30 000 contributed letters averaged into a single typeface.
What if 255 people wrote the same letter of the alphabet?
And all those letters were averaged together?
And that was done to the entire alphabet?
And that alphabet was turned into a free downloadable font?
That's the Collective Type Project.
Launched in 2004, the Collective Type Project allowed visitors to draw letters of the alphabet, seeing the averaged letters change in real time.
Each letter would look similar to its expected appearance. But with everyone's unique writing style, variances would cause the letters to have ghost-like resemblances to their normal selves.
Each letter allowed 255 contributions because that's how many shades of grey a screen can display, allowing everyone's contribution to be represented in the end result.
It was a project whose emergence was dependent on the behaviour of its participants.
The most interesting part of this project wasn't the typeface, but how people behaved given anonymity and a constrained means of expression.
The writing mechanism allowed precision and refinement when drawing a letter. In some cases, people put great effort into crafting letters.
Another form of self expression, bubble letters were popular for some people.
Some familiar single-letter brands were drawn. In this case, the former logo for the YMCA.
Literally spelling out "lower case q" for the lowercase q set, literals were a delight to discover.
For W, someone wrote "you you". Double you. Double u. W. Clever!
A visual pun, people drew bees instead of writing the letter B. Clever!
In the numbers, you'll see characters drawn as they appear on dice. In this case, three dots instead of the character "3".
For "A", the corresponding Japanese hiragana character was used. Japanese characters also appeared in the number series.
The occasional face or stick figure would appear throughout the letters. They weren't related to the letter category in any way. People just like drawing faces.
Some people turned the pound characters into games of tic-tac-toe.
Some letters were submitted as entire black squares. I think someone was trying to darken the letter, but because filling black squares was difficult, this was rare.
Taking the blackout to the next step, some people used the eraser to draw the letter. Clever.
Some people discovered they could re-contribute to a letter if they reloaded the writing page. Having launched the project shortly after George Bush's re-election, this led to a few messages written in the letters.
Some people had subversive intentions by writing completely different letters for a set. In this case, someone tried to turn B into V. In the end, this only gave B a subtle amount of V - not enough to completely transform the letter.
Learning from the B-to-V example, someone who wanted to turn the P into a B realized how averages work. Instead of drawing a B over the P, they drew the lower curve of the B, thereby reducing the strength of the original P, making it look more like a B. Clever.
Similar to the subversive negative space example, someone tried adding an appendage to the bottom of the U. But someone else noticed it, recognized how averages worked, and tried to rescue the U by drawing it without the appendage, undoing the work of the subverter.
So. Many. Penises.
This was my fault, really.
When I launched Collective, I created a FAQ explaining how averages worked. I was 24 and wanted to be funny, so I mentioned if someone drew penises for the number 9, Collective would be the only typeface with a penis instead of 9.
As I should have expected, some guy took it upon himself to draw 200 penises for number 9 and made it look like a blurry penis.
Then he emailed me to tell me about it.
He was bored on Christmas day and spent over 2 hours doing it. He told me to "Never underestimate the power of a bored person on the internet."
I promptly undid all his work by resetting the 9 character. I also removed the penis part of the FAQ.
There was the occasional swastika or racist word. I removed them because hate isn't self expression, it benefits no one, and requires no ingenuity.
Does this behaviour make me lose faith in people? No.
I believe in most cases humans want other humans to succeed and do well. They don't want to destroy or taint things, they want things to be great. And when people ruin things, rarely is it because they're evil. Often they're curious and experimenting to see what will happen, but their lack of empathy or foresight prevents them from recognizing the impact of their actions.
29 950 letters later in 2007, the project completed when the last letter - the backquote ( ` ) - was added to the collection. Shortly thereafter, I built the typeface.
But for some reason, I never bothered to release it. I don't know why, but I didn't. But now, 6 years later in 2014, the Collective Typeface is available. It's not the most legible or beautiful, but it was certainly a fun and interesting project.