Introducing Obsidian

I’ve always wanted to create a decorative display face in the Regency style, one of those stout, industrial alphabets enlivened by bright, detailed illumination. Toward the end of our Surveyor project, a deep exploration of engraved map lettering, this idea started to feel especially relevant: engraved maps were often badged with elaborate title pieces, and the more time we spent with these hatched and shadowed letters, the more we could imagine how some of their visual qualities could be successfully interpreted in a contemporary typeface — and one that would be useful and relevant to designers today. But then there was the matter of draftsmanship: how do you do it? Type design is still largely a manual art, and the thought of devoting years of our lives to drawing tiny curlicues was a bleak prospect indeed. Like the best of dead ends, this was where things started to become interesting.

I’d been discussing this puzzle with Andy Clymer, a senior typeface designer at H&Co. As part of the Surveyor design team, Andy had spent a lot of time with the heaviest members of that family, the ones most closely connected with the Regency style. An accomplished programmer and a procedural thinker generally, Andy had taken a short sabbatical in 2013 to attend the first class of the School for Poetic Computation, an artist-run school in New York that explores the intersections of code, design, and theory. Returning with some fresh ideas about particle studies and 3D modeling, Andy and I met to reframe the project: what sorts of rapid prototyping tools could we build to help explore different options, and how might these help us execute our ideas across the massive scale demanded by a contemporary typeface? Not content to be a mere set of decorated capitals, our typeface would need 1,400 glyphs spanning both roman and italic styles, bringing its esprit to the most esoteric of punctuation marks and accents.

Ultimately, Andy’s scripts would become an entire suite of proprietary tools for interpreting two-dimensional letterforms as three-dimensional objects, through the application of virtual light sources that vary in position, angle, and intensity. Like the best projects at H&Co, the typeface was shaped not only by exchanges between designer and editor, but by the iterative cycle of what the tools can do, what we need the tools to do, and what the tools turn out to be able to do that we didn’t foresee going in. After 53 weeks in development, I’m proud to present a project that seemed unattainable just 54 weeks ago: the new Obsidian typeface, from the designers at H&Co.

Introducing Surveyor

We’re delighted to introduce Surveyor, a new family of fonts for print and web, and sizes large and small.

I love maps, and not just for their vintage charm. I admire them as highly functional pieces of design, packing extraordinary amounts of information into small spaces, and invisibly educating readers about how they’re meant to be read. Spend a few moments with a map, and you’ll find that you’ve learned to distinguish counties, cities, and towns by the styles of type they use, without ever checking the legend. And these are just three of a typical map’s two dozen styles of lettering.

Surveyor® is a new family of fonts inspired by the traditional mapmaker’s letter. It revives a style of lettering that’s unique to cartography, one that evolved in the early nineteenth century and endured for as long as maps were printed by engraving. Beyond reviving the shapes of these alphabets, Surveyor celebrates what maps do best, by providing an expressive typographic vocabulary to help designers articulate many different kinds of information. A peek at Surveyor’s style list hints at what’s possible.

We’ve designed Surveyor in three optical sizes: a Text version for body copy, a Display cut for headlines, and a Fine for sizes larger still. Surveyor goes beyond the mapmaker’s roman and italic by including five weights, each of them outfitted with both roman and italic small caps, swash caps, and swash small caps. In its Text size, Surveyor features tabular figures, fractions, and symbols, to help it conquer the most demanding content. And for Cloud.typography users, we’ve created Surveyor ScreenSmart, a family of webfonts for text that contains all of these advanced typographic features, engineered to work in the browser at sizes as small as nine pixels.

Fantasy League Typography

One of the things I most love about the design of the late nineteenth century is its unpredictability. Across all of the decorative arts there was a strong emphasis on novelty, and a succession of new technologies made it easier than ever to execute these strange and untested ideas. (You can see this in the terra cotta work of architect Louis Sullivan, or the elaborate inlays of furniture designer Gustav Herter.) The period was a riot of ornament, and to be sure, much of the work was awful: most of what we remember today is hopelessly cliché, or cloyingly overwrought. But then there are moments like these.

Above is a piece of nineteenth century engraving, which looks as if it might have been the product of a CalArts group project by Wim Crouwel and Louise Fili. (The rest of my fantasy league is no less oddball; images after the jump evoke Jonathan Barnbrook vs. John Downer, and Max Kisman vs. Marian Bantjes.) These excerpts come from an incredible collection of American sheet music from the period 1850-1920, currently being exhibited online by Duke University. The documents from the 1870s are my favorites, many of which are from the hand of an engraver named Reed (note his signature hiding in the fourth image below.) His stylistic pairings are among the more remarkable — above, the constructed sans serif and swelled rules are unexpected bedfellows. But some of my favorite moments are those in which unrelated visual agendas collide in the letterforms themselves. Is there anything more fabulous than the monoline blackletter of “Mazurka Elegante” below, or the squared-off shapes of the final line, “Tiny Birdlings of the Air?” Will you check out that lowercase g? —JH

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