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Creating A New Species Of Letters And Words: Q&A With Yeohyun Ahn

Yeohyun Ahn’s series of mesmerizing fractal font abstractions in Type + Code II is an exploration of innovative typographic forms.

From brush strokes to Bezier curves, typography has made a remarkable historical journey from its Gutenberg origins to the font fanaticism of Helvetica. With her upcoming exhibition entitled Type + Code II, artist Yeohyun Ahn fast forwards the evolution of typography by turning it over to the ghost in the machine. Exploring code through Processing, a software sketchbook, Ahn generates mesmerizing fractal font abstractions. Inspired by nature and religion, Type + Code II reads like a digital field guide to a 'cybernetic ecology' made up of a new species of letters and words.


Type + Code II will be on display at the ARC Gallery in Chicago from Feb 29th to March 25th, 2012. The opening reception will be March 2nd from 6:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.

The Creators Project: Please tell us a bit about your background in graphic design and what inspired Type + Code.
Yeohyun Ahn:I have been working as a graphic artist, typographer, web designer, educator, and researcher since 2001. I studied Calligraphy, Computer Science, Information Design and Graphic Design in South Korea and America. For my MFA thesis, I wanted to create my own graphic identity to reveal who I am as a typographer through computer codes. Type + Code explored the aesthetic of experimental and code-driven typography with an emphasis on Processing, created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. It shows alternative ways of typographic solutions using computer codes directly rather than using hand drawing and Adobe programs.

Your upcoming exhibition is Type + Code II. How is the exhibition different from your thesis?
Type + Code II is a collection of my visual research for typographies generated by computer codes using Processing. Initially, it began with my MFA thesis, Type + Code, at Maryland Institute College of Art in 2007. Then, it extended to my lifetime research project after I graduated. Type + Code was limited to letterforms created mainly in Processing. I focused on creating new and unique typographic forms rather than addressing visual messages and collaborating with various media.


Through Type + Code II, I am experimenting with traditional and cultural oriented calligraphy to reinterpret into modern and contemporary typography through codes. I use letterforms, words, phrases, and sentences to explore innovative typographic forms with basic visual elements. They convey diversified visual messages inspired by nature, addressing environmental issues such as green design, healing through art, exploring philosophical and religious interpretation regarding life, death and love.

What kind of tools and process did you use to create the typographic pieces for Type + Code?
I used Processing, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign. All of my typography in Type + Code (and Type + Code II) started with my initial sketches, and then, I had to research what kinds of computer libraries, subprograms in software, computer algorithms and logical sequence in computer science, that I could reference technically to implement my ideas. I started writing my codes based on my technical references in Processing. I kept experimenting with my codes and I finalized my work in Processing. I converted my visual outputs as PDF for high-resolution images. Sometimes they are duplicated, repeated, overlapped, rotated, cut as well as they are adjusted to meet my visual purposes in Adobe programs. Also, I adjust color balance, color contrast, color mode from RGB to CMYK based on technical needs and client’s demands.


Previously, my typography was somewhat misunderstood in that they were believed to have been spontaneously created without any clear visual purposes, but it is not true. They were highly intended, planned and implemented from my initial sketches of visualization to the finalization of my ideas through computer codes by way of Processing.

Type + Code was developed as a tutorial book for graphic designers who have limited knowledge in programming coding. In what ways is it important for graphic designers to explore design and typography beyond such go-to tools as PhotoShop and Illustrator?
Designers are used to utilizing Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, to create and finalize their ideas. I like [these packages] too, but designers may miss some significant portions of possible visual directions under them. For instance, if you want to rotate an object with the tool box in Adobe Illustrator, you can only rotate it on an X and Y coordinate on an adjustable center, which means, rotating options are limited, but if you rotate it by using computer codes directly, you can explore different ways of rotations by using simple mathematic expressions, further complicated computer algorithms and libraries.

So, your final visual outputs would be completely new, fresh, unique, inventive, and experimental, which would be desirable for designers and visual artists to pursue ultimately.

Were you surprised by a lot of the configurations that Processing generated?
Yes, I was. The previous graphic design projects that I designed using Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign were visually predictable and controllable, but the typographic forms that I created by using Processing were visually unexpected because they were generated by using mathematic expressions along with related computer algorithms and libraries, so it was impossible for me to predict graphically how they would be drawn on my computer screen. It was like riding a roller coaster. Processing produces very weird and strange images on the computer screen. It was an adventure and exploration.

What attracts you to typography? What other elements in nature and literature do you explore in your artwork?
I learned Calligraphy from my grandparents when I grew up in South Korea. Being a calligrapher was my childhood dream, but I had to study Computer Science as an undergraduate in South Korea because of my parent’s strong recommendation. I later decided to pursue two MFA degrees in Information Design; first in South Korea and then, l studied Graphic Design in America. Being attracted to typography, I studied graphic design in America because typography and calligraphy are of a similar nature; both explore letter arts and design.

In 2008, you collaborated with Ricard Marxer on the "Year in Ideas" issue for the New York Times Magazine to create alphabetical designs using the “computational calligraphies” program, Caligraft. How does Caligraft work?
Caligraft was created by Ricard Marxer as his MA thesis in 2004. His purpose was to explore a new dimension of textual typography with words and text in Processing. He shared his codes through Caligraft. I found his website when I did research for suitable computer algorithms for my previous typography projects. It is simple to use. You can download his codes from the website. You can open them in Processing, and add your own codes to explore. When I did the New York Times Magazine project, I referenced Caligraft, so I credited him as my collaborator.

What do you foresee for the future of computer-inspired typography and design?
Traditionally, designers create typeface and typography for specific purposes like greeting cards, logos, magazines, advertisings, etc. They enjoy typographic exploration by pursuing new forms and typographic identity. They engage in working alone or as part of a team to create new typefaces and typography, but visual communication has been evolving from print based to interactive screen based. Designers are adopting new technology as their new media, so the future of computer inspired typography might not only be dominated by exploring new forms, typographic identities, visual messages, but also by collaborating with various social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to visualize and interact with massive information and data. I do believe, however, that learning the classic principles of typography such as letter forms, grids, columns, layouts, color, etc, will be always valuable in any media.