Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Douglas Hofstaedter, ambigrams and gridfonts

I was reminded of Douglas when I saw the BoingBoing ambigram. Douglas introduced us to the practice of ambigrams (credit to Scott Kim) when I took courses with him as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. (Here’s something really quite mindblowing – we’re talking 18 years ago!) Anyway, these were very interesting courses offered through Michigan’s great cognitive science department. Douglas was at the peak of his fame, having just published his magnum opus, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I think he was on sabbatical from Indiana University at the time.

gridfont grid

One of the exercises in that class made an incredible impact on me. We were asked to design fonts… but with the constraint that the fonts had to be executed on a 2x3 grid, connecting only adjacent dots. And no cheating – you couldn’t use any embellishments (for instance the thickness of a line, or color of a line, go for a “long diagonal”, or anything of that sort..) A few other rules were imposed – we were to design just the lower case version (no capitals or punctuation marks, etc.) The lower case letter “a” was to be the typeface version not the handwritten version, (i.e. like this “a”, not like this “a”.) There were probably a few other rules that have been lost in the passage of time.

The first time you try to design a font, you run straight up against the absurd constraint of the grid. It’s an absurdly small footprint that leaves very little room for “creativity.” Just executing the alphabet against this backdrop is an accomplishment.

Later, as you execute your fifth and tenth and twentieth font from start to finish, you begin to attain some level of craftsmanship. You begin to discover the relationship between letters, i.e. doing the “b” this way is going to have obvious implications for the “d”. You begin to describe the fonts in various ways, and creativity and style begins to rear its head.

Font 1
Font 1

For example, Font 1 (and I’ve just executed a-c and s-u as examples) is a highly stylized serifed font with lots “diagonalness.” The “diagonal” theme is evident throughout. A subtheme might be the disconnectedness of the “s”. Perhaps I could have resonated that theme against the “a”, omitting the segment that connects dot 6 to dot 9. As “font designer” (he said puffing himself up,) I chose not to, but concede it would have been a reasonable option.

Font 2
Font 2

Font 3
Font 3

Fonts 2 and 3 also has an obvious themes, and interestingly the “t” and “u” designs overlap between them. I’m dubious about the “u”’s and perhaps if I followed through and designed the “v”’s it would have led to significant changes.

In Douglas’s class, we’d sit there and review each other’s gridfonts for hours. We’d question design choices, labor over the tiniest of lines and the “grave” implications it would have for other letters in the alphabet.

The gridfont exercise bears many gifts. Working in a world of absurd reductionism, the essence of design, style, and creativity emerge in zen-like moments of insight. It’s as if other approaches toward design philosophy were “Newtonian,” and gridfonts was an electron microscope that revealed the quantum building blocks of creativity. This post probably won’t make a lot of sense unless you get out the graph paper and invest the energy to actually follow through on the exercise. Recommended!

Ambigrams are another lovely way of introducing these kinds of constraints. There are many flavors of ambigram, that exhibit any variety of symmetry. Check out Scott Kim’s page for more. Again, ambigrams are kinda fun and novel to look at but any real benefit is derived from trying to construct them. It’s another great way to exercise muscles you’ve forgotten you have…

They say, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Now that I’m deliberately contemplating that old saw, I’m reminded that it’s a multi-faceted statement. I’ve always taken the primary sense to be solutions follow need… As Y Combinator’s motto says, “Make something people want!” (That’s the greatest motto an incubator could have IMHO.) But there’s another sense… Fat and happy doesn’t breed creativity. Constraints breed creativity. Nobody builds a catapult out of bubble-gum and baling wire if they don’t have to… Now go listen to the “Mothers of Invention” and find out what creativity really is...