Many type designers design their fonts directly on screen,
without paper drawings as a source. This is fine, but even
the best have been known to turn to the pencil and hand to
get a curve just right. Then they need to somehow transfer
that drawing to the computer and use it as a guide for drawing
Bézier curves. Others of us, especially when working
on non-roman scripts, rely heavily on drawings or other samples
as the basis for new fonts. So, most type designers eventually
need to get design info into the computer via the scanning
The nicest way to do this is to scan the drawing/sample and
then bring it into Freehand or Illustrator (which allows drawing
over a grayscale image). These programs, however, are not
ideal for designing fonts. You will still need to get the
outlines into Fontographer somehow. Note: FontLabs ScanFont
program may be the best scanning tool yet, but I havent
Here are some notes (compiled some time ago) that outline
the process Ive used with Fontographer and Photoshop
on the Macintosh. All but the last section ought to be relevant
whatever design program you use. These notes were compiled
from a talk I gave to a few of my font design apprentices
in August 2001. Thanks to Steve Pillinger for his help in
recording these notes.
Scan the image
- Prepare the image for scanning.
- If at all possible, do not use originals less than
- When possible, use samples that include the letters
on either side of the target letter as a guide to spacing.
- Especially for letters from rough-and-ready sources
(e.g. printed books), choose several different instances
of each letter. Scan each of them, and then assemble
a consistent alphabet using the best. The smaller the
original letters, the more scans are needed.
- If the source image is your own drawing or calligraphy,
add at least two horizontal lines (typically
baseline and x-height). This will make it easier to
align the image after scanning, and keep scaling consistent.
- Put the original drawing as straight as possible
on the scanner platen. You will later check to be sure
the scan is aligned, but getting this at least close can
- For ease, scan using a Photoshop plug-in, not
the standalone scanner software. You'll be adjusting
the image in Photoshop later, anyway.
- Set plug-in settings.
- Scan in grayscale. This preserves the edges
of the letters better. You will be adjusting levels
later to define the edges more strongly, so its
OK if everything ends up mostly gray.
- Set the scanning resolution according to the height
of your originals. Each letter should end up around
300-400 pixels high (that seems to work best with Fontographer).
For example, if your letters are around 0.5" high,
then use a resolution of 600-800 DPI. If they are an
inch high, use 300-400 DPI. Theres little reason
to scan any finer than that if you're using Fontographerit
won't be reflected in the Fontographer background image
and may even result in a worse background!
- Be sure to use a resolution that is a whole-number
factor or multiple of your scanners optical
resolution. On a 300 DPI scanner, use either 150 or
300 DPI, not 200. On a 1200 DPI one, choose 300/400/600/1200,
not 800 DPI.
- Scan the image, whole page(s) at a time. Then you
can adjust levels, etc. on all the letters consistently.
If you need the letters to be in separate files, scan one
big image, adjust, then copy portions into new, smaller
Adjust the image in Photoshop
- Check each image for horizontal alignment. The
easiest way to do this is to set a horizontal guide by dragging
one out of the top ruler. Place the guide right at one of
the baselines shown in the image. If the baseline is not
absolutely aligned with the guide, use the rotate image
command to fix it. I prefer to use numerical rotations (e.g.,
0.7° counter-clockwise) with a lot of trial and error,
because my hand and eye are not that steady!
- Adjust the levels of the black channel. What
you do in this step is critical to the weight of your resulting
font! The end goal is to get an image that has a completely
white background, and very black letters. Consult your documentation
on details of how to adjust levels for your version of Photoshop.
- Try automatic adjustment of levels first. This will,
frankly, rarely suffice.
- Adjust the left and right sliders to get a nice, clean
background (without a lot of gray noise) and strong,
- Adjust the middle slider (the mid-range) to set how
heavy the letters appear. Be sure that the result
looks like what you want from your typeface. The
adjustment of this slider (in combination with the left
and right ones) can affect whether the font ends up
having a light, regular, or semi-bold weight. It can
also affect how sharp corners becomeheavy, black
scans tend to have more rounded edges.
- If you have more than one image to process, write
down the numeric description of the adjustment so that
you can do an identical adjustment to other images.
- Apply the adjustment and save your work!
- Select the part of the image, and copy it to the clipboard.
- Use the appropriate tool to select not only the target
letter, but the letters on either side (if the original
had letters spaced together). This will be a useful
guide to spacing later in the design process.
- Contrary to what others recommend, it is not
necessary to draw any boxes on your original, or be
careful that your selection is always the same height.
The import process described below eliminates this need.
- In some cases it may be useful to use Photoshop to
convert the image to a bitmap image from the
grayscale before this stepexperiment to see what
works best for you!
Import into Fontographer
- Start Fontographer and open your font file (or
create a new one).
- Set font-wide font metrics. Before you paste anything,
set some basic font parameters in the Edit/Font Info...
dialog box (ascent/descent). This is to establish the position
of your baseline.
- Paste in the copied image. Open the character window
for your target letter and option-paste the image
(ALT-CTRL-V on Windows). This will place the image
into the template layer. Be sure to use option-paste,
not just paste. This will override Fontographers
automatic scaling, which normally will resize the image
to the em-square, with the result that letters end up scaled
differently. Note: if you already have an outline or template
image in that character location, and want to replace it,
option-paste the image onto the character slot in
the font window instead.
- Rescale and align the pasted image. The previous
step will usually result in a letter that is much too large,
and misaligned with the baseline.
- Go to the template layer, select the bitmap
image by clicking on it, then shift-drag on one of the
corners to scale it uniformly down (or up, if necessary)
to the approximate size you want.
- Then drag the image so that the image baseline is
aligned with Fontographers baseline. Zoom in if
you need to.
- Continue to scale and align until you get it just
- Alternatively, select the image and do all your scaling
via the Element/Transform... dialog (using trial and
error to determine the final correct scale factor).
Then use the same scaling factor for other letters.
You will still need to align each letter separately.
If you plan to do this, you could skip the next two
- Set a second guideline. Go the the guides
layer, click on the baseline and drag up to create a new
horizontal guideline at the same place as your second drawn
guideline (typically at the x-height).
- Repeat the steps for all other letters. This time,
use the baseline and new guideline as guides for alignment
Draw the letter(s)
- Do not auto-trace. It takes far longer to
clean up an auto-traced image than to manually trace it.
If youre not feeling comfortable with drawing Bézier
curves, then youll find cleaning up bad ones even
more frustrating. I know its tempting, though. The
one exception to this is if you are intentionally wanting
a rough-looking font, such as one from typewriter with a
- Dont follow the scan slavishly. Remember
that, for the most part, you are wanting to design a font
that is based on, not an micron-by-micron copy of, your
original (if you wanted that you ought to be using a drum
scanner and high-end tracing software). Feel free to depart
from the scans when necessary.
- Consistency may be more important than fidelity.
The usefulness of most digital typefaces is dependent heavily
on the consistency of strokes, so you will probably want
to keep them the same width, even if that means ignoring
inconsistencies in the scanned letters. Again, there are
situations (such as with some typeface revivals) when you
will want to retain inconsistencies.
- On the other hand, shape is more important than consistency.
Some amount of regularization is normal, but its easy
to overdo it and lose some of the fonts character.
Don't sacrifice key aspects of the letters shape for
the sake of consistency, or to get a perfect curve.
- Draw one letter, then use that outline as the basis
for the next. For example, if you draw the n
first, and get the stroke weights just right, then use that
as the basis for h. Copy the outline from n
to h, then extend the ascender up to the height as
specified in the scan. Then go and change the serif shape
if you want to. Use the scan as a guide to help you draw
a good letter, not as a prescriptive source as to exactly
how that letter should look. This is especially true
if you are preparing a font from your own scanned drawings.
A note on ethics
Just because you can scan letters and turn them into a digital
typeface doesnt mean that you ought to. If they are
your own drawings, or scans of pre-1900 books that you own,
then youre fine. But if, for example, you want to replicate
a typeface that was produced by Monotype in the 1960's, then
you need Monotypes permission. If you are wanting to
do a revival of a face from 1750, and you have photographs
youve taken of a book in a library, then you ought to
get permission from that library to use the images for a commercial
purpose (assuming you wish to sell the font).
Im not trying to be dogmatic here. Im just trying
to encourage you to support the companies that invested in
the original typefaces and those institutions that preserve
rare books (at sometimes great expense to them).