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]!"

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.)

I was a minuscule part of the great grunge-font craze of the late '90s, ignited by the bad boy of graphic design, David Carson—an ex-surfer who took over RayGun magazine and turned it into a punk-rock version of Rolling Stone, a bible of the ugly/pretty/ugly aesthetic. Carson's movement was fueled by hundreds of young dabblers like me. In our dorm rooms, we churned out distressed versions of workaday fonts: smeary Helveticas, grimy Garamonds. The self-seriousness behind it all seems strange when I look back, but it was actually in keeping with the manifesto-laden history of graphic design. One of the most famous designers of all time, Jan Tschichold, famously issued a diktat against the use of serif faces, decreeing that the only honest letterforms were sans-serifs. The Nazis, who preferred "blackletter" fonts with heavy, ominous down strokes—what came to be known as "jackboot grotesques," according to art historian Stephen Eskilson—put him in prison.

The FontStruct community represents the opposite of all of that. FontStruct is about fun and lighthearted experimentation, the pure joy of making letterforms. If the fonts on the site embrace any aesthetic, it's the freewheeling kitsch of the early days of desktop publishing, when programs like Adobe PageMaker brought the tools of graphic design to the masses well before the masses knew what to do with them. This led to some heinous crimes against the craft, like annual reports plastered with novelty fonts. You'll find some of that 1980s exuberance in FontStruct's offerings, like a font that has hairdos, and a font that looks like a city skyline, and a font that's a bunch of adorable monkeys. But the program also inspires subtler fits of out-of-the-box image-making. Check out the very sexy Structurosa Script, a font that is "cute but also menacing," as one commenter accurately observes, and WPA Gothic, modeled on New Deal-era posters and dripping with gravitas and retro cool. My favorite FontStruction is probably SlabStruct Too, a font that's simultaneously meaty and understated, elegant and crisp. (The best part is that I didn't have to dig through pages and pages of lesser fonts to find these gems, because FontStruct has a star-based rating system similar to YouTube's.)

The FontStruct aesthetic is largely a function of the font-making application. Unlike the gold-standard program for making fonts, Fontographer, which can turn any shape into a letter, FontStruct imposes constraints. It doesn't let you make just any shape; you're limited to the "bricks" FontStruct provides. Also, your font has to be "modular," the letters conforming to a standard grid (which precludes overly fancy cursive strokes). FontStruct is the Casiotone keyboard of font-making. Maybe you can use it to bang out a credible pop song. Beethoven? No way.

And yet, as often happens in art, aesthetic limitations breed creativity. The most ambitious FontStruct users have created letterforms so ornate you'd never believe they're derived from a set of prefab shapes. One particularly heroic FontStruct auteur, Wolfgang Krimmel, who seems to be an actual graphic design pro—a ringer!—has constructed two fonts that resemble the text from illuminated manuscripts. Dabblers like me also benefit from the program's limitations. As soon as I registered and clicked "Create New FontStruction," I began to draw short, fat, blocky letters just a few pixels high. Then I realized I could make the letters as high as I wanted, so I used cut-and-paste tools to elongate my A and B and C until they were tall and thin and imposing, like the alien ships in War of the Worlds. Then—I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this—I used one of the program's many editing shortcuts to make it look as if my letters were composed of five-pointed stars. Just because I could. Serendipity is the whole point. FontStruct forces you to be open-minded, to be kind toward the unexpected forms you stumble into. And because FontStruct lets you preview your letters with one click, you can decide instantly whether to keep your changes or sprint off in a completely new direction.

This instant-gratification quality is the true appeal of FontStruct and of font-making in general. There's something about that moment when your own letters begin to flash across the screen. Partly, it's sheer childlike bliss—after all, how many hours do we spend as kids learning how to write in cursive, writing our name over and over, regarding our handwriting, hoping it's special, stylish, distinguishable from the next kid's? But it's also satisfying in a distinctly grown-up way. If you're reading this, you're probably like me, and you have a job in which you stare at a screen all day. And it's not even your screen. It's somebody else's pixels and windows and letters. Make a font and you start to screw with the scenery—the banal yet elemental DNA of your daily existence. It's as if you could design and build your own subway turnstile or change the color of a Starbucks cup from off-white to fuchsia. Here's a program that lets you commit a small, safe, infinitesimally subversive act and then share it with the world. FontStruct may make it worth aspiring to be a little Frutiger, after all.