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For Naturephiles Only: A Typeface Made Of Trees

Yes, someone has translated the texts of Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin and others into dense typographic forests.

Irish artist Katie Holten’s new book About Trees is not just a book about trees–it’s written in Trees.

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Utilizing 26 different tree species to represent the different letters in the Roman alphabet, the texts in About Trees range from Jorge Luis Borges and Ursula K. Le Guin to contemporary writers like Robert McFarlane and architect Natalie Jeremijenko (who helped design London’s TREE x OFFICE).

On one page, the text appears in English (Holten uses the font Walbaum because baum is German for “tree.”) On the opposite page, the text has been translated into the Tree typeface, which Holten designed with the help of designer Katie Brown especially for the book.

“It’s almost like a children’s book,” says Holten, or an illustrated Morse code. The reader only needs to refer back to the key to translate one of Holten’s typographic forests back into English, though shorter texts are easier to translate than longer ones.

“Essentially, the tree typeface is four times the size of the normal font,” Holten says. “The designers thought it would be incredibly boring to have thousands of pages of trees, so that’s when the idea of the forest came about. We condensed it [to fit on one page].”

But it’s more than just symbolic translation. The ways in which trees sprout and grow in nature is also manifested in the type layout. “If it’s a small text, they’re all legible and visible. If it’s a large text it’s all overgrown and wooded as a forest would be anyways,” Holten says.

In practice, the short selection from Borges’s Funes, In Memory is only a sparsely wooded landscape, while Jules Verne’s What Is This? is a dense pine forest. In homage to Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, Holten translated an excerpt from Sketch of the Analytical Engine first into binary code and then into twigs, which correspond to the 0-9 digits.

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Each story looks different–sparse, thick, twiggy, wooded–when its translated into its own unique landscape using Tree. As Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG suggests, the opposite is also possible: we could conceivably use Holten’s tree font to translate landscapes into text. Our forests could grow into encrypted messages or our backyards could tell our favorite short story (I’d choose Borges’s Garden of the Forking Paths and hope it turned out a labyrinth). The political resistance movements of the future could communicate secret messages with trees–and go down in history as the slowest revolution ever.

Holten is in full compliance with these plans, and actually has a few ideas of her own. “I was reading about the Obama library today. Their budget is something like $1 billion. I immediately was thinking, ‘I wonder if they are thinking about landscaping the garden and need some sort of typographic forest?” she says with a laugh. “I feel like this is just beginning, there’s a lot more to come. More volumes–and I want [the typeface] to be planted in real life, too.”

Until then, you can get your own copy of Holten’s About Trees by pre-ordering on her website. The book is out September 2015.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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