Vernacular’s Artificial Typography uses AI to boldly blend together type and the history of art
Good friends, collaborators and designers Andrea A. Trabucco-Campos and Martín Azambuja have united to form Vernacular, a small publishing firm with a primary focus on form, typography and culture. Their first publication, Artificial Typography, places itself at the intersection of art history, typography and artificial intelligence, combining the past and the future in a work that sees typographic forms portrayed in the style of 52 celebrated and iconic artists. To learn more about the insights and discoveries of implementing AI, alongside the project’s development, we had a chat with Andrea and Martín.
PT Hello Andrea and Martín! How are you?
V Good thanks! This rainy Sunday afternoon is treating us well, as we’re recovering from Martín’s birthday celebration at the Caribbean Social Club.
PT Where did the idea first come from to make this book?
V We met at Pentagram, and both currently work full-time at Porto Rocha (Martin) and Gretel (Andrea). Over the years since meeting, we’ve shared a lot of loose project ideas, and finally decided to sit down this summer to go over them and give them structure, resulting in a small editorial imprint, Vernacular, through which we’ll publish various small and big explorations of ideas related to form, design, typography and culture. Artificial Typography is the first volume published at Vernacular, it is Volume 0 (v0).
Artificial Typography is born out of curiosity of the AI space: we both received access to MidJourney early on in 2022, and began exploring it. Andrea’s initial explorations led to prompting the AI to imagine alphabets by famous artists, architects, and designers who never really practiced typography – people like Le Corbusier, Picasso and Bridget Riley. The results were often interesting and unexpected, but somehow familiar to the visual voice they originated from.
These early AI explorations converged with the founding of Vernacular, and we saw an opportunity of making a book that was at the intersection of seemingly disparate things: art history, artificial intelligence and typography, which is at the heart of both of our design practices.
The book contains 26 letters re-imagined by an AI through the lens of 52 iconic artists across various media (painting, sculpture, textile). The typographic space is especially great for this exploration, since it’s a world of ideas where general conventions rule, but where there is endless opportunity for unexpected interpretations of letterforms, always new ways of remaking the recipe of a letterform. At heart, we were curious and excited to see how wild and different letterforms were possible through AI.
The results were often interesting and unexpected.
PT As AI takes place in the digital realm, why did you decide to create a printed publication?
V The book contains a multitude of tensions: established voices in the history of art reimagined by an amorphous digital tool that can reshape any media in convincing and unexpected ways. The decision to make it a book was to lean into these tensions by generating in a physical form a cutting-edge digital process – a conversation between the old and the new, analogue and digital.
A book is also something permanent, which we’re using to mark time for this specific era of design, capturing something quite volatile like the always-changing AI space.
PT How long did the process take – from idea to printing?
V One of the tenets for any Vernacular publication is instinctive execution over endless rumination. For three weekends, we actively worked on defining the idea and content for the book – we do this in our free time, which takes a bit longer. For the entire concept-definition and image-generation process we worked in Figma, where we captured every bit of the exploration and even handled testing formats and cover sketches.
Working asynchronously allowed for seamless collaboration and an almost wild forest of sketches that we could advance late at night or during the weekend if we couldn’t get together. We had several intense sessions, understanding and evolving our own collaboration with and prompts to MidJourney, curating and selecting images we liked, going back with more tweaks, in a rapid and highly iterative process, generating over 500 images.
We had time off in August, and are now in InDesign working through the actual mechanicals and final parts of the book, before sending it to print next week. Overall, this part of the process took three active weeks. Our production partner, PurePrint, has been sending us different dummy tests, and we’ve selected the format, paper, and binding for the book.
The book will be in our hands in October and we can’t wait. We will be holding a book launch party to which you’re invited!
PT Thank you! How did you find working with MidJourney? Why did you choose this AI engine in particular?
V MidJourney was the tool of choice purely since we gained early access. However, as we’ve now joined the Dall-E and Stable Diffusion communities, it’s been interesting to run some of the same tests and see the results. We’re lucky to have started with MidJourney, which generates images that are not as accurate as the others, but are more poetic interpretations of the prompts. We really liked the visual quality of the images, and how letterforms and materials were interpreted.
This is a gallery in print form.
PT How do you hope people will engage with the book?
V The book has different entry points. For typographers, it contains a curation of unexpected letterforms visualised in a number of materials and abstractions. For those interested in art, the spectacle of new interpretations in the history of art. And for those curious or fluent in AI, this is a gallery in print form, in a larger format (6.5in x 12in) to experience and explore images usually encountered in digital-only feeds, one at a time – each letter has two interpretations by different eras, giving rise to a dialogue that grows as the book unfolds.
PT Do you think this project has changed the way you view art history?
V No, we perceive the history of art in the same way and in fact, this book feels like a tribute to several of our favourite artists. What artificial intelligence undoubtedly comes to change is the history of graphic design between other disciplines as we know it today. During the time we usually work on the computer we constantly have that feeling of doing something that will soon be obsolete, questioning the method thinking that surely there is something that makes it faster or more effective. It seems that our skills as graphic designers are moving from one place to another over the years but I don't feel that this displacement is bringing us closer to a precipice, but rather to uncharted land. The possibilities of the tool seem endless and it will be super interesting to see how we use it.
PT What did you find most fascinating or insightful about the project?
V The sheer speed of production is astounding, and how that shifts the role of designers. The time from idea to execution is cut exponentially, and the emphasis for us designers using tools like MidJourney or other AIs, is now purely on concept and communication – how does one arrive at a precise articulation of an idea? In book form, it pushed our role even further into pure curation, looking at several dozens of AI-generated images to arrive at the one selected in the book.
AI necessitates a point of origin, a thought, an idea.
PT How would you like to see AI used in type, in the future?
V Due to its name, artificial intelligence is suggestive of a utopian reality where machines have taken over. Pockets of the design community embraced AI and are actively trying to figure out its role within our field, while others rejected it vehemently just like photography was initially rejected by painters who had mastered their craft.
Today’s AI is a tool, and albeit a powerful one, it is limited and our roles as designers are far from obsolete. AI necessitates a point of origin, a thought, an idea. It necessitates an editor, a curator, someone who can guide it. It necessitates an endpoint too – a use for the output, a reason for its imagery. At the moment, it needs us more than we need it. Overall in design, AI could become integral at two levels: (1) make any procedural task easier, faster and more accurate, and (2) expand the possibilities through its quick but deeply broad stylistic output.
In typography, we’d love to see AI reach the ability to quickly and accurately trace source material to its roots and make larger associations to other existing drawings/fonts from similar sources, to be able to extrapolate ideas (for instance, create a full alphabet from a limited character set drawn), and expand possibilities by challenging the notion of letterforms. This last point is at the heart of Artificial Typography: with our MidJourney typographic explorations, could we stumble across letterforms that laid far outside our expectations? Or that even reframed the ways we understand those letters? We were pleasantly surprised by many interpretations the AI did, especially when combining with materials like stone or even light installations.
PT What’s next for Vernacular?
V Thankfully we have no shortage of upcoming titles (both around other aspects of AI, and well beyond into culture, form and design), and the challenge is finding the time and deciding which projects to prioritise next. We hope to publish one more title by the end of the year, and reach a somewhat regular publishing cadence (1-3 titles a year) next year.
Beyond our own ideas and curiosities, we’re also interested in collaborating with people across adjacent fields, so that we use Vernacular as a platform for critical inquiry into the larger field of form and visual culture, with a close eye on the quotidian, to that which surrounds. Overall we’re aiming to make Vernacular’s titles an archive of the visual textures that inhabit our culture – high and low – in well-considered books that we have fun designing. The whole thing is a passion project, therefore it can only exist if it inspires us and others.