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Homeless handwriting inspires fancy new fonts

A project that turns handwritten letters seen on homeless signs into fonts gets a big boost from global typeface provider Monotype.

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The same lettering used on homeless people's signs becomes fonts in the hands of Homeless Fonts. Homeless Fonts

If you ever buy Valonga olive oil, take a close look at the font on the bottle. It has thick, uneven strokes, a distinctly handwritten style, and quite a backstory.

The font was designed by Loraine Elghobari, a participant in Homeless Fonts, a project that sells licensed fonts created from the lettering seen on homeless people's signs, with the aim of bringing dignity to their lives and raising awareness of the challenges the homeless face. Long before becoming a typeface designer, Elghobari worked as a nurse in her home country of England. As a tourist in Spain five years ago, she had her passport stolen, the first in a string of misfortunes that left her living on the streets.

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Francisco, the man behind the Francisco font, says the streets have taught him how tough life can be. Juan Lemus

When she saw the "Loraine font" in its completed, usable version, "I was completely gobsmacked," the 60-year-old Elghobari recently said on the phone from Barcelona, where she currently lives in a rehabilitation facility following surgery for a tumor. "I've got this font and it's mine. It's something that I've done. It belongs to me."

The Loraine font, as well as the Guillermo font, the Francisco font and other Homeless Fonts, may be about to get far broader distribution. Monotype -- a global provider of typefaces whose customers include top laser-printer and mobile-phone manufacturers, as well as e-book and operating system vendors -- has just started offering the five original Homeless Fonts through its e-commerce sites.

All proceeds will go to the Barcelona-based Arrels Foundation, which helps set local homeless on the path to autonomy by offering housing, health care and projects such as Homeless Fonts (last year, Arrels worked with 1,354 people, 436 of whom actually sleep in the street). Arrels came up with the idea for Homeless Fonts with the help of advertising agency The Cyranos McCann.

"What makes the Homeless Fonts stand out is their purity and natural energy," Bill Davis, global font product manager at Monotype, told Crave. "These fonts capture the emotions, honesty and vitality of the handwriting of the people behind them."

Indeed, the fonts have an organic quality not seen in commonly used fonts. Some are bold and straightforward, others flowery. Some have a whimsical, childlike quality. All have the look of something handmade.

"What is most striking is the human traces you can see in the type," Ferran Busquets, director of the Arrels Foundation, told Crave. "To write on a computer a letter with handwritten type is really a stunning feeling. And the fact that that type is from someone that is usually 'invisible' to people gives it an extra value."

The Homeless Fonts sell for prices ranging from 19 euros (about $24) for a personal license to 290 euros (about $368) for a professional license. Among the fonts, Davis confesses to having a particular fondness for the Loraine font. "Her handwriting has a beautiful rhythm, with clarity and friendliness," he told Crave.

Last week, Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia published an article about Homeless Fonts, titled "Homeless but with typography," with a headline printed in the Loraine font. Valonga, in addition to using the Loraine font on some of its olive oil containers, will print another Homeless Font, the Luis Serra font, on some of its wine bottles.

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The Loraine font in action. Homeless Fonts

Elghobari refined the letters that became the Loraine font through typography workshops sponsored by the Arrels Foundation. A graphic designer guided participants through exercises using various types of paper, pens and brushes, asking them to write phrases seen on a computer screen, sometimes many times. Then he digitized the writing and turned it into typography.

"We had to do piles and piles of writing before he was happy with them, but then finally, [with] the end result, he was happy," Elghobari reported. "It wasn't the first one that he was using. It was always the second one. The second one always came out better for some reason."

So far, 10 homeless participants have shared their writing with Homeless Fonts, and Arrels hopes to broaden its database of these unique typefaces.

"All the participants of the Homeless Fonts project were homeless, and they know the importance of being seen like persons and not like bundles," Busquets of the Arrels Foundation said. "What we like most about this project is that people see there is a person behind each typeface."

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Loraine Elghobari holds a bottle of the Valonga olive oil bearing the Loraine font. Homeless Fonts