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font2vec? generative models for typefaces

Nestor Sanchez

Posted in generative models

Styles across one of the dimensions in latent space
Styles across one of the dimensions in latent space

You can find this project's repository on Github, along with pretrained models and an interactive Dash web app.

At some point last year I was watching one of the episodes of Abstract: the art of design on Netflix, when I realised how amenable the problem of typeface generation was from a machine learning perspective (to a first approximation at least; it probably would take years of research to make a decent ML-based typeface generator). Deep generative models have been shown to achieve truly impressive results in a variety of tasks, particularly image generation, and this includes datasets such as faces, landscapes and even painting styles, so there is no reason to believe that they wouldn't also excel at typeface generation, or the images derived from them. This is not a new idea, for example in this article (which is a terrific read) they do exactly that, and approach the problem from the broader context of AI-assisted design. There are also a few Github repositories on the subject. I thought it would be fun to try it myself and maybe learn a few tricks on the way.

The main problem for this project was to get data. Google makes their fonts publicly available, so thats around 4k examples, not bad but not enough. There are plenty of websites that offer free fonts online, but they don't have an API (why would they?), so there is no other way than scraping a few of them, and so I did. In the end I scraped a couple of the largest such websites I could find, and got a bit under 130k fonts, or around 20 GB. Mapping fonts to labeled images ready for model consumption was relatively easy, with an Apache Beam pipeline extracting 64-by-64 character images and Tensorflow doing the rest. Being free fonts, there were lots of corrupted files, corrupted characters within otherwise perfectly ok files, mislabeled characters, and fonts that looked nothing like characters, but all of those problems were minor. I did however train a classifier on the dataset and discarded all misclassified characters (around 10%); discarded images were mostly fonts or characters that were just too extravagant or simply defective, and I found that this improved the quality of generative models downstream. I also restricted the character set to uppercase to save a bit of time.

Once plenty of clean data was available the next problem was deciding on a model architecture. I am not an expert in generative models, but thought the architecture outlined in Adversarial Autoencoders by Goodfellow et all was quite clever and probably a good fit for the problem. I ended up doing one slight modification to this starting architecture, ending up with the following flow:


The only difference with the paper I mentioned is that I split the encoding phase in 2: first the image is encoded by an image encoder, then a full encoder takes the encoded image features and the labels (this is, the one-hot-encoded charater labels) to finally produce the embedded style representation. I did this hoping that the labels help not only on the decoding phase but also on the encoding one, say, by underlining the right features given the character label, e.g. if it's an H, curviness is probably more important to the font's style than if its a C, which I hoped would speed up training.

Character style models [CharStyleSAAE]

The following image shows one of the model's style components for a randomly sampled font, once the model plateaud to a MSE of around 0.020 (this is the pixelwise MSE using normalised pixels in [0,1]) by training it with minibatches of randomly sampled character images across the dataset:


There was a caveat though: generating all characters for a given style vector does not necessarily produce consistent image styles across the character set. I think this is because the model is only encoding the style of individual characters, as during training there is nothing that indicates any association between characters from the same font, and so, the latent style space ends up encoding styles slightly differently for different characters. To be fair, this was a relatively uncommon occurrence, but it did mean that this model wasn't good for font generation, strictly speaking.

Font style models: a self-supervised approach [PureFontStyleSAAE]

In order to address the caveat mentioned above, I started taking font minibatches rather than image minibatches; this restricted the training to around 70k examples of fonts that were complete (i.e., no character was lost due to corrupted data or misclassification). The trick here was to use a bit of self supervised learning to try and make the model learn the fonts' style rather than the character style. To do this, I shuffled the images and labels randomly when passing them to the decoder. So for example, the decoder might get the style vector from an 'A', but be required to reconstruct a 'B' instead, which should be possible to do from just the style vector and the one-hot-encoded label for 'B'. This worked, and the styles were now consistent across characters for all style vectors, but the images were more blurry than I expected, even after the model plateaued, with a mean squared error of 0.075:


An interesting phenomenon was that this model consistently used just 5 dimensions in the style space even when there were more than that, making the rest useless; I suspect this means that there are (broadly speaking) only as many high-level characteristics that can be generalised from a single character to entire font styles, e.g. tickness, height/width ratio and so on.

Font style models: fonts as 26-channel images [TensorFontStyleSAAE]

My second attempt was to take fonts as images with 26 channels where each channel was associated to a character. With this architecture, there was no need for labels anymore, as now channels acted implicitly as labels; since labels were gone, there wasn't any need for splitting the encoding stage in 2 parts, so the whole setup reduced to the usual autoencoder architecture, plus the discriminator network on the side, simplifying things quite a bit. This model worked better in general, achieving a lower reconstruction error and having faster training times. Since fonts are passed as multi-channel images, this is less intensive on the GPU's memory as well, because intermediate representations are per-font and not per-image.


The model achieved a lower MSE of around 0.064, and part of the reason when comparing it to my first attempt was that this one is able to look at the entire font and figure out which features from which characters are the most important in order to figure out the font's style; in contrast, with the self-supervised approach, general style features had to be reconstructed from a single character every time, which of course contained less information.

I think with a bit more data to generalise better, and with a sequence model to map images to points on the plane, (and with an expert that helps me navigate the technical aspects of font files!) it would even be possible to generate usable font files and not just images. Maybe this would be a nice bit of help for designers, to have a starting point when they set out to create a new font.

This project is available on Github, along with some pretrained decoders, and a Dash app in which to visualise style spaces. Have fun!