Building a maze typeface

Paul Cronan
Mar 4 · 9 min read

Ok, so I love mazes.

Growing up, I spent most of my time at school embellishing notebook pages with intricate landscapes and labyrinths filled with alien characters. Actually, I still do that. To me, the open-ended nature of mazes expresses something both playful and profound. I recently dove back into mazemaking to explore its potential as a generative typographic form, creating a series of sketches that evolved into a typeface, called Mazeletter.

The typeface consists of nine pattern fonts that you can use to build infinite tiling maze patterns. Each style takes the same set of glyphs and translates them into a new form — zigzagging paths and hedges, calligraphic ribbons, art deco facades and impossible staircases.

At Fathom, we look for ways to navigate complexity, using design to reveal meaningful information. Frequently, we focus our work on language as a way to deepen understanding and identify patterns. At its core, Mazeletter is an exploration of pattern as language. It’s designed as an alphabet, with walls and passages combining like letters or sounds into more complex structures. And, like words, the pieces are flexible. You can set out to generate unique textures or engineer a difficult puzzle.

Visual research on mazemaking, pattern and language.
(a + b) Braided script and elastic calligraphy. Inscriptions on early Islamic bowls
from the Harvard Art Museums.
(c) Ravensburger’s Labyrinth, which features a constantly shifting maze.
(d) Typographic wrapping paper from Thames & Hudson
(e) Adinkra pattern glyphs from Ghana used to symbolize proverbs in textile prints
(f) Surreal shapes from the Marqueyssac topiary gardens in France
(g) ‘The Gardens of Heidelberg Castle’, Jacques Fouquières, circa 1620
(h) Hellenistic mosaic from Thmuis, Egypt, circa 200 bce
(i) Embroidered textile from Tuva Republic in Siberia
(j) Zellige Moroccan tilework from the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada

Mazes and letterforms share a human quality — both are shaped around the desire to make stories from abstraction, weaving those ideas into paths and barriers that give them meaning. As I began iterating around this relationship, visual connections emerged across materials and media. With intertwined concepts like text, texture, textile and tessera, there’s a short leap between storytelling structures and the role of pattern in mosaics, tapestries, architecture and fashion. In her post on generative knitting, Olivia touched on the shared history of these ideas, discussing the bond between coding and textile arts and writing about her experiments with data-driven patterns. There’s definitely a lot to draw on.

Text transformed as pattern in the Topkapı scroll,
a treatise on architectural design circa 1500.

Excited to dig into all these ideas, I started sketching out what a maze typeface might look like.

Early brainstorming: form, space, modularity

Structure

Sketches exploring geometric forms in the alphabet
and parallel digital experiments with type design.

This strategy seemed promising as a way to develop a set of distinct glyphs that could visually capture a blend of the shape, function and sound of a letter. S, for instance, might translate into a switchback curve to hint at both its snaking shape and the soft sounds it produces.

I sketched different kinds of square and circular grids to see what variations and combinations might work best for a maze. I found that by tilting square tiles 45º to create a diagonal grid, I could pack a more diverse collection of lines into each glyph and produce dynamic corners where pieces intersect. Later in the process, I learned that the Commodore 64 BASIC program 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 creates a similar kind of diagonal intersection that artists have used to construct all sorts of mazes.

Early on I toyed with literal interpretations that would stick to the familiar shapes of letters in the roman alphabet, deconstructed into maze paths and walls. But sketching out that approach wasn’t as interesting, because it prioritizes the readability of the letterforms over building a good maze. Plus, flattening letters into grid cells makes it harder to tell them apart, since you lose the quirky details that give each one personality.

Rules and flexibility

Returning to pen and paper, I brainstormed rules that could generate a full set of modular maze pieces. If you take the same grid points and connect them in as many maze configurations as possible, are there enough useful permutations to build up an alphabet of forms?

Sol LeWitt’s Wall drawing 260A at MASS MoCA.
Sketching out an idea for generating maze modules programmatically.

Yeah, it turns out there are way too many options. Many of the programmatic variations were so similar that they didn’t drastically alter paths through the maze. But I was encouraged by the vast set to choose from. Pivoting in a new direction, I started drawing as many different types of maze swatches as possible, then seeing how the results might relate to the typographic geometry I sketched earlier. The only constraints I set were that all swatches should intersect seamlessly, and if a swatch was tiled independently it should make an interesting and navigable maze — not a bunch of closed shapes and dead ends.

Familiarity and context

Continuity

Case is one example. Upper and lowercase letters share the same keys, and many pairs evolve from the same anatomy, like J and j or F and f. Other pattern typefaces, like Zuzana Licko’s Tangly and Crackly, rotate and flip the same swatch between neighboring characters, giving the design an organic continuity when those glyphs are used together. With Mazeletter, I used similar transformations to connect upper and lowercase forms, and other pairs like ( ), { }, ‹ ›, or π and ∏. Using those combinations allows you to subtly shape the texture of the maze while pushing the paths in new, unexpected directions. It keeps the eye moving, makes the puzzle more challenging and allows you to create complex mazes using a single key. A and a illustrate this feature — they’re simple sets of parallel lines, but when combined they can produce corners, zigzags and two-way spirals.

Sound and shape

Visual rhythm

Striking a balance

Testing glyph combinations with prototypes of the typeface

By sketching and iterating through different options, I found that varying the size of the glyphs gives you this sense of authorship. More common characters like vowels and punctuation are thinner. That means they have fewer lines, so they’re less detailed and less specific, letting them melt into the texture of the maze. This quality makes them the most versatile — you could build a whole maze from the vowels alone. But that would be super frustrating, because they’re small and not visually diverse. That’s where the wider characters like consonants, numerals and symbols come in, their complexity and specificity giving the pattern a voice.

Expanding the family

I tried a lot of options, moving on from sketches that evoked a context that was too specific. I spent a while on one variation that was a lattice of staircases and platforms. It worked well on its own, but didn’t feel quite right alongside other styles I had developed. After a while I realized that the staircases imply a human scale you couldn’t escape — seeing the steps forces you to imagine their size in relation to people walking up and down them. Instead, I worked on assembling a set of styles that share a similar level of abstraction while transforming the maze’s texture, density, depth and meaning.

Mazeletter is free to download at mazeletter.xyz. You can try it out on the site, creating your own patterns and playing with different styles. Get lost in the maze… and share what you make with it!

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More on type design, pattern and mazes

fathominfo

We build platforms and products for understanding data.

Paul Cronan

Written by

is a designer at https://medium.com/fathominfo in Boston, Massachusetts.

fathominfo

We build platforms and products for understanding data. See the full archive of our writing on process, client work, and curiosities at fathom.info/notebook.

Paul Cronan

Written by

is a designer at https://medium.com/fathominfo in Boston, Massachusetts.

fathominfo

We build platforms and products for understanding data. See the full archive of our writing on process, client work, and curiosities at fathom.info/notebook.

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