How Pentagram and Counterpoint “grew” typeface Hypha for an exhibition about mushrooms

The team built an interactive tool that can generate expressive letterforms, simulating the mycelium growth found in fungi to allow the characters to naturally grow and mutate.

30 November 2020


Earlier this year, Pentagram partners Jody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell designed the identity for Somerset House’s exhibition, Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi. A key element to the graphics was the typeface Hypha, itself generative and inspired by the way mushrooms grow. The method by which the typeface was “grown” is now available as an online interactive tool, created together with tech-led design studio Counterpoint Studio, so anyone can have a go at creating their own organic characters. It puts users in the shoes of the designers, who also – thanks to the nature of, well, nature – had no idea what the typeface was going to look like when they started.

“Our initial ideas were inspired by the process of growth and decay that mushrooms help facilitate,” Luke Powell tells It’s Nice That. “We wanted to create an identity that embraced the dirt and unevenness of the natural world and made a connection between the organic and digital which is so important to the current resurgence of interest in mushrooms.” Since the design was to be process-driven, the team still had no concept of how it would look, even after deciding on how to build the generative tool. “We couldn’t be completely sure how the algorithms we were using would behave and look in the end,” he explains, which put them in the awkward position of not being able to show the final letterforms to their client until late in the process. Luckily, he says, Somerset House were “happy to come on the journey”.


Jody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell / Pentagram and Counterpoint: Hypha (Copyright © Somerset House and Pentagram, 2020)

Working in a way that gives aesthetic power to an algorithm required the designers to firstly choose which growth algorithms to use, and then how best to control their parameters. This included choosing geometries that “encouraged” the simulated mycelium to grow into recognisable shapes. Morphogenic algorithms were selected based on which felt “the most mushroom-like,” Powell says, but most other decisions were more pragmatic, such as making sure the letters had space to grow, but not in areas that would make letters illegible. It’s built for random possibility but “with its own stylised forms as a result” he adds.

Counterpoint was brought on board to create the generative typeface, which looked to “explore this weird fungal aesthetic, whilst also producing novel, legible letterforms” says co-founder Tero Parviainen. “The algorithm we used is based purely on the science of mushroom growth, with absolutely no consideration of aesthetics. The random mutation was relatively easy; the challenge was to harness the algorithm for typographic use, for which it was not designed.” So the studio devised an approach that created a ‘substrate’ – a fertile area within which the mushroom type could grow – and an ‘inhibitor’, an area where it could not. “The process of type design then became one of combining these positive and negative volumes to define the area of ‘soil’ where the mushroom would be cultivated,” explains Counterpoint’s Sam Diggins, “as well as the amount and placement of fertiliser to maximise or limit growth.”

GalleryJody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell / Pentagram and Counterpoint: Hypha (Copyright © Somerset House and Pentagram, 2020)

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Jody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell / Pentagram and Counterpoint: Hypha (Copyright © Somerset House and Pentagram, 2020)

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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