Ask a Font Creator: Advanced Font ID Techniques
Posted on 9th January 2017
I’ve seen an upswing lately, over on the What Font Is This? Facebook group, of people asking for the identity of a font when it’s not a font at all, but a piece of hand-lettering. So I thought as a follow up to my How to Identify a Mystery Font post, I’d go a little more in-depth with some of my font identification techniques, and get into how you can tell the difference between a font and lettering.
First, let’s touch on a little bit of vocab, because lettering can be used to make a font, but a font isn’t used to make lettering.
Hand-lettering is, as the name implies, lettering written out by hand. Some people might take their hand-lettering and bring it into a font creation program, thereby making font software out of their letters. Others may just write out a phrase, scan it into a computer, and create a digitized piece of written art. That would be hand-lettering, but not a font (or as I’ve seen some call it, a hand-lettered font) because it hasn’t been packaged up specifically into font software (usually a TTF or OTF file type).
So, now let’s check out some hints on how to tell the difference!
Here’s the same word twice: one of these is created using a font, while the other was written by hand. Place your bet first on which is which!
(The reason they look so similar is that the font is one of mine, Cherry Cordial. So when I created the hand-lettered version, I was able to use the same tools I used when I created the letters for the font.)
First off, let’s take a look at places where the same letter appears more than once. In this case, the word has three Es, so we can chop them all out and look at them together.
They’re all similar to each other, but in the top word, the Es are identical (aside from the spots where I wasn't terribly elegant in using the selection tool to cut them out). In the bottom row, you can see differences between the curves and the size of the eye in each of them. Now, some fonts will have sets of alternate letters built in, so there’s always a possibility that this phrase is using alternates. However, you will rarely ever see three alternates that are so similar to each other. You might find one similar alternate, but more than that would have swashes or flourishes or look distinctly different.
Next, take a look at where the letters connect with each other. In the majority of connecting script fonts, the designer will have most of the tails of their letters end in the same spot, so that the end user can be sure that whatever word they type, the letters will connect properly. Look at the top (which is the font, you may have guessed) – the connections aren’t perfectly lined up, but they make a fairly straight-ish line. For the hand-lettering on the bottom, the connections are all over the place. They don’t have to line up evenly, because the letterer doesn’t have to worry about those letters being used anywhere else than where they are.
Here’s another pair, and once again, one is a font (Virga) and the other is hand-lettered. (You can guess again, but I’m going to tell you which is which in just a sec.)
Another way to tell a font from lettering is to see how the tails of the letters connect to the next letters. With many fonts (like the one on the top), the tails will have a straight portion at the end, or will all end at the same angle. Look at those purple circles on the top: the lines inside are all at almost exactly the same angle, and they’re all pretty evenly spaced. As opposed to the bottom hand-lettered word, where the lines are at different angles and have different curves.
One more way you can differentiate between a font and hand-lettering is the width of the strokes. Here I’ve drawn wee squares and placed them on the wide downward strokes. In the font, the width of those strokes is constant – the square is 11 pixels by 11 pixels every time. The hand-lettering, however, has more variation in the stroke widths, as you can tell by the sizes of the squares.
(Some fonts do have a variation among the strokes, but in a great many of them, the designer has made the strokes fairly uniform to avoid any of the letters looking weirdly thick or thin next to the others.)
All right, now that those tips are on the table, let’s look at a real-world request that someone asked about. First we’ll see if it’s a font vs. hand-lettered, then we’ll try to identify the font.
This was posted to the What Font Is This? Facebook group recently. Let’s take a look at the script, keeping in mind the four points from above.
First, there are three instances of the letter E, and they look fairly uniform, so that points to this being a font. Next, all of the connections seem to happen at roughly the same height. If you drew a line that crossed through the tail end of the S at the end of Reyes, and the tail end of the O at the end of Pedro, most of the connections would fall along that line.
Next, let’s look at the tails, and the angles they connect to the next letters. They all have a fairly similar angle (and that uppercase R really gives a good idea of what that angle is). And last, there’s a consistent line width across all the letters. Looking at all of those things, we can be pretty sure that this is a font, not hand-lettering.
Before going to the work of editing this photo and picking apart the letters so I can run it through the font identifier websites, I figured I’d take a stab at a different approach. Because this image (text artistically placed on a photo) is the kind of thing that a font designer would make as a promo image, I figured I’d try running the whole thing through Tineye first.
Tineye lets you upload a photo, and will then spit out any matches to that photo it finds across the internet. In this case, it didn’t find a match with the text included, but it did identify the source of the stock photo. So no success this time, but it’s a great website to tuck away in your toolbox for future use.
So, onward. I inverted the colors, so the text would be black on white instead of white on black. Then I picked apart some of the more distinctive letters:
Most font identification sites don’t want too many letters, and they want the ones that really stand out as unique. I figured the two uppercase letters were definitely distinctive, and not many other fonts would have similar letters. I also tend toward anything with loops, like the ascenders and descenders of the D and Y.
But the lines of the strokes are so thin, my first font identification site of choice (WhatFontIs.com) is totally confused by these letters. It’s chopping them up in weird ways. But never fear! With something this distinctive, I’m going to go for it anyway. I’ve chosen the bits that have the largest percentage of each letter, and assigned the search letter to those. The rest, I won’t put anything in the box below the shape, and WhatFontIs will ignore those shapes.
And what do you know, it worked! Even with it only seeing the partial pieces, the font is so distinctive that it was identified as the first possible result. (The lowercase S is the only letter that’s different, but this font has alternates, so it’s likely that the S in our image is the alternate.)
So now you know the tools I use to spot the difference between script fonts and hand-lettered work!
But because I promised more font ID tips, how about we dig into some hints for how to identify more straightforward fonts, like serif or sans-serif?
Here’s the problem with trying to identify a sans-serif font. Depending on what letters you have, they could all look pretty much the same. Even the shortest one, the Breul Grotesk, would look much the same if it were stretched a little bit taller. (But don’t do that. Remember, every time you stretch a font, a designer cries.) Generally, though, if all you have is straight letters like E or L, you’re in for a rough time.
But change those letters to R, and you can really see the differences between these same five fonts! With a sans-serif font, I’ll always look to see if there’s an uppercase R. This is why the font identifier sites all say you should use the most distinctive letters of a font, for your best chance of finding a match.
What are some other letters that stand out in a plainer font?
For uppercase, besides R, G is always a good choice if you can get it. Some of them have a little “beard,” while some don’t. And G, S, and C all have different angles at the ends of their curves. Also, M can be quite different between fonts; some come to a point in the middle, others flat. Some reach all the way to the baseline in the middle, and others don’t make it that far down.
As far as lowercase, here are some letters to shoot for. The Gs are distinctly different here, with Arial having the “single story” G, and Alergia with the “two-story” G. Other things to look for are the curves of the F and T, as well as the length of the crossbars; the height of where the lines of the K come together, the curve at the bottom of the Y, and the shape of the A.
So, those are some of my secret tips and tricks that I use to help identify fonts for people! I hope you’re able to use them to identify fonts for yourself, or come on over to Facebook and help find fonts for other lost, lonely searchers.
As an exercise, let’s walk through one more font ID from start to finish.
This next pictures is of a box of fruit snacks I saw at the grocery store the other day. Loved the font, but I thought the color scheme might make it hard to isolate the letters. I took a picture straight on (if I’d taken the picture at an angle, I’d have to rotate my photo or skew it until the letters sat straight.)
Is it handwritten, or is it a font? My main clues are the two instances of the letter C and the letter R – they look almost identical. The only difference is in the open distressed spot in the curve of the C, but if you look at the tail of the A that leads into the second C, you can see that the tail of the A continues up into the C, covering over part of that distressed bit. From that alone, I’m fairly confident this is a font.
I brought it into Photoshop, cropped it down to just the letters, then changed it from color to black and white (you could do this either by dialing saturation all the way down, or using Image-Adjust-Black & White.
I was worried about the rainbow gradient on the text, but when it turned to grayscale, the text was fairly uniform in shade. Since the text was lighter than the background, I went into the Levels and moved my sliders left, in order to pump up the white (and turn the text from grey to white).
Then, because the font identifiers work a bit better with black-on-white text, I used the Invert feature to swap the shades. Black became white, and white became black.
Next, I went back to my levels, and once again pushed the sliders to the left, in order to get the grey background to turn white.
This was about as far as I could go before the text started getting white too. (You can see that the Y at the end is starting to lighten up.) There's also quite a bit of noise around everything, so I just took the brush tool and colored white over everything that wasn’t text. I also used the brush tool to go over the text with black, just to sharpen it up.
That left me with mostly-black text over a mostly-white background, which was good enough for me. Now, to chop the letters apart!
When separating the letters of a script font, be sure to grab a little bit beyond the tail. Here you can kind-of sort-of see the dashed line from my selector tool. These script letters are designed to overlap a little bit, so when they’re typed out, they all merge into each other. So just grab a little bit extra beyond the tail, at the same angle the tail is heading when it disappears into the next letter.
Here are my separated letters. I’ve left out the I, because the font identifiers can get confused by the tittle (dot) and think it’s a separate character. I’ve also left out the second C and the second R, because the font identifier will only look at the first instance of a letter, and ignore any other instances of that letter that you identify.
And there it is, the first result! Because I took the time beforehand to give the font identifier a clean, sharp, well-separated set of letters, it made it the font easy to identify. And even though this looks like it took a ton of work, it was really only about ten minutes total. and that includes taking screenshots as I went. So don't be intimidated!
I hope these tips help you find the fonts of your dreams when you see them!
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