Decorated typefaces have long been a battleground for technology. In the nineteenth century, steelplate engraving allowed letters to become elaborate, flowery confections, giving rise to a style that lives on in the shaded and curlicued letters of banknotes and diplomas. Type foundries responded to this new fashion by creating ever more intricate printing types, to help printers attempt the same sorts of effects achievable through engraving. Producing these typefaces proved challenging: elaborate hand work was time consuming, resulting in fonts with severely abridged character sets (rarely more than just capitals), and attempts at mechanization produced only "engine-turned” letters with uniform patterns that were bland and unevocative. The nineteenth century would never see a solution to its own riddle of how to industrialize the shaping of letters.
We began the Obsidian project with two questions: can a decorated typeface pay homage to this tradition while being relevant to designers today, and what tools can we create to help us get there? Type design is still largely a manual art, and we felt the acute need for technical solutions to help us both explore our options through rapid prototyping, and execute successful ideas across the massive scale demanded by a contemporary typeface. Not content to be a set of decorated capitals, Obsidian would have 1,400 glyphs spanning both roman and italic styles, bringing its esprit to the most esoteric of punctuation marks and accents.
Having completed work on our Surveyor family, which celebrates the rich traditions of engraved letterforms, we used this work as a foundation for Obsidian. To explore the ways in which a typeface might be decorated, we developed a set of proprietary tools to add highlights to letterforms — ultimately creating a suite of software for interpreting two-dimensional letterforms as three-dimensional objects, through the application of virtual light sources that vary in position, angle, and intensity. Obsidian followed an iterative process, in which the tools revealed not only opportunities for improvement in the code, but in the typeface’s underlying design, and even unexpected virtues that we allowed to reshape the design brief itself. The result is a type family that escapes the shackles of historical style, while honoring the best traditions of decorative typography from the industrial age.