Kromatttic speculative typeface design

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Kromatttic 2016
Speculative typeface design

This was my submission to the ProtoType Speculative Typeface exhibition held alongside TypeCon this year — a hyper chromatic type design called Kromatttic. It unfortunately didn’t make the cut for the exhibition — the ones that did were all really quite excellent, so no complaints. I’d created most of the letters for previous images, but this was great motivation to finish the whole alphabet. There are about 500 individual letterforms within it.

From my submission:

While most chromatic typefaces systematically aim to align letterforms to craft perfectly polished combinations, Kromatttic works with imperfection, disarray, and chance to create far more complex, messy, and diverse letterforms. Due to the nature of the individual components, Kromatttic can shift between being incredibly elaborate (combining a large number of components) to quirky and low-fi (using minimal overlapping components). 

Kromatttic was born from a larger project which explores using letterforms to celebrate diversity when communicating positive body image messages. The project aims to disrupt the current cultural status quo, including the resurgence of hand lettered forms which has already been rapidly co-opted, polished, and re-deployed by the fashion and other associated industries.


Who benefits from you feeling bad about yourself?

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Who Benefits From You Feeling Bad About Yourself? 2016
Digital illustration

I spent a lot of time crafting the wording for this image — multiple drafts over a few months actually until I was happy. The original was much longer, but when I started to create the image was just far too complicated. I’ve intended it to be read two different ways — a general statement on the wasted time thinking negative thoughts and also a wider critique on our media and society. The construction was happily quite short compared to other images, as I’ve recycled most of the letterforms from past work. I’m yet to decide if this is a good thing to do, as it somewhat reduces the idea of diversity if you see another image using the same letterform…

No Bodies Perfekt

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No Bodies Perfekt 2016
Digital illustration

Continuing along the same path I have been this year, looking at combining and overlapping type to communicate diversity. Happy with the text I came up with for this outcome which explores the idea of including grammatical and spelling errors. Combining this technique with forcing myself to overlay ‘successful’ letterforms with less ‘perfect’ letterforms really pushes me out of my comfort zone.


From slogans to aphorisms

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The Images you Compare Yourself to are Not Real 2016
digital illustration

In an effort to consider the written content as well as the visual, I spent a bit of time looking further into prevention campaigns that combat body image related issues. The result was the above aphorism (my definition: kind of like a slogan, but with a bit more substance behind it).

An interesting point I had previously read but forgotten about was that building positive body image has been proven to be a successful tactic in the prevention of negative body image. Interventions that also seek to generate critical discourse on cultural influences are the most successful. The above aphorism was developed from a 2005 study by La Trobe University in Melbourne which focussed on testing key messages and their effectiveness with adolescents. It’s a combination of two messages ‘images of people in the media are not real’ and ‘don’t fall into the comparison trap’ that they found resonated highly with their audience.

I think it’s a critical message, especially as ten years on technology now allows anyone with a smart phone the ability to digitally modify photographs that they publish and distribute. As Fred Ritchin notes, reality is increasingly being seen as the ‘first draft’ that needs to be improved and enhanced. It’s important to remind ourselves that those enhanced images are not a true reflection of the world.

I’ve also continued my exploration on a mixture of lettering styles to promote the idea of diversity and imperfection. While probably not as successful as the animated experiments in this area, I hope it still gets the message across. The elongated and compressed letters blatantly ripped from the excellent new identity for Parsons by Paula Scher and a Issey Miyake logotype I spotted in Tokyo a few months ago. This idea of dramatic distortion is something I would like to explore further.

Reflections: next steps

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The space between semesters is always an ideal time for me to get things done. Other job responsibilities are still present, but I also have the luxury of less pressure and time to breathe and think. I’ve been reasonably productive in the last few weeks, starting where I left off last year—experimenting with letterforms. Even though I swore never again, I’ve produced some more animated experiments too. Surprisingly, I also got around to posting some of this work to Instagram, something I’ve been trying to do for a few years now. One of the results is above, approaching an image I made last year, but reducing the visual complexity. I kinda think it works, but also think I’m starting to spin my wheels at the same time.

So, this small chunk of work represents a turning point, as I’ve been able to reflect on my work and believe it needs to evolve. To date, I’ve stuck with either individual letterforms or short statements to use, but a supervisor brought up the topic of content last year, and ever since it has bugged me. The ‘slogan’ has been perfect for this stage of the overall project, but now is the time to start raising the stakes. From now on I’ll be thinking harder about the words I use, rather than just how they look…

The problem with photography

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A common question that people ask when I am explaining my research project (at least, trying my best to) is ‘what’s the problem with using photography?’. After a bunch of reading and thinking about it the reason is as clear as day for me, but, I can see why people would ask. So, this post aims to explain it the best way I can.

We often become outraged by images of ‘anorexic’, ‘buff’, and ‘stacked’ fashion models and public figures we are exposed to every day. These kinds of images (combined with a whole bunch of other cultural forces) promote unobtainable body shapes as something we should all aspire too. These body shapes are commonly called the ‘thin’ and ‘masculine’ ideals. If someone internalises these ideals, they accept them as being normal, and their own body as abnormal. This can lead to all sorts of issues, from negative body image to eating disorders, and depression. If you want to know more, read Body Image by Sarah Grogan of Manchester Metropolitan University who writes about this topic in a very clear and concise manner.

How visual designers use photographs

So, how should visual designers approach communication related to body image and eating disorders (and more generally, communication related to youth and other high-risk audiences)? Currently, in the face of this, the use of ‘average’ and ‘healthy’ body images would be considered a safe strategy to avoid harm (I certainly did before starting this project). It’s even suggested by Australia’s National Advisory Group as a key strategy of promoting body image diversity. They state using ‘a more diverse range of people within the fashion, advertising and media industries’ allows ‘more people to identify with popular images of beauty and help them view their own bodies more positively’ within their Code of Conduct on Body Image.

However, from my perspective, any photographic representations of a body — even one which might be deemed ‘average’ or ‘healthy’ — should be avoided if possible.


A few images used on the NEDC website

A great example of is kind of strategy at work can be found in the website and other designed material produced by the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC). The designers involved have put thought into the visuals used, as the people depicted in the photographs are happy, smiling, friendly, and above all else, have the currently accepted ‘average’ body size. I can imagine the dilemma in the studio when these decisions were made — photographs rejected left and right trying to narrow it down to only those that looked ‘average’. In the end, the selected photos would make sense to the designers involved — in their mind, it would have been a job well done.

How we all read a photograph

An important point to make is that we might look at the same photograph, but we read it differently. Photographs have also been historically elevated in regards to their ‘truthfulness’ — for example ‘the camera never lies’. Scholars such as Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Roland Barthes have written a great deal about this topic, and while the way they describe it is different, my interpretation is that they all come to the same conclusion: while we might perceive a photographic image to have a static and true meaning it does not. What we read is our own individual narrative created by our own background, views and experiences — our ‘lexicon’ as Barthes described it.

As an aside, in the sea of essays and books I’ve been exposed to in recent times, Sontag’s On Photography, Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the updated Understanding a Photograph, and, Barthes’s Camera Obscura were such a relief to read. They all have a way with words that made their work a joy (imagine that) rather than a chore to read.

All images have been sourced from online photo libraries — this particular one is titled 'bored teenager in bedroom'

All images have been sourced from online photo libraries — this particular one is titled ‘bored teenager in bedroom’

The limited range of visual diversity in the NEDC examples — not only in body shape but in age and race — is not surprising when you consider they have all been sourced from generic online stock photography libraries. Stock libraries are notorious for perpetuating homogenised ideals, best explained by Ellen Lupton & Abbott Miller in their book Design Writing Research, when they wrote that stock libraries provide a ‘tremendous increase in the supply of pictures available’ while simultaneously ‘narrowing the representational field’.

The problem with photography is, these carefully selected images may only serve to reinforce negative thoughts because of how the viewer reads the images. Viewers who are susceptible to developing — or have already developed — a distorted or ‘negative’ body image could compare themselves with these representations of ‘average’. Objectively, there is nothing average about these images anyway, as while it appears they have avoided anyone with a catwalk model frame, all the people included are ridiculously good looking. Similar criticism has been aimed at the popular ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ by Dove (actually owned by the giant Unilever). Some have suggested that even though it brought the topic of diverse body types into mainstream conversation, it only really promoted a restricted view of what ‘beauty’ was, with the only real positive being a massive increase in sales of Dove products.

The real shame is that the information provided on the website is fantastic: well researched, well written in an understandable and relatable way — but the visual design works totally against it! It’s not really the fault of NEDC or the designers either — most design schools inadvertently perpetuate the thin and masculine ideals with no alternatives offered (coming from an educator in this field).

If you’re interested in the topic of the power of images, Helen Razor has recently written a face-melting take down of the Butterfly Foundation and their use of celebrity photographs in their recent Don’t Dis My Appearance campaign.

But how is using lettering any different?

The visual nature of communication in this area is important — the information is critical and the visuals can assist in backing up the information and also making it easier to digest. I’m not naive enough to believe that using lettering rather than photographs is going to completely solve this problem, however I do believe that the use of lettering can communicate a greater range of visual diversity (that’s kind of the whole point of my doctorate study). It’s still a grey area though, and recent use of lettering in fashion advertising is making it blurrier — it will be important to make sure the lettering I produce is distinctly different from the mainstream, yet diverse, and visually interesting.

Happiness Not Perfection

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Happiness Not Perfection 2015
digital animation
0:59 min (loop)

This is a variation of the final animation that will be exhibited at Crane Arts (the original is arranged vertically, but hard to display in this blog format). I think I might also look into developing a square version, so that it can be shared easily across multiple formats.

Here is a little snippet from the exhibition catalogue explaining my intention:

The characters are vivid, constantly changing, overlapping, mixing and moving in and out of sequence. The result is designed to look somewhat unfinished and unresolved, ultimately aiming to communicate the message that individuality, difference and spontaneity is not only acceptable, but hopefully more desirable than the dominant cultural messages it aims to subvert.

The animation features over six hundred individually created letterforms — hand drawn, hand painted or computer generated. I actually created over two thousand letterforms for the project, but left most out as I found these became more ‘variations on a theme’ rather than distinct, unique letterforms.

Exchange logotype

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The work for the upcoming Exchange exhibition is rapidly coming together (but it will as always be a last minute rush to complete it). I had to take a break from it as I was asked to produce a logotype to promote the exhibition — luckily I have literally thousands of custom letters floating around on my hard-drive from my studio work. The current final outcome looks very much like the ‘h’ in this image, as I’ve found the overlapped lettering produces a sense of energy but also a kind of ‘beautiful messiness’. I’ve also discovered to create a nice animation using this visual style I need to generate even more letters…


Upcoming exhibition: Exchange, October 2015 in Philadelphia

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I have been given another great opportunity to submit a work in a follow up from last years Design In Flux show in Philly. This time the show is bigger, and I plan to build on the work from last year by trying to develop it into an animation.

This particular exhibition will be themed and titled Exchange. From the submission notes:

In professional design practice, design has been conceived a service performed in exchange for fees, but in its larger, longer history, design is a cultural practice enmeshed in custom, obligation and unwritten understandings. While widespread nuanced and complex systems of exchange have been articulated and theorised by scholars such as Marcel Mauss (“The Gift”), Georges Bataille (“general economy”) and Jean Baudrillard (“symbolic exchange”), design discourse has largely neglected to address their importance. With growing understanding of informal systems and their importance in crisis situations, the rise of new “wiki” models of internet-enabled exchange and the “sharing economy”, the call for broader understandings and richer models of design practice is more urgent than ever before.

This exhibition of design projects and collaborations aims to shed light on the art of exchange in design practice, furthering discussion and understanding of how design projects can gain in strength and flexibility as they are passed around collaborators and exchanged across cultures.

There are quite a few links in the theme to my work, so looking forward to pulling it together. I think the only issue will be time (it always is) and finding enough to do the outcome justice.