Interpolated Single Letterform Toys?
Analysis on new digital typography themes

Josh Nimoy, january 28, 2004

Where are they going? In 1997, Masters student Peter Cho created two interactive software art pieces at which the viewer could type keyboard characters (1). Pie-shapes fan in and out as they switch between semi-legible configurations. His other piece is a series of squares arranged in a rectilinear grid, toggling their states to show the intersection between the letters being typed. Both pieces were a single letterform. Cho's investigation was partly influenced by a class being taught by John Maeda at the time, "Dimensional Typography." Later, these experiments were widely published after winning an award in I.D. Magazine. A couple years later, the practice of setting up simple shapes to move between states and interpolate letterforms became a commonly seen format in the work of interactive design students with the same pursuit. David Lu formed letters out of one curved white line(2). It is confirmed that Lu had been closely watching the work of Cho and Maeda. Likewise, Nikita Pashenkov was another student in the same program as Cho who carried forward the interpolation tradition with his "Alphabot,"(3) an effort to gain more legibility through complexifying the structure - using more components than Cho. On the other hand, Lu uses less components than Cho resulting in less legibility, but having a higher design concept edge; it can be more elegant to use less parts. Cho was using the interactive format perhaps as a quick way to set up call and response from the keyboard to the screen. The interface becomes a trivial visualization tool when the visual letterform is crtitiqued as a static typeface. The fact that his fan shapes are whipping all over the place and causing a GMR high(4) in the user are what justifies the interface for the piece's appeal to people. The GMR high could have been created by whipping the letters in response to stimuli coming from the network, or coming from canned text, but it was strongest with this direct call and response. The project was loved as a typeface, but were people subliminally in love with its presentation style? Is there something deeper that Lu, Cho, and Pashenkov were pursuing? Creating all these interpolative systems and presenting them as single letterforms is a beginning in the direction of breaking free from the magical 7-segment LED number inside the Texas Instruments speak and spell. Although they were on-screen, they began to suggest that simple formal resources could be manipulated to form temporary, legible states - as in flag signaling and sign language with hands, except this time, no new symbolic dictionary needed to be memorized. Only a mapping of recognition is needed to read the signs. By picking this tradition up and repeating it in a physical robot, I hope to apply this past research to the industrial design of new letters in signage. As a purely expressive notion, the use of a wider diversity of kinetic materials and movements to form letters affords us a larger range for human communication that is beyond the read meaning of the text, itself. Verizon can have an exquisite sign in their lobby that spells out their name and gives realtime stock quotes - completely by kinetic telephones mounted on animatronic movement rigging. Or New York Metro can have its own LCD panel system that closer matches the company's branding and provides better legibility. And what becomes of Cho's GMR high interface? It becomes a celebrated testing ground for how forms might relate in future signage. Afterall, it seems logical to relate each letter before relating each word. In addition to signage, I also ask whether the onscreen embodiment could ever be made to be more than a novel toy for Nintendo generation type designers.

(1) Peter Cho, Masters student at MIT Media Lab, 1997

(2) David Lu, Masters student at IVREA Institute of Interaction Design, 2002

(3) Nikita Pashenkov, Masters student at MIT Media Lab, 2001

(4) Jeffrey Goldsmith, This is Your Brain on Tetris