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What Is Algorithmic Typography? Will It Replace Font Designers?

By on May 2, 2016 in Design Trends
What Is Algorithmic Typography? Will It Replace Font Designers?

Algorithmic typography, also known as “parametric typography,” is a fascinating thing. At a glance, however, it can be hard to tell what it even is. After all, modern typography is already made with computer programs. Not to mention all the algorithm-based tools designed to make the typographers' jobs easier. The Golden Ratio Calculator, for example, uses one to generate the optimum number of characters per line for any given block of text.

Algorithmic typography is radically different from even that, though. Instead of a designer opening a graphic design program and shaping individual letters based on his or her artistic sensibilities, a mathematician comes up with a set of formulae that define attributes for the whole batch. They can either use this to create a desired effect, or just apply them to an alphabet and sees what happens, and the resulting uses range from the utilitarian to the bizarre: here are just a few of them...

A Timesaving Device

Modern fonts require more than 600 characters, so on the utilitarian side, if you can come up with an algorithm that defines the properties of the font—serifs, distinctive curves, and so on—you can save yourself a lot of time making hundreds of characters look the same. And if you start with a base, algorithms can be used to modify the whole character set at once: much like the faux bold, italics, and small caps features that come standard with countless programs, but far more nuanced and effective.

Elementar is a font system designed to make digital typography more flexible. It lets typographers freely adjust the heights, widths, and shapes of letters, so they can use as many variations as they want in the same document, creating variety without sacrificing coherence or the money it would take to buy a ton of slightly-different fonts any other way. It’s also very useful for creating animated text.

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Image from Fast Company.

More recently, designer Andy Clymer developed Obsidian, for which he used code to simulate light falling on the letterforms, eliminating the need to draw the shading lines by hand.

Pin ItImage from Typography.com.

A Canvas for Experimentation

Edging into the bizarre is Yeohyun Ahn’s work, which is often held up as an example of what the art form can do. She uses code to generate decorative letterforms from scratch, including letters made of bubbles, letters inspired by reproductive organs, and letters that evoke explosions of tree branches.

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To do that, she uses a code library called Geomerative that lets the user create new letterforms using geometric equations, then converts them to TrueType and SVG fonts. It’s a recurring name in the world of algorithmic type; Caligraft has also used it to create letters emulating smoke, sketch lines, and fireworks; and Germany’s Generative Typografie employed it in the creation of letters made of countless stringy grids. There’s even a burgeoning Generative Typography group on Flickr, dedicated to type made with rule systems and algorithms, as well as simulations.

Algorithms let you experiment with more than the decorative, too. MIT professors have used math-generated typefaces to demonstrate theorems.

Pin ItImage from ScienceNews

Amazing, no doubt. But could it cheapen the field?

A Replacement?

Advances like this tend to change industries for the better and the worse simultaneously. While they let creatives take their art to new heights, they also open the gate for anyone to enter. Photographers complain about iPhones and cheap DSLRs letting people with no training think they can do their job better than them. Illustrators moan about tablets and image editors flooding the market with amateurs willing to work for a pat on the head.

Typography has always been an arcane art compared to photography and drawing, but it’s becoming less so with every bit of technology that lets ordinary folks get into it. Will the automation of the process via algorithms be the tipping point?

One online tool that’s making it easier for users is called Metaflop. Much like Elementar, it lets users modify three base sans-serif fonts right in their browsers, then download the results and begin using them in documents right away. Perhaps, in the future, anyone will be able to make their own fonts with code snippets or simple batch editors, removing the need for all but the most dedicated type fans to hire a professional.

Pin ItImage from Metaflop

But In Reality...

The truth, as always, probably doesn’t fit neatly within any of these categories. When design researcher Daniel Davis experimented with algorithmic typography for his PhD thesis, he found that “the graphics overpower the text, the message lost in the medium.” Since typography is still about conveying a message at its core, this just goes to show that no tool is a cure-all.

In fact, it’s more likely that, for those of us already dedicated to exploring what computers can do with letters, this will open up a whole new field to explore. Ahn speculates that in the near future, typographers might be able to base new fonts off things like data harvested from social media sites. Who knows what's possible? Fonts that change with the seasons or the reader's location? Fonts that slowly evolve by themselves over time? The only limits are what we’re willing to do with them.


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C.S. Jones is a freelance writer, artist, and photographer. In the past, he co-founded an art gallery and worked at a product photography studio. These days, he does photo tutorials (and gigs), online copy, and content marketing for a living. He also writes about webcomics at Webcomicry.com.

4 Comments

  1. I saw a project like this on Kickstarter a while back called Prototypo. It made font making look really easy by modifying everything together.

  2. Can an algorithm think like a human? Does it in any way have some level of understanding? Then we designers have a few years left, don't we?

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