Handwritten Fonts—A Report from Pen to Pixel
If you enjoy quality paper, nice notebooks, and a good pen, you almost have to enjoy something about handwriting—not just the way it can capture a thought, but the way it actually feels to write. It’s enjoyable in the same way that a violinist enjoys playing the violin: if nothing else, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time.
Of course, what’s fun about handwriting is that it looks a certain way, too. No two people write by hand in exactly the same manner, and it’s easy to understand why. Our hands are all different strengths and sizes and vary in dexterity. Everyone is used to different writing utensils. Everyone learned letters and writing differently depending upon their teachers (and their teachers' habits and opinions). Everyone was exposed to different versions of written and printed language. Plus, of course, we all write the way we want to (or need to) at any given moment.
But in this modern age, less and less is handwritten. More is digital. We’re not opposed to this (we’re believers in both), but we can’t deny that digital lacks the same personal touch. Even if you’ve got a thousand fonts—and even if, as we discussed last week, you’ve got equipment that makes computing enjoyable—none of the fonts you choose will visually reflect you, nor will they have had the same quality of tactile input.
So when we discovered that you could convert your handwriting into a font, and therefore maybe create a font that would look like you, it caught our attention. The idea of a more personalized font, something beyond just your signature, was pretty cool. Aspirations were high, even if expectations weren't.
We approached with a fair bit of skepticism—not on concept, but on execution. You can't see into the MyScriptFont programmatic box, so it was a mystery exactly how it would process the letter forms into a legible, repeatable font. We weren’t sure how the results would turn out, but since people are clever enough to programmatically figure out our tastes in music—or, in the font world, to design a font that helps dyslexic people read more easily—we figured it was worth a try. Hey, maybe the program would be clever enough.
Go Font Yourself
We didn’t want to get the letter forms wrong, so a “control sample” was in order first. However, with a few printed copies of their worksheet, it became clear that we might be overthinking it. Following the directions, we grabbed a medium-thick black felt pen (read: standard Sharpie with point intact) and got to work.
After a couple trial runs to get comfortable with the lines, the letters were filled in carefully but otherwise thoughtlessly, always reaching the baseline and stretching to appropriate height, but in whatever ways felt natural. After a couple more tries we had a worksheet where everything looked about right.
At this point, all you have to do is scan the page and upload it, then their generator does the rest. But we still had to scan the page somehow. Our first thought was an iPhone camera, since that seemed like the option most people would try first. But no matter the conditions, we couldn’t get an iPhone picture to output a legible font. When we saw that Buzzfeed’s quick test had experienced the same problem, out came the actual scanner. (At this point, people without scanners, which is quite a few, become ineligible to even try.)
We were able to get it to output a legible font (more on that in a minute), but even the scans were temperamental; using the same sheet, some scans would result in a legible font while other scans would overlap letter forms, garble them, or omit them entirely. It was just blind trial and error to get it to work.
As for the font itself? It was . . . okay. Here's one of the tidier results:
Even though we were pretty sure we’d consistently set characters on the baseline, the letters had a tendency to jump up and down, like someone had attached our otherwise-articulate hands to children making a school poster. Plus, being Sharpie-weight as the instructions directed, the letters are all perma-bold and thus couldn’t be used for any smaller text. By contrast, here's how the actual hand would have written that sentence on demand:
We wondered if we could make a demi weight of our handwriting instead. Maybe a typical, crappy ballpoint pen wouldn’t do in the scans—but what about a nice, heavy, free-flowing fountain pen? Surely, that could work—but alas, no scan of it ever processed correctly, as it did for the Sharpie.
Maybe our ambitions for it were too grand; we’d have loved to write something lofty and beautiful on our computers like we do in our letters and journals. But this is about the best we could do:
Well, We Tried
So the “turn your handwriting into a font” thing is a gimmick, albeit a fun one. Your mileage may vary, of course, and with some fiddling you could wind up with something neat for personal use. But, unless you’re willing to painstakingly draw out your letter forms and learn how vectors and other scalable images work—the way professional typographers and font designers do—you’re not going to have something font-worthy.
We became unusually conscious of the feeling and process of handwriting while trying to get this working, and upon closer examination, what makes handwriting fun is all of the ways that it’s irregular. Little features always change, whether it’s how you form double letters, how you drop and curl a lowercase “g” and others, how you compact certain words’ letters together, how you place emphasis without even realizing it. Writing is the brain’s way of solving a problem as it describes it, of assigning meaning intentionally to words—and that absolutely plays out through our hands, in the way we write.
Not only could we never truly duplicate handwriting digitally, but we’d have lost the point if we could. We need both. So don’t retire your good pens and sturdy paper just yet—and if you’re going to fiddle with your handwriting, just practice it working on something you care about. When you look back on the work, you’ll be able to read further into it than you remembered.
If you'd like the book we were writing in, check out our gray Origin notebook. We'll be talking more about the pen, and others like it, next week!
One postscript: if you want to step up your font game, it can be worth your while to spring for some professionally-designed fonts (because who doesn’t get tired of Helvetica and Times New Roman?). Even if you’re not a designer, they can add some subtle but radiant layers of swag to your documents—and, if you’re the kind of person who notices fonts, you’ll really enjoy getting to use them on a daily basis. As with everything, choose what you like and can afford; a couple of our favorites are Equity and Concourse by Matthew Butterick, for example.