On February 2nd, FontShop’s Ilse Geeraerts and myself attended the second session of Shapeshifters 2010 - Source in the Beursschouwburg, Brussels. I announced it as being "of special interest for people interested in typography, calligraphy, language, and the alphabet", and I’m happy to say I was right on the money. The program that evening included presentations by lettering artist and type designer Timothy Donaldson, and decode.unicode.org collaborator Prof. Johannes Bergerhausen. The quality presentations and affability of both speakers made this a very insightful and entertaining evening.
Timothy Donaldson (left) and myself at the after-show drink in café Kafka, Brussels. Photo by Ilse Geeraerts Timothy Donaldson The presentation by Timothy Donaldson was very similar to the one he gave at TYPO Berlin - Space last year. Thanks to Timothy’s dry, self-deprecating humour and off-beat stage presence I enjoyed it as much as the first time I saw it. He started with explaining about his English roots, his teaching, and situated his work in the contemporary type and lettering scene. The number of typefaces he designed is respectable – including many energetic scripts, some joyous display faces, and an idiosyncratic super family. It was interesting to see them all in one list.
The last part of the talk was devoted to the book Timothy wrote. As I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy yet I’ll simply copy the blurb from the back cover. Shapes for sounds (Cowhouse)“examines a fundamental discovery of humankind the idea of shapes for sounds – of alphabets. Without them, newspapers would be just folded paper*, mystery envelopes would drop through your letterbox, you might brush your teeth with hair-gel, and you wouldn’t be reading this. ¶ The development of this idea is considered on a sequential and individual basis, from its sonic beginnings, with the Latin alphabet placed into a broader context of other alphabets. Topics examined are: the growth of the second Latin alphabet from the first one (and three optional routes,) a view of alphabetic application since the invention of printing, and how to make your own tools and lettershapes. *And 95% of the internet wouldn't exist.”
The book looks like a must-have – very informative and comprehensive. Timothy took us on an extensive guided tour of the three sections of the book. The 26 alphabet pages that make up the centerpiece contain a wealth of information about each letter in the Latin alphabet, mapped in an inventive two-dimensional design space. One of the most intriguing elements is a set of three alternate reality versions of our lowercase alphabet developed by Timothy. He created them in an empirical way, by analysing how our current lowercase alphabet originated. Writing our Roman capitals by hand caused gradual alterations and omissions, defined by the succession of hand gestures needed to shape each character. Timothy introduced tiny alterations to the evolution of those exact same hand gestures, and the resulting glyphs are wildly varying and imaginative. I personally feel those three hypothetical lowercase alphabets would have been the best thing in the series if they had been published in FUSE.
Fun bit of trivia – the book is set in Manchester, a new, very English-lookinghumanist sans serif face designed by Timothy. I hope it will be available for retail someday.
Shapeshifters co-organiser Johan Van Looveren (left) and Prof. Johannes Bergerhausen at the after-show drink in café Kakfa, Brussels. Prof. Johannes Bergerhausen The second presentation was more technical, but thoroughly entertaining as well. During the first half Prof. Bergerhausen expounded on the history of Unicode, starting with the original 128 characters contained in ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. We learned why and how it was introduced in the infancy days of the internet, and how it gradually was expanded to accommodate the growing needs of the evolving word wide web. The limitations of the extended ASCII codes had a profound impact on digital typography and PostScript fonts, giving birth to expert sets and language specific fonts amongst others. Indeed, the 256 glyphs per file were just enough for the alphabet in upper and lower case, numerals and punctuation, some accented characters for a number of European languages and a number of specials like currency and mathematical characters. So no extended language support, nor refined features like small caps, oldstyle numerals, additional ligatures, swashes, ornaments and so on. Those had to be stored in additional font files (see also my Abbreviatied Typographer).
The solution to those problems was the creation of Unicode, a computing industry standard for the consistent representation and manipulation of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems. Thanks to this new encoding OpenType fonts can now hold thousands of glyphs. While the first version of Unicode contained “only” 7,161 characters from 24 scripts, the current Unicode 5.2 clocks at 107,361, and Unicode 6.0 is scheduled for release later this year. The 51,980 characters of the Basic Multilingual Plane (BMP) Map, Unicode 5.0 compliant – all writing systems currently available on computer – are available on a folding map in a protective cover with handmade silkscreen printing.
The second half had Prof. Bergerhausen explain his work at the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz, and his involvement with decodeunicode.org. He gave us an overview of the character set and the various subsets. The audience marvelled at the variety of scripts and glyphs, and the enormity of this project defies comprehension by us mere mortals. The presentation was ended on a light-hearted note. An automated sequence of all the Unicode characters proved to be the perfect visual for all kinds of music, turning it into an eclectic and übergeeky music video.
This was again a very successful session of Shapeshifters. Next rendez-vous on March 2nd.
Marius Watz is an artist working with visual abstraction through generative systems. After abandoning his studies in Computer Science, he pursued graphic design and media art in parallel, becoming known for his hard-edged geometric compositions and bold use of colours. After winning multiple awards for his design work, he was featured in I.D. Magazine’s “40 under 30” list in 2000.
In 2002 Watz quit design to focus on his artwork, exploring software processes as an aesthetic medium. He has since exhibited at venues like Todaysart (The Hague), Künstlerhaus (Vienna), Melkweg (Amsterdam), ITAU Cultural (São Paulo), and Club Transmediale (Berlin). He continues to explore the boundaries of code as method, producing work that ranges from real time software works to physical output using digital fabrication technology.
From the Stockspace series In 2005 Watz founded Generator.x, a curatorial platform that has resulted in a series of events related to generative art and design, including a conference, a travelling exhibition, and an audiovisual concert tour (see also Generator.x on Vimeo). Its most recent incarnation, Generator.x 2.0, focused on digital fabrication and computational architectural processes and was a part of the Club Transmediale 2008 festival.