A good illusion is a few different things all at once. Depending on how you look at it, you could say it’s a work of art, a puzzle, or a piece of graphic design (Or an old woman! Or a young woman! Or a candlestick!) You could say that Macula is all of those things, sure, but there’s another distinction that makes it even more impressive. In addition to being an accomplished example of optical trickery, it’s also a full, working typeface.
The typeface was created by Jacques Le Bailly, a Dutch type designer who works under the pseudonym Baron von Fonthausen (apparently not your typical stuffy aristocrat but rather one of those eccentric noblemen you occasionally read about who were into building secret passageways and joining science cults and stuff like that). Le Bailly explained the origin of the project in an interview over at FontFeed. Burdened, as we are all from time to time, with some painstaking job, the designer started doodling variations on the Penrose triangle—the brain-tickling geometric shape coined by its maker as "impossibility in its purest form." Le Bailly, a longtime admirer of masters like M.C. Escher and Oscar Reutersvärd (the Swiss artist who actually invented the impossible triangle independently of Roger Penrose some 20 years prior), wondered if the concept could be applied to letterforms, and after some idle sketching, the irresistible challenge before him quickly became clear.
At first, Le Bailly tried to base all his letters on a single shape—the rounded rectangle—but he found the results unsatisfactory. When he switched to a system based on circles, squares, and triangles, however, the project started to come together—both as an optical illusion and as a typeface. Le Bailly’s work, however, was far from over, compounded by the fact that he insisted on creating several different versions of the character set. He recalled the process in his talk with FontFeed:
Some letters were easy to construct, others were far more complex. Often the simple letters were the most difficult, because they offered very few possibilities or starting points. I wanted to avoid designing artificial shapes as much as possible. To keep the typeface lively every single character, down to the punctuation and floating accents, needed to have two versions, as if looked at from two different viewpoints. Sometimes the first version came together very quickly, and then it took an eternity to find a good second one.
As the project developed, Le Bailly spent more time ensuring that the final product would be a cohesive, coherent typeface, rather than simply a collection of loosely related illusions. "I always looked for the best combinations of characters and form," he told me, "even if this meant I had to discard a wonderful character." A typeface, Le Bailly explains, is first and foremost "a toolbox for a typographer or graphic designer to set text with," so what started as a curious little challenge for the designer eventually saw the same scrutiny he’d give to any other project.
When he finally did settle on a character set he was happy with, Le Bailly decided to try his hand at a shaded version, loosely based on 19th-century wood engravings, just for good measure. The baron is a mad baron indeed.
However painful to complete, though, the final product is a gorgeous realization of a very ambitious vision. And it manages to pull off a fairly incredible feat: On the level of the sentence, Macula is totally legible; on the level of the letter, it’s completely confounding. It manages to uphold that central purpose of any typeface—conveying information—while actively subverting and sabotaging that transmission with every individual character. One has to imagine that Roger Penrose would be proud—as soon as he was through being confused.
A package including all five styles of Macula is available through Bold Monday for the exceedingly reasonable price of €49.00, or about $66. You can see more of Baron von Fonthausen’s work on his site.