my own free-font site called Alphabet Soup, where I uploaded cheapie fonts I made with a pirated version of a $300 program called Fontographer. Even today, when I self-Google, I mostly come up with links to my old, crappy fonts. (My secret fear is that no matter what I do as a reporter, the Monko family of fonts will remain my most durable legacy.)

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