Different Strokes

Every day, Karsten Schmidt’s London flat is home to both
biological and digital growth. He tends to the marigolds and freesia on
the balcony as he waits for tendrils of code to render in software such
as Processing and Sunflow—the ultimate 21st-century jungle.
Schmidt, a self-described “creative programmer,” is a member
of the technological cognoscenti who contribute to Processing, an
open-source programming language for image-making and animation
initiated by MIT Media Lab graduates Ben Fry and Casey Reas.

Just as
gardening is a matter of planting and watering, rather than actually
crafting flowers and leaves, Schmidt says design should take place at a
more profound level than that of layout. He says the design community
has allowed available software to define what’s possible
aesthetically, that “the the vast majority of the creative
industry is not making its own tools anymore.”

As if proving
his point, Schmidt has been writing his own code to build letterforms
that can, among other things, sprout leaves just like his houseplants.
Last year, he designed a title sequence for “New Shoots,” a
series of films shot by disabled directors for the U.K.-based Channel 4.
In a matter of seconds, a topiary version of the title grows into a
thick hedge, like a Chia Pet on growth hormones. The process involves
millions of particles attaching themselves to the outline of the Channel
4 house font, each controlled by a combination of factors described by
programmers in terms such as stickiness, snap distance, density, chance
of attachment, and alignment strength. Schmidt, who also goes by the
name Toxi, argues that the design product isn’t what’s seen
onscreen, but rather the unseen lines of code that determine the
eventual output, a program that could be applied to any other line-based
shape. “Design is the output of the design machine,” he
declares.

 

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PETER CHO: A still from Takeluma (2005), an invented writing system in which letterforms explore the way speech sounds can give rise to a variety of visual responses.

 

 

As dynamic typography becomes a part of everyday commercial
design, creative programmers such as Schmidt are pushing the limits of
new technology while ensuring their work has a solid raison d’
être. Not only can their type design occupy two and three
dimensions—it can take time into account as well, morphing,
evolving, or growing to the point where movement itself is part of the
design. But does movement enhance communication? Need every sentence
spin? Dancing type may have a firm place in the imagination, but its
place in the real world remains less certain. “Just because you
can,” warns Schmidt, “doesn’t mean you should.”

The field of kinetic type is not, nor has it ever been, solely
digital. Writing a word with a handheld light source and capturing it on
film—or creating letters in the sky with the vapor trail of a
plane—are methods that have been around for decades. More
recently, the digital and non-digital realms have come together in the
form of Josh Nimoy’s Robotic Typography (2004), a letter-making
machine that responds to keyboard commands; last year, Peter Bilak
introduced DanceWriter, a program that allows users to type a phrase and
see it performed onscreen by a member of the Nederlands Dans Theater.

It was the introduction of PostScript, however, in the
mid-’80s, that changed the design field. It forced type designers
to realize that they were not working with fixed outlines of
letterforms, but rather with the code that defines them. This
understanding remains the locus of experimental practice.

 

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HUDSON-POWELL: Screenshot from Responsive Type, 2007.

 

 

Earlier
this year, Erik Spiekermann, the founder of the type purveyor FontShop
and an early advocate of the potential of PostScript’s
capabilities, collaborated on a typeface with Erik van Blokland, one
half of the Dutch design and programming duo LettError. In combination
with another program called RoundingUFO, a specific corner-rounding
application created by Belgian designer and programmer Frederik Berlaen,
they produced a rounded version of Spiekermann’s Unit typeface
using Superpolator, a tool that generates forms for animation or print.
Berlaen’s code generated different rounded versions of Unit, which
were then fed into Superpolator in order to make proofs and animations
that Spiekermann used to easily determine the right curvatures.

Just
what type designers should do with these new technological
possibilities is still being worked out. The wide range of ambitions and
interests that drives kinetic type—programming, type design,
rendering, and animation—can appear contradictory. For example,
some designers, such as Processing’s Fry and Reas, are fascinated
with generative processes, in which they create code, feed in data, and
stand back to see what emerges. Fry, in particular, is known for
visualizing unwieldy masses of biological information in a way that
could only be enabled by digital technology. “I think the real
reason we’re seeing so much generative work is because the
computational medium makes it possible to think this way,” he
says.

 

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JÜRG LEHNI: Hektor’s motion paths as calculated by the controlling software.

 

Whereas Fry and Reas use code to generate unpredictable forms,
others, such as Jürg Lehni, prefer to craft digital tools to better
achieve predetermined ends. After building the interactive type
specimens Lego Font Creator and Rubik Maker for Lineto.com, Lehni
created Scriptographer, a plug-in for Adobe Illustrator that, though not
strictly a typographic tool, allows users to extend Illustrator’s
functionality through a simple scripting language. Lehni describes this
as opening the “black box” of proprietary software, helping
designers take control of their materials.

This tool manipulation
ethos may seem to be in opposition to the generative programming
approach, but the small and highly self-selective Scriptographer users
still enjoy accidental outcomes and unpredicted events. Chance drips and
malfunctions are integral to the performance of Hektor, Lehni’s
celebrated Scriptographer-powered, computer-driven, “spray-paint
output device.” Likewise, the Dutch “process designer”
Jonathan Puckey shies away from the idea of “rigid form.”
Puckey, who has created various Scriptographer-derived lettering tools,
puts typographic manipulation into the hands of designers, yet believes
that “the final product should be elastic.”

The overriding
issue for most designers exploring this realm is clarity and quality of
expression. Peter Cho, another product of MIT’s Media Lab,
describes his guiding concern as “how motion can affect the
message in unexpected ways, making it more complex or even counteracting
it.” In 2005, he took the notion of kinetic type into the realm of
abstraction with the invention of Takeluma, a writing system based on
the sound of speech. Although not readable in any conventional sense,
this scheme raises the possibility that kineticism might convey meaning
independent of fixed form, reopening an investigation into the long-held
ideal of a universal language. “It reinvents type,” says
Reas, Cho’s former classmate. At the very least, the animated
movement suggests the explosiveness and ephemeral nature of speech.

Cho’s investigations have trickled down into mainstream
commercial design. A 2005 TV ad for the Audi A6, by French film company
Pleix, shows a car exploding into multiple abstract forms, which then
flow through an empty cityscape, pausing to spell the company slogan
“Vorsprung Durch Technik” (Advancement Through Technology).
Made for an international market, the smooth dynamism of the
phrase’s execution is even more eloquent than a literal
translation.

Working along similar lines, Matthias Hillner has been
exploring the transition between abstraction and legibility in space and
time. He believes that much of the commercial work in this field, such
as title sequences and “brand stings”—forms built in
Flash that swoosh across the screen before coalescing into a
logo—betray the medium’s promise. “Too often
it’s a gimmick,” he complains. “They don’t
challenge the viewer or explore the potential.” In 2004, Hillner
proposed a fragmented signage system using his Wireframe typeface for
the outer-London borough of Croydon. He abandoned that scheme because it
would be “inappropriate to add visual stimulants to an environment
which in itself appears overly dense.” Yet he still believes
virtual typography has a role to play in busy, unpredictable
environments.

 

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BEN FRY: Still from Tendril (2000), a web browser that constructs typographic sculptures from the text content of web pages.

 

 

Although print and screen remain separate fields, the
need for typefaces that move seamlessly between the two media is
growing. The London-based firm Hudson-Powell is working on an ambitious,
would-be standard software that would create dynamic screen-based type.
“We want to make a typeface that works as well spinning on a
digital billboard as it does in a printed brochure,” says Luke
Powell. During the past three years, the studio has been collaborating
with the Processing community on Responsive Type, a set of Futura-based
letterforms. Eventually, the group hopes to have an open-source program
that can work with more complex typographic configurations.

Meanwhile, Schmidt is working on a program that will create covers
for a new series of books being launched this summer by the publisher
Faber and Faber. Although each cover is technically the same, no two are
alike. The design is merely a set of instructions. The process is
similar to Hella Jongerius’s B-set, porcelain plates baked in a
kiln that is too hot in traditional terms, turning each into an
irregular individual.

Ironically, perhaps the biggest problem facing
the field of kinetic typography is a tendency to repeat the experiments
of the past. Sequences made in sophisticated software programs often
look suspiciously like vamped-up versions of ’50s film titles;
forays into responsive type often replicate, in seeming ignorance, the
experiments—Tobias Frere-Jones’s self-destructing Reactor
font, or Paul Elliman’s photo-booth-based Alphabet—of the
early digital days.

But what creators of kinetic typography want most
is more time. Perhaps, before this work can become a more meaningful
part of the graphic vocabulary, the most pressing need is for clients
who will allow these creative programmers the chance to sort out the
difference between what can, and what should, be done.

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