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Ransom-Note Typography Has Its Uses

Colin Hartnett  on May 13, 2004

Not only do designers need to consider the readability of intelligence briefs, they must also consider security, as well. Claire Whelan, a computer science Ph.D. student in Dublin, developed a technique to determine what’s behind blacked out words in publically released intelligence briefs. Ironically, Whelan’s algorithm has the State Department’s recent switch from Courier to Times New Roman to thank for its success.

The algorithm first analyzes the size of the word, then uses information about the font to determine what words could fit in that space. Grammatically incorrect words are then eliminated. At that point, a human must peruse the remaining choices to find the most likely option. (I’m sure more advanced techniques could be applied to further pare down the list, but I’ll give her a break since she did this in less than a week.)

Though the algorithm is fairly weak, designers may now have to devise ways to prevent obfuscated text from being decrypted while maintaining readability. Is it time to get out the newspaper and scissors?


  1. Hrant says:

    Although a smart effort, since much blacked out text is proper names (where the grammatical trump card is of no use), I don’t think the results will be worthwhile.


  2. Jan Dahl says:

    Just ‘use lot’s… of redu!!ndant ..punctu’ation.:,

  3. Melissa says:

    Hey i am a year 7 student at L.S.C and we are learning about ransom notes could you send me some please.

  4. Hrant says:

    First you’ll need to choose a rich relative.


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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles with Caren Litherland and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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