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.

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