Different Strokes

Posted inDesign Resources

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

Just asgardening is a matter of planting and watering, rather than actuallycrafting flowers and leaves, Schmidt says design should take place at amore profound level than that of layout. He says the design communityhas allowed available software to define what’s possibleaesthetically, that “the the vast majority of the creativeindustry is not making its own tools anymore.”

As if provinghis point, Schmidt has been writing his own code to build letterformsthat can, among other things, sprout leaves just like his houseplants.Last year, he designed a title sequence for “New Shoots,” aseries 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 athick hedge, like a Chia Pet on growth hormones. The process involvesmillions of particles attaching themselves to the outline of the Channel4 house font, each controlled by a combination of factors described byprogrammers in terms such as stickiness, snap distance, density, chanceof attachment, and alignment strength. Schmidt, who also goes by thename Toxi, argues that the design product isn’t what’s seenonscreen, but rather the unseen lines of code that determine theeventual output, a program that could be applied to any other line-basedshape. “Design is the output of the design machine,” hedeclares.


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

The field of kinetic type is not, nor has it ever been, solelydigital. Writing a word with a handheld light source and capturing it onfilm—or creating letters in the sky with the vapor trail of aplane—are methods that have been around for decades. Morerecently, the digital and non-digital realms have come together in theform of Josh Nimoy’s Robotic Typography (2004), a letter-makingmachine that responds to keyboard commands; last year, Peter Bilakintroduced DanceWriter, a program that allows users to type a phrase andsee it performed onscreen by a member of the Nederlands Dans Theater.

It was the introduction of PostScript, however, in themid-’80s, that changed the design field. It forced type designersto realize that they were not working with fixed outlines ofletterforms, but rather with the code that defines them. Thisunderstanding remains the locus of experimental practice.


HUDSON-POWELL: Screenshot from Responsive Type, 2007.

Earlierthis year, Erik Spiekermann, the founder of the type purveyor FontShopand an early advocate of the potential of PostScript’scapabilities, collaborated on a typeface with Erik van Blokland, onehalf of the Dutch design and programming duo LettError. In combinationwith another program called RoundingUFO, a specific corner-roundingapplication created by Belgian designer and programmer Frederik Berlaen,they produced a rounded version of Spiekermann’s Unit typefaceusing Superpolator, a tool that generates forms for animation or print.Berlaen’s code generated different rounded versions of Unit, whichwere then fed into Superpolator in order to make proofs and animationsthat Spiekermann used to easily determine the right curvatures.

Justwhat type designers should do with these new technologicalpossibilities is still being worked out. The wide range of ambitions andinterests 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 fascinatedwith generative processes, in which they create code, feed in data, andstand back to see what emerges. Fry, in particular, is known forvisualizing unwieldy masses of biological information in a way thatcould only be enabled by digital technology. “I think the realreason we’re seeing so much generative work is because thecomputational medium makes it possible to think this way,” hesays.


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 betterachieve predetermined ends. After building the interactive typespecimens Lego Font Creator and Rubik Maker for Lineto.com, Lehnicreated Scriptographer, a plug-in for Adobe Illustrator that, though notstrictly a typographic tool, allows users to extend Illustrator’sfunctionality through a simple scripting language. Lehni describes thisas opening the “black box” of proprietary software, helpingdesigners take control of their materials.

This tool manipulationethos may seem to be in opposition to the generative programmingapproach, but the small and highly self-selective Scriptographer usersstill enjoy accidental outcomes and unpredicted events. Chance drips andmalfunctions are integral to the performance of Hektor, Lehni’scelebrated Scriptographer-powered, computer-driven, “spray-paintoutput 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 believesthat “the final product should be elastic.”

The overridingissue for most designers exploring this realm is clarity and quality ofexpression. Peter Cho, another product of MIT’s Media Lab,describes his guiding concern as “how motion can affect themessage in unexpected ways, making it more complex or even counteractingit.” In 2005, he took the notion of kinetic type into the realm ofabstraction with the invention of Takeluma, a writing system based onthe sound of speech. Although not readable in any conventional sense,this scheme raises the possibility that kineticism might convey meaningindependent of fixed form, reopening an investigation into the long-heldideal of a universal language. “It reinvents type,” saysReas, Cho’s former classmate. At the very least, the animatedmovement suggests the explosiveness and ephemeral nature of speech.

Cho’s investigations have trickled down into mainstreamcommercial design. A 2005 TV ad for the Audi A6, by French film companyPleix, shows a car exploding into multiple abstract forms, which thenflow 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 thephrase’s execution is even more eloquent than a literaltranslation.

Working along similar lines, Matthias Hillner has beenexploring the transition between abstraction and legibility in space andtime. He believes that much of the commercial work in this field, suchas title sequences and “brand stings”—forms built inFlash that swoosh across the screen before coalescing into alogo—betray the medium’s promise. “Too oftenit’s a gimmick,” he complains. “They don’tchallenge the viewer or explore the potential.” In 2004, Hillnerproposed a fragmented signage system using his Wireframe typeface forthe outer-London borough of Croydon. He abandoned that scheme because itwould be “inappropriate to add visual stimulants to an environmentwhich in itself appears overly dense.” Yet he still believesvirtual typography has a role to play in busy, unpredictableenvironments.


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

Although print and screen remain separate fields, theneed for typefaces that move seamlessly between the two media isgrowing. 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 adigital billboard as it does in a printed brochure,” says LukePowell. During the past three years, the studio has been collaboratingwith the Processing community on Responsive Type, a set of Futura-basedletterforms. Eventually, the group hopes to have an open-source programthat can work with more complex typographic configurations.

Meanwhile, Schmidt is working on a program that will create coversfor a new series of books being launched this summer by the publisherFaber and Faber. Although each cover is technically the same, no two arealike. The design is merely a set of instructions. The process issimilar to Hella Jongerius’s B-set, porcelain plates baked in akiln that is too hot in traditional terms, turning each into anirregular individual.

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

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