You can’t really read the Fe2O3 Glyphs alphabet. At least, not in the traditional, A-B-C parallel way you’d expect. Which is not to say the so-called typeface isn’t packed with meaning, because it is.

The Fe2O3 Glyphs alphabet is the collaborative creation of Craig Ward, an ex-ad man who creates unorthodox typographies, and Linden Gledhill, a biochemist who develops cancer therapies by day and conducts otherworldly chemical experiments in his extracurricular hours. The two have worked together on a handful of projects over the years, the latest being this typeface made from ferromagnetic fluid and black ink.

Fe2O3 Glyphs started in Gledhill’s laboratory. The Philadelphia scientist built the lab in his basement three years ago to create space for the wild work he does on the side, some of which is commissioned by media companies and artists, and some of which stems from pure curiosity. At one point, the basement housed an aquarium in which Gledhill cultivated and grew live coral. When he got bored with that, he started crystallizing and photographing DNA. For an early collaboration with Ward, an experimental music video in which Ward wanted to show “dancing ice,” Gledhill built a cold electric chamber that manufactures snowflakes.

Animated_GIF_Fe2O3 Craig Ward

Gledhill stumbled across ferrofluids the way most anyone stumbles across anything these days: “Just searching the Internet,” he says. “People are fascinated by them, and a lot of people have used them lately to create art and things like that. I tried to explore it in a different way.”

Ferromagnetic fluid was developed at NASA in the 1960s. Researchers were trying to figure out how to move fuel into an engine without the help of gravity. They found that infusing the liquid with nanoscale ferromagnetic particles allowed them to manipulate it with a magnetic field. In his lab, Gledhill exploited this magnetic property by placing a tiny amount of ferrofluid (which, oddly enough, you can buy on Amazon) between two glass plates and then spinning it around like a roundabout on a playscape. With every spin, the liquid would scatter into a unique, snowflake-like configuration.

Gledhill showed the inky patterns to Ward. “For me, for someone who worked with symbols and languages, they looked like carvings or hieroglyphics,” he says. Or, “the patterns were like when you look really closely at an insect’s eye.” Ward took Gledhill’s photographs of the different ferrofluid splatters, tidied them with editing software, and created ink letterpresses for 138 of them. Each alphabet is being printed on heavy stock paper and converted into a downloadable font. The print and digital forms are available through Ward and Gledhill’s Kickstarter campaign.

As to whether the Fe2O3 Glyphs are useful, “we’re getting asked that a lot,” Ward says. The answer, at the moment, is no. But the glyph type system is exciting imaginations, Ward says. “People have come to us with ideas.” A teacher thinks it could become a new version of Braille, one that more easily transcends languages. Someone else saw a future where the Glyphs sub in for QR codes, or play a role in cryptography.

Starting with undefined symbols leaves several doors open. “It’s nice to invert the type process,” Ward says. “Usually you have this rigid grid.”

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Mad Scientist Makes an Alphabet Out of Bizarre Ferrofluids