• PrintMag

The story behind our August 2008 cover

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 Processing I’ve also been using the following tools/languages, notably all Open Source projects:

Eclipse: the (meta)tool which has unspeakably improved and transformed my way of writing and working with code MeshLab: a 3D file viewer/cleaner tool that was invaluable for analyzing and visualizing the generated structure (since Processing was unable to do that due to the sheer complexity of the sculpture) Sunflow: a global illumination renderer used to better visualize the model before printing it in 3D Scala: a relatively new programming language more suitable and elegant for complex projects than Processing (although it can make direct use of Processing 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 is too timid toward the software that determines design decisions. Do you mean that the community has allowed design software to define the aesthetic possibilities and haven’t challenged its limitations? Or that the community isn’t interested in learning software? Or something else? KS: My basic issue is that the vast majority of the “creative industry” is not making their own tools anymore as was the case with artisans (it was their defining characteristic) before the age of the industial revolution, or more fittingly, before the rise of desktop publishing. For the past 20 years, the vast majority of the creative industry has been supplied with tools by a handful of companies, which have become the de facto standard or lowest common denominator between players in this industry. I’m a big believer in the truth of Kenneth Boulding’s statement: “We make our tools and they shape us.”

Most of those existing mainstream digital design tools are based on strong metaphors that have been transported in to the computer from other domains and, while powerful enough, they hardly comprise the full spectrum of possibilities and expression possible with computers today. There are other frustrating developments, social ones, where an entire group of users of particular tools become obsessed with attempting to solve every design challenge with this particular tool. While this is healthy and natural for individuals, I think in the grander scheme of things, this slowly fosters elitist behaviour and creative lameness. Another fitting quote by Ivan Illich:

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

IMHO working with code is the only way to capture glimpses of the true potential computers offer us as creation tool. I’ve blogged the following about this topic last year:

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

* Code literacy requires good skills in the abstraction and decomposition of ideas and acknowledges the process nature and connectivity of systems.

* A designer’s appreciation and sensitivity of form and aesthetics informs adaptable software architectures required for building modular and agile tools. * Open Source tools acts as platform builders (technically and socially) and distribute development costs and reduce the entry threshold by enabling anyone with an interest and access to hardware to become part of ongoing projects and communities. * Hardware initiatives (e.g. OLPC, Arduino) and communal digital fabrication centers allow for grassroots education, experimentation, and production of tools for fulfilling local/individual needs not catered for by corporations.

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