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A new typeface, designed by algorithms instead of by hand

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Obsidian's aesthetic mimics the dawn of type design, but is completely computerized

Hoefler & Co.

Methods of type design have shifted over the years — from moveable type printing presses to copper plate engraving to modern design software — but fonts are still largely created by hand. And with globally successful fonts containing nearly 600 characters in various languages, a single typeface with several weights and styles can take a year or more to design.

A new algorithm places shadow gradients on typefaces

Now, design company Hoefler & Co., which names Nike, Starbucks, and Barack Obama among its clients, has figured out a way to expedite the process: algorithms. Company founder Jonathan Hoefler and Andy Clymer, senior designer at Hoefler, told Wired algorithms can start doing some of the work that previously fell to designers. This is true especially for ornamental fonts. Their vectors — graphic pathways that shift an image around stable points — must not only determine the curves of the letters, but also dimensions and lighting.

obsidian-font

The first font to get this treatment is Obsidian, a decorative, three-dimensional font inspired by the ornamental look of old maps. To give the font a contemporary feel, Clymer and Hoefler began with a popular type called Surveyor, and built Obsidian using its preexisting structure. Then they designed an algorithm which would rapidly light the 3D typeface and create the shadows necessary to show dimension. Because Obsidian was created in a virtual environment capable of simulating light on any letter in the set, the designers were freed from the task of painstakingly drawing shadows on each character.

"A whole new way of thinking about letters as a generative process."

"[Obsidian] is sort of computationally driven, it really has that kind of texture and dimensionality," Hoefler says. "For us it’s a whole new way of thinking about letters as a generative process."

The algorithm does fall short on one important mark: multiple use. Hoefler says the next challenge is how to re-use the algorithm without creating the same font. Because Obsidian's dimensions are computer-generated, its gradients are made up of digitally pinpointed pixels, not hand-crafted shadows, leaving less room for unique variations.

And that's where humans still have an advantage. The glacial process of type design, in which designers must individually tweak and nudge vectors to their liking, prevents the creation of exact replications — something the algorithm can't yet do.