The story behind our August 2008 cover

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Karsten Schmidt: We used the Z-Corp Z450 printer, which, like most other 3D printing methods, is slowly creating a physical form by printing thousands of cross-sections. Unlike more expensive methods, the Z450 uses standard ink-jet technology to inject a liquid binder into the thin layers of polymer power. After each cross-section is printed, the build platform is lowered by 0.004″ and the next layer of powder spread on top. That way we had an ultra-detailed physical sculpture of the code-generated phrase “type & form” model created after just 9 hours.

Even though ThingLab, the London printing studio used, were amazingly experienced and helpful, the first fabrication attempt unfortunately failed due to the extreme fragility of the internal structures of this object. After the second, more successful run, the object then had to be placed in a bath of resin to harden it and dry out. It now has the texture and colour of bone and somehow really does give the whole project a touch of archaeology.

Why did you decide to use this process, from 2D to 3D and back to 2D?

KS: In one of our initial conversations the phrase “type, form and function” was mentioned and I grew very fond of the “form” idea since I’ve always been fascinated by taking typography out from its traditional “flatworld” domain. Coupled with my other interests in generative design and new technologies, I started exploring various routes using simulations of natural processes that could be used for form giving. One such family of processes is Cellular Automation, a system of helpful tools used by mathematicians to research emergent behaviour in nature. The Gray-Scott Model of Reaction Diffusion is a related process that creates especially beautiful patterns, and it became my choice for further research to create intricate letter forms. I then imagined to marry the 2D results I was getting with a method usually used to create 3D geometry from MRI scan data—which is similarly structured in that it consists of 2D slices stacked up in 3D space. So I did the same with the frames of my letter-growing process and ended up with a 3D sculpture which shows, and purely consists of its own entire creation history, the traces and structures created by the Gray-Scott process.

Getting the final object printed in 3D was then the logical conclusion for the overall idea and pseudo-scientific approach. In my humble opinion, it’s giving readers a glimpse of the upcoming meaning of the word “print” in the 21st century and is also a little nod (nothing more) to Bruce Sterling’s idea of a “spime”: an object that starts and exists as data but can have a (temporary) physical instantiation and keeps and shows a log of its entire life cycle.

What are some examples of software in addition to Processing that helped in the creation of this sculpture?

KS:Sticking with the example of this cover project, apart from ProcessingI’ve also been using the following tools/languages, notably all OpenSource projects:

Eclipse: the (meta)tool which has unspeakably improved and transformed my way of writing and working with codeMeshLab: a 3D file viewer/cleaner tool that was invaluable for analyzing andvisualizing the generated structure (since Processing was unable to dothat due to the sheer complexity of the sculpture)Sunflow: a global illumination renderer used to better visualize the model before printing it in 3DScala: a relatively new programming language more suitable and elegant forcomplex projects than Processing (although it can make direct use ofProcessing as library). My plan is to fully adopt this language for most of my future projects.

In the article, you say that the design community istoo timid toward the software that determines design decisions. Do youmean that the community has allowed design software to define theaesthetic possibilities and haven’t challenged its limitations? Or thatthe community isn’t interested in learning software? Or something else?KS:My basic issue is that the vast majority of the “creative industry” isnot making their own tools anymore as was the case with artisans (itwas their defining characteristic) before the age of the industialrevolution, or more fittingly, before the rise of desktop publishing.For the past 20 years, the vast majority of the creative industry hasbeen supplied with tools by a handful of companies, which have becomethe de facto standard or lowest common denominator between players inthis industry. I’m a big believer in the truth of Kenneth Boulding’sstatement: “We make our tools and they shape us.”

Most of thoseexisting mainstream digital design tools are based on strong metaphorsthat have been transported in to the computer from other domains and,while powerful enough, they hardly comprise the full spectrum ofpossibilities and expression possible with computers today. There areother frustrating developments, social ones, where an entire group ofusers of particular tools become obsessed with attempting to solveevery design challenge with this particular tool. While this is healthyand natural for individuals, I think in the grander scheme of things,this slowly fosters elitist behaviour and creative lameness. Anotherfitting quote by Ivan Illich:

“Institutions create certainties,and taken seriously, certainties deaden the heart and shackle theimagination. It is always my hope that my statements, angry orpassionate, artful or innocent, will also provide a smile, and thus anew freedom – even though the freedom comes at a cost.”

IMHOworking with code is the only way to capture glimpses of the truepotential computers offer us as creation tool. I’ve blogged thefollowing about this topic last year:

“Given that computers andsoftware are our current state-of-the-art tools for problem solving,all in all I’d like to believe that a continued cultural rise andawareness of open source, hacking, informal learning, workshops,blogging, tool making, digital fabrication, and generative design canbe and already is all part of the bigger solution:

* Codeliteracy requires good skills in the abstraction and decomposition ofideas and acknowledges the process nature and connectivity of systems.

* A designer’s appreciation and sensitivity of form and aestheticsinforms adaptable software archit
ectures required for building modularand agile tools.* Open Source tools acts as platform builders(technically and socially) and distribute development costs and reducethe entry threshold by enabling anyone with an interest and access tohardware to become part of ongoing projects and communities.*Hardware initiatives (e.g. OLPC, Arduino) and communal digitalfabrication centers allow for grassroots education, experimentation,and production of tools for fulfilling local/individual needs notcatered for by corporations.

However, in the “creative, graphicdesign camp” literacy of Code still has the stigma/whiff of “geekery,nerdiness or general uncoolness” attached to it, which is only slowlybeing dissolved by the growing popularity of code-oriented tools likeProcessing, Nodebox, Flash, and people’s exposure to the new realitiesand promises of such approaches to design. This stigma again has to dowith the popular belief and social encouragement that in mainstreamculture being a “designer” has had a status attached for one to bepartly seen as irrational as one’s true sign of creativity and hencewhy he/she can’t/shouldn’t possibly be interested in more rational orscience related matters(like writing code) and so maybe this will help build bridges between those disciplines and more artistic ones.