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The fascinating origins of Lorem ipsum and how generative AI could kill it

Designers have been using Lorem ipsum placeholder text for decades. Could AI text generators bring its use to an end?

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of Shubham Agarwal


5 min read

Nick Babich, an Israel-based UX and product designer, has had an unlikely assistant in his workflow of late: ChatGPT, the viral AI chatbot.

Over the last few weeks, Babich has asked ChatGPT to write dummy copy for his app and website designs, sketch out layouts, and even generate font and color pairing ideas. Since its launch in November, Babich says he’s been able to integrate the chatbot “in almost all areas of product design that don't require creating media content.”

ChatGPT’s primitive interface, developed by the Microsoft-backed research firm OpenAI, which counts Elon Musk as its co-founder among several others, has become a familiar sight online. Over a million people have so far queried it to instantly generate op-eds in Oscar Wilde’s voice, program websites from scratch, and even plot multi-act movie scripts, and the chatbot has spewed out authoritative responses.

However, the way ChatGPT strings together sentences often means these responses, though look convincing, are often riddled with factual inaccuracies. Its language model is trained to look for patterns in huge reams of text scraped off the internet and learn from them to guess the next word. But that means the chatbot can’t tell which sources its system’s relying upon, or whether the content it’s generating is correct or biased—so much so that some platforms like StackOverflow, a Q&A site for engineers, has banned AI-generated codes altogether.

While ChatGPT’s inability to fact-check itself has prevented most users from depending on it for any real work, it’s proved especially ideal to replace the most iconic piece of gibberish: Lorem ipsum.

Lorem ipsum filler text (body type) in typeface sheet manufacturer Letraset's 1974 catalog. Images courtesy the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design & Typography.

For decades, Lorem ipsum, a scrambled passage from two-millennia-old Latin literature, has belonged in every designer’s toolbox. It’s the most common placeholder text developers use to demonstrate their projects’ visuals, like typefaces and layouts, before they go ahead and populate it with the client’s actual material. Pick any design template and there’s a good chance its textboxes will feature Lorem ipsum by default.

But it’s also become more and more common for clients to expect messaging to be a part of the ideation journey from the beginning, and designers have found it harder to effectively show the intent behind their work, and how it fits into the business’ vision, when relying on the industry’s historically-used text filler alone. And that means the meaningless Lorem ipsum text has appeared increasingly anachronistic—leading designers to look for smarter dummy content generators. With ChatGPT, which can produce paragraphs on any given topic, many feel their search has ended.

Ask ChatGPT to write “HTML code for an AI startup’s website” or a dummy copy for it, for example, and the chatbot will instantly generate a response with the proper outline. Babich isn’t alone. Mark Vogelaar, a Netherlands-based art director and designer, similarly has adopted ChatGPT to write filler copy, starter design briefs to test new tools, and even gain feedback on his designs by describing them to the chatbot.

Vogelaar doesn’t believe dummy content like Lorem ipsum lets him check whether his design successfully communicates a message as easily as ChatGPT can. “I realized my goal was not to design an interface; it’s to design great communication,” Vogelaar explains. “It's so much easier to check if a design is good when there is (almost) real content in there.”

At the same time, however, many feel replacing Lorem ipsum with realistic text beats the point and the reason why it became omnipresent in demonstrating typefaces in the first place.

It’s long known that Lorem ipsum is the result of altering a passage from a Latin essay called “On the Extremes of Good and Evil” written by the influential Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero, in 45 B.C. But the origins of its use are often contested. While some—most notably, the Hampden-Sydney director of publications Richard McClintock—theorize that an unknown typesetter centuries ago scrambled it into mostly gibberish “to not distract from the page’s graphical features,” there’s no evidence to back it up.

Instead, Alexander Tochilovsky, curator of The Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, explained that though a text by Cicero was used as typeface samples as early as the 1734, the “actual Lorem Ipsum text was scrambled and edited in the 1960s” by Letraset, a typeface sheet manufacturer. It supposedly copied the text out of a 1914 Cicero book, which had the word Dolorem split onto two different pages (do--lorem). From there, it was carried over to digital fonts via publishing software like Aldus Corporation’s PageMaker 1.0.

What’s more important, the motivation behind adopting Latin text for English typesets for centuries was “that the potential customer was able to judge the appearance of the text set in a font of type rather than read it,” adds Tochilovsky.

Lorem ipsum filler text (body type) in typeface sheet manufacturer Letraset's 1974 catalog. Images courtesy the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design & Typography.

Which is why today as designers ditch Lorem ipsum, the transition has been polarizing. Karen McGrane, a designer, and partner at the digital consulting firm Autogram, keeps a file of classic lorem ipsum handy and steers clear of novelty text generators. She believes people tune Lorem ipsum text out more easily and “focus on the conversation about the design.”

While McGrane might consider using ChatGPT to generate random Latin words, she’s not looking for realistic text, as she’s concerned “the client would read it and make comments on it.” She adds, "The entire point of ‘lorem ipsum’ is that you don’t want them to read the text.”

Bibach agrees, and will continue to use “lorem ipsum” when he wants to exclusively “focus on the visual hierarchy of elements rather than text copy.”

But whether designers like McGrane are on board, it likely won’t be long before generative text chatbots, such as ChatGPT, replace “lorem ipsum” as tech firms race to integrate them into their existing services.

Microsoft, for instance, is soon expected to offer ChatGPT-like abilities inside its ecosystem of tools, including Word, Outlook, Bing, and more. Adobe, similarly, is experimenting with generative AI options inside its creative suite, and several third-party ChatGPT plugins are already available on its latest acquisition, Figma. Australia-based graphic platform, Canva, will also let users build elements for marketing projects with the help of AI. Fiverr, a marketplace that connects freelancers and businesses, added AI categories for discovering creators who are well-versed not in creating original art—but in getting the most out of generative tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney. Most recently, web development company Wix Studio (which publishes FWD) announced the launch of an AI assitant within its Wix Editor.

Tochilovsky, for one, doesn’t necessarily think this is a negative development. In his role as a typographer, his advice to students is often to use a “sample of text that approximates as closely as possible the text that will be in the final document.” The problem with Ipsum generators, he adds, is that their text never looks real enough.

“I guess in this sense ChatGPT could be a great option,” Tochilovsky says. “The ability to create sample text based on style, tone, context, etc, would be actually quite helpful.”

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