Can an Algorithm Design a Typeface?

[responsive]typeface[/responsive]Can technology replace the creative hand of the font designer? According to Lizzie Plaugic in The Verge, we might be close.

“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,” she writes.

“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,” Plaugic continues.

Case in point is the new typeface “Obsidian,” a 3D font inspired by the look of vintage maps. To create it, Hoefler and his team designed an algorithm to add light, shadows and dimension to existing typeface “Surveyor.”

“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,” Plaugic notes.

The results are lovely. Yet there is a drawback, as Hoefler notes, in that the algorithm at present cannot be reused without creating the same font.

“And that’s where humans still have an advantage,” says Plaugic. “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.”

Meanwhile font designers are on notice; technology is nipping at their heels.