Hrant Papazian Questions the Limits of Legibility


Type designer Hrant Papazian designed the Trajic notRoman, which consists of invented glyphs, questioning the decipherablility of various forms and put to the test in a real-world experiment at TypeCon 1998. What is a “Q”? What is the morphological essence of a letter? Such questions led to an experiment that taunted the limits of legibility in order to better understand the character-recognition processes of the human mind.

MicroFoundry Designer Hrant Papazian is a diasporan Armenian living in Los Angeles. It helped that his family was living in Silicon Valley exactly when the personal computer was born, so making digital Armenian fonts was a natural outcome. Eventually he started making money at it and has expanded into working with Latin and other writing systems. He presented Trajic notRoman at TypeCon in 1998 and we asked him a few questions about the project.

Why Trajic notRoman?

I love exploring, the unknown. When I see a letterform I wonder how it works, how it wanders, where it might take us. I see the written word as a malleable tool, just like spoken language, and as a designer I want to help amplify and enrich it. I believe the best way to do that is to change it, so I started exploring the limits of the Latin alphabet.

I chose the Trajan font as the ideally ironic source to design all the possible “mutations” I imagined had a chance of being identified as the intended letter. I named the resultant font Trajic notRoman (as a play on Times New Roman).

I presented Trajic at the first TypeCon in 1998; during that presentation I tried to –informally–gauge the decipherability of many of the forms, and learned a good deal from that feedback. Although I sometimes mention Trajic online and during conference talks, I haven’t presented it in its full form since; however I do feel its speculative essence makes it persistently relevant.


What was the outcome? Did the reaction reveal anything?

One thing I learned is that what people explicitly state they can read is not the same as what their more free-wheeling subconscious reading mechanism can interpret; that has guided my work in text typeface design ever since.

Another outcome is that I realized there was a strong demand for such speculative fonts! Over the years many people emailed me asking to buy a copy of Trajic notRoman. Having derived it from the actual outlines of Adobe Trajan for the sole purpose of field-testing the concept, I could not legally or ethically sell or even give away the font. I could have made a font from scratch based on my invented structures and sold that resultant font, but frankly I’m not a good businessman, and I’m prone to favor contemplation and discussion over action!

I know that’s anathema to the contemporary approach to creativity, but I feel simply making something leads to mere refinement of the thing, while I’m a bigger fan of cultural progress, which is essentially in the mind.

What's next for you?

I'm a juror for the TypeCon protoType competition and exhibition, designed to discover and promote the most notable examples of speculative typeface design. Speculation here implies trying out unconventional ideas in pursuit of new functionality.