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.

An Enchanted Alphabet

I have a special affection for decorated letters, especially the ornamented designs of the nineteenth century. You know the kind: they're chubby Regency typefaces, slab serifs or high-contrast ‘Fat Faces,’ mostly, whose surfaces are emblazoned with intricate patterns or pastoral scenes. The collection of L. J. Pouchée contains some genuine masterpieces that I’ve long admired, letters festooned with grapevines or peonies or cobblestones, or illuminated with bucolic vignettes of farmer at the plough. “We should really do something in this vein,” I once said to Tobias. “Covered in fax machines, or pigeons?” he quipped. I dropped the topic.

Designer Jeanie Nelson has picked it up. On her blog Jeanie & Jewell, she’s exhibiting a wonderful collection of ornamented capitals of her own invention, and they are absolutely enchanting. There are so many things to love about these that I hardly know where to begin: the cheery colors whose roles change from letter to letter, the witty imagery that conceals more than a few oblique puns, the whimsical way she tweaks the nose of typographic convention whenever the spirit moves her. (Most type designers start with the sober letter H that serves as a template for the rest of the design; Jeanie Nelson’s H, right now, is having more fun than any H that’s ever lived.) I’m delighted by this design not only because of its squirrels, dragons, pineapples and ice cream cones, but because it pays homage to a potent and beloved historical style without ever becoming a stuffy museum piece in period dress. That the koala bear in the K is climbing a letter made of wood just makes it doubly fantastic. —JH

Things We Love

Typeface: Knockout

When we designed the Knockout type family, which celebrates the exuberance of nineteenth century wood type, we wondered: what designer would knowingly use the fonts to recall a world of quack medical cures and traveling vaudevillians? The answer, as it so often turns out to be, is “smart aleck Canadian advertising agencies.” Behold the truly excellent Grip Limited, who have created a typographic tour-de-force in Knockout (and a little Archer) that really repays scrolling in all directions. I especially like the end of the second column. —JH

Wearable Rococo

Look up and you’ll see the floriated, ornamented, shaded letters of the H&FJ logo (l. gravura tuscana), as well as an italic cousin used for the News, Notes & Observations nameplate. I have a special fondness for these kinds of letters, which reflect a synthesis of traditions from both typemaking and engraving. Is it therefore any wonder that I love these alphabet brooches from Bena Clothing, spotted by our friends at Design Sponge? They’re made from laser-etched cheery veneer over mahogany, thoughtfully offered as set of 53 pieces with duplicates of popular letters. (I wonder how the frequency distribution of initials differs from that of other kinds of words: extra Js, I imagine?) —JH

Your project exceeds the 1,000k limit, so your changes have not been saved.

Try adding fewer fonts, fewer styles, or configuring the fonts with fewer features.