Inside Obsidian

We’re delighted that Fast Company has recognized our Obsidian typeface in this year’s Innovation by Design Awards, and thought we’d mark the occasion with a behind-the-scenes look at some of the technology, history, and design thinking that went into this one-of-a-kind typeface.

1. The roots of the Obsidian typeface begin with Surveyor, a family of fonts designed at H&Co which revive the style of roman and italic letterforms native to engraved maps of the nineteenth century. The more time we spent with this historical material, the more charmed we were by engraved title pieces like the one above, in which letters are decorated with elaborate hatching on their faces and in their shadows. This example, from Asher & Adams’ New Topographical Atlas and Gazetteer of New York (1881) is typical of the period: only the list of cities is set in movable type, the rest was lettered by an engraver, working by hand, at actual size, in reverse, with a burin on a copper plate.

2. In response to the rise of commercial engraving, which provided new and sophisticated ways to dress letters, nineteenth century type foundries introduced ever more decorative typefaces to mimic this new style. The typefaces above, made by Bruce’s New-York Type-Foundry and shown in their voluminous type specimen book of 1883, reveal some of the limits of typefounding. Where engravers were free to vary their letters to best suit a single situation, typeface designers have always been tasked with creating a group of consistent letters that can be used in different combinations, without manual intervention. Above, each letter E used in “Gutenberg” is identical; compare this with the subtle variations in each of the three letter As used in the “Asher & Adams” engraving (figure 1.)

As we explored this fertile period in lettering, we came away with five goals for our project. The first was to create a new typeface which evoked these styles, without referencing any one specific artifact. The second was to deliberately create a design that would be of service to contemporary designers, and not merely a museum piece. The third, most practically, was to ensure that we wouldn’t have to spend the rest of our lives working on so elaborate a project. So the fourth was to come up with a new set of tools, which would help us both explore new directions and execute our drawings. The fifth and final goal was the most challenging: to ensure that the tools we created would produce letterforms that looked warm and organic, not mechanically processed.

3. Modern typeface designers draw fonts by manually plotting every line and curve in every letterform. Even simple shapes require complex geometry: above left is a straightforward ampersand, constructed of 36 connected curves. Elaborate typefaces like Obsidian, at right, are unmanageably tortuous: this ampersand alone would require the designer to draw and coordinate 284 different curves, defined by placing more than 1,100 points. Early in the development of the project, it was clear that even the process of sketching possible directions would need the help of a new and heretofore unimagined set of tools.

4. Building on a font whose exterior outlines had been completed, H&Co Senior Designer Andy Clymer created a suite of proprietary tools to help apply complex decorations to font outlines. The process begins by dividing each of the more than 1,400 characters in the family into individual “panels” (above right), each defined by western and eastern edges, shown here in green and orange. These panels would serve as the foundation of the ornamentation to follow.

5. Once the panels are established, a script divides each panel into slices, giving the font’s designers their first glimpse of what a “hatched” version of the typeface will look like. The number of slices for each panel can be adjusted independently, to give the resulting letterform a more consistent texture: at right, different parts of this ampersand are divided into four, five, or six slices.

6. Having chosen the number of slices for each panel, the tools then divide each slice into a series of shorter segments. The angle of each segment is compared to the direction of an imagined light source, to determine how “bright” it should be. Segments on the western and eastern faces are oppositely illuminated, to create the illusion of dimensionality.

7. Finally, in its most complicated bit of mathematics, the software interprets the brightness of these connected segments as a set of continuous curves, and generates its first draft as a working font. This font is used to create proofs that demonstrate the design in a variety of contexts, which the project’s designers review together.

8. During a font’s development, some of the biggest steps forward happen during the exchanges between designer and editor. H&Co founder Jonathan Hoefler serves the company’s designers as editor-in-chief, working with designers to refine and articulate a font’s goals, identify its most successful features, and recommend strategies to improve its look and performance. Some of these comments inspired Clymer not only to try new things with the design, but to build new features into the underlying font tools themselves.

9. A refined version of the tools allowed different parts of a character to be illuminated differently, to achieve a more consistent overall effect. (1) A raked light from above gives a ‘ball terminal’ greater clarity; (2) rotating the light source provides more balanced illumination to the banana-shaped bowl on the left side; (3) sidelighting the main diagonal stroke gives it a defining contrast. The final character (4) is a composite of these different highlights.

10. Above left, the first draft of Obsidian’s ampersand, compared with the final version at the right, reflecting ten months worth of revisions. Still another generation of Obsidian’s tools made it possible to vary not only the angle of each light source, but also its intensity, to help the designers better accentuate those details that best conveyed the illusion of dimensionality. Small details, like the tight interior corners, were refined by hand.

11. Surprisingly, it was the plainest letters in the alphabet that proved the most difficult to shade. Above left, the first draft of the capital D: its rounded bowl catches the light nicely, but its straight vertical stem has a dull, uniform color. Hoefler and Clymer tried a number of solutions, ultimately deciding to enliven these gestures by subtly brightening their highlights at the top and bottom, and having them get progressively thicker as they move from left to right. As always, these new rules were baked into the software itself, and used to regenerate the entire character set anew.

12. Some characters revealed the need for entirely unique approaches. Serifs like those on the capital E couldn’t be extruded into a plausible three-dimensional form, so a new policy was needed to shade the font’s many triangular shapes. Overlaps in joined characters, like the æ diphthong and the ffl ligature, presented additional opportunities to heighten the illusion of dimensionality. Some characters were redesigned completely, to catch the light in more interesting ways: the flat crossbars on the 7, 2, 5 were replaced with flowing curves, and the linear dagger and double-dagger were refashioned in a more ornamental style. The shading of the circumflex (Ê) follows a recipe not used anywhere else in the typeface.

13. A humble user interface conceals complex inner workings. Clymer’s shading tools were written in Python — long the language of choice for managing font data — and built as an extension for the RoboFont font editor. Intuitive, modular libraries for building interfaces and rendering shapes on screen make RoboFont a wonderful environment for invention, and the tool of choice for all the typeface designers at H&Co. Shown above, in color, are the tools’ best attempts to apply shading, based on the the designer’s inputs. The black outlines reflect manual adjustments after the fact, made to improve the appearance of this letterform.

14. Characters from the finished typefaces, Obsidian Roman and Obsidian Italic. H&Co Creative Director Brian Hennings made this collage, choosing from some of Obsidian’s more obscure and lovely forms (including, front and center, its alternate italic ampersand.) For a decorative typeface, Obsidian contains an unusually broad range of characters, with roman and italic small capitals, swash caps and swash small caps, and accents for more than 140 languages. Both fonts are also provided in “chromatic layers,” so that designers can independently control the color of the background and foreground.

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