JOHN MAEDA EXPLORES THE INTERSECTION OF TECHNOLOGY, ART AND DESIGN John Maeda is an American executive, designer, technologist. His work explores the area where business, design, and technology merge. He is Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic “I began to think about the computer as a spiritual place of thinking. I was influenced by performance art,” says Maeda, before sharing one of his earliest works — a computer enacted by people. “When people say, ‘I don’t get art. I don’t get it all,’ that means art is working. Art is supposed to be enigmatic … Art is about asking questions — questions that might not be answerable.”
LettError The Innovative Dutch Design Duo
Widely considered as craftsmen rather than artists, typeface designers traditionally inhabited the most cloistered of environments. Since the mid-80s, however, they have had to come to terms with the outside world as new technology has equipped a generation of relatively unskilled type users, facilitating a proliferation of new font designs. While many designers and typographers are still reeling from the shock of the new, Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, a pair of young designers collectively known as LettError, have set out to take technology to its limits. Rather than simply adapting to change, they are waiting impatiently for computers to catch up with their ideas.
Beowolf, the first LettError typeface to be commercially released, is still their best known. Originally called Random Font, its starting point was the designers’ understanding that PostScript fonts are sets of mathematical instructions, rather than physical forms. When letters are stored as coded outline information, they need not necessarily take the same form each time they are printed: if a random element is introduced, the same set of instructions can produce a variety of different letterforms. Beowolf is available in different degrees of randomness: Beowolf 23, for instance, is a great deal more irregular and jagged than Beowolf 21. While no two instances of a character ever come out the same, the letters of the Beowolf typeface are instantly recognisable as part of the same family. While Beowolf and their subsequent random fonts have broken with current typographic convention, LettError view the standardisation of letterforms that resulted from mechanical typesetting not as typographic perfection, but merely as a phase in a much longer history of written communication. Erik van Blokland explains: ‘For a short while, maybe 300 years, there was a system that meant letters had to be the same. A mechanical system of producing type meant that there was one master form and you made copies of that; it was all very logical. That is why all the ‘A’s are the same and all of the ‘B’s are the same. We have grown up expecting that to happen, but it is the result of a mechanical process, not for any reason of understanding or legibility.
This was a hot phase in your life. First, you had a random font that played havoc with its own shape, then your own handwriting, almost unchanged. ErikRightHand and JustLeftHand have become incredibly popular because they happen to be good Dutch handwriting, not calligraphic. They look like the sort of handwriting everybody would like to have if they practiced and could write beautifully. And Trixie, the typewriter face, is the ultimate vernacular. People everywhere still recognize it, although typewriters hardly exist anymore.
Trixie is a distressed monospaced serif typeface created by Erik van Blokland in 1991 using the inspiration of an old, worn typewriter. Its â€œXâ€? character is famously used in the title of The X-Files
Trixie is mainstream now, and in fact it’s so mainstream that we can’t stand it anymore. It’s been around for at least three years. In Europe, almost all the hip cultural magazines use it when they want to express something that’s brand-new, urgent, factual. In the US, it’s been used by Rolling Stone and a lot of trendy local publications. When you’re a type designer and you find your own typeface somewhere for the first time, it’s a nice feeling. It’s maybe a little like being a rock star, hearing your song for the first time on the radio. But it’s a small and quiet pleasure. Nobody knows. And you know that you couldn’t explain it to your friends even if you wanted to. I’m sure that even Sting doesn’t know my handwriting is on his album cover
ART AND ACTIVISM: GRAN FURY
SILENCE = DEATH Graphic that came to define the AIDS/HIV activist movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. Gran Fury, “Let the Record Show “ (1987). Installation view, New Museum, New York City The graphic was created as a reaction to a 1986 New York Times edi-
The group also became notorious for its contribution to the 1990 Venice Biennale, a.k.a. the “Pope Piece”: “The artwork paired two billboard-sized panels: one coupled the image of the Pope with a text about the church’s anti-safe-sex rhetoric; the other a two-foot-high erect penis with texts about women and condom use.”
Gran Fury published several manifestos about the AIDS crisis and their response to it over the course of their existence; this one, published in 1995 just before they disbanded, served as both a look back at their conception and practice as well as an exploration of their complex relationship with the art world at large that had provided so much of Gran Furyâ€™s platforms and support. A 2003 Artforum interview with some of its members also provides an excellent overview of the groupâ€™s history and methodology, including some interesting in-
Long before Facebook and Twitter made getting a message out to a mass audience as simple as a couple of clicks, the art/activist collective known as Gran Fury used a heady combination of bold graphic design, guerrilla dissemination tactics, and art institutional support to communicate the urgency of the AIDS epidemic in light of disastrous government and political inaction.