Typographic Whispers

I just discovered this two-year-old video by artist Clement VallaA Sequence of Lines Traced by 500 IndividualsStarting out with a simple vertical line, Valla let 500 people trace it (via Mechanical Turk). The catch: Every person saw only the one latest line drawn by the previous participant, not the original or any of the intermediate steps. Some deviation must be expected, then, but see for yourself:

Now, but. If we gave all of them the original shape and had them trace that directly, and if we gave them precision tools and enough time, and if we used only people specifically trained to draw precisely and well, surely they’d be able to faithfully reproduce the line, and would all end up with the same result, right?

Wrong. At least if we look at it on the level of precision involved in drawing complex little shapes like letters. What happens in “tracing” within one single step, through the lens of an individual’s eye, hand, and overall approach has recently been explored in depth by Erik van Blokland in his digitization experiment: He sent a scan of a lowercase Caslon “n” to typeface designers asking them to digitize it. No two n’s were the same – here are 80 of them:

(Another view, on Flickr)

How much of type history is an incidental byproduct of these two effects (individual deviation within a single step, and the diverging effect of combining multiple tracing/reinterpretation steps)? Many of the fonts we use today are revivals based on previous conversions based on earlier versions based on retracings based on prints of some perhaps long-lost original set of punches. How much of their current shape goes back to artefacts born from translation – from one designer to another, one technology to another, one medium to another? Typographic Chinese whispers.

Also the next time someone says 2 digital fonts “incidentally” have the same point coordinates I’m going to throw something heavy at them. Like those videos above.


  1. That was exactly the topic of my first talks at conferences (TypeConNYC “Alphabet City” and ATypI Helsinki “On The Edge” in 2005, and TYPO Berlin “Music” in 2007. My method was purely mathematical, using trigonometry and statistics, but proved the exact same thing, and I was able to identify some less obvious rip-offs.

  2. Pingback: Type News: Put a Bird on It | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide

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