I believe form and function in typography are symbiotic. Siobhán Murphy is a design educator (and self-described print fiend!) based in Ireland whose work investigates not only in the way form carries meaning but also how the method of production and delivery channel influences the perceived message and reader experience.
Siobhán conducts visual experiments into the legacy of our design technology and the space between print versus pixel. Her research is an area I find particularly exciting and I was delighted when she agreed to be interviewed for this feature!
In your 2015 FaceForward paper 'Print, Pixel and Notions of Legacy' one of your opening slides shows a paper bitmap grid of what is essentially analogue pixels that like digital ones can be turned on and off to reveal text! This is a really clever nod to type technology. Can you tell us a little about this 'Hello world' piece and how it came about?
The ‘Hello World’ piece or ‘Pixel Poster’ was part of a larger multi-media exhibit entitled ‘Bindings’ shown for my MA in Creative Media. My area of interest is the tension or space between print and screen-based text, my aim being to reframe the ‘print versus pixel’ debate.
Print is seen as a static, fixed form of communication. A book I read today will be the same twenty years from now when I take it down again from the shelf. In contrast, screen-based texts are virtual artefacts that offer fluidity of content and interactivity. The cost of this malleability is longevity. There is no guarantee that something I read on a digital device will be accessible in two years, let alone twenty.
The ‘Pixel Poster’ subverts the notion of paper as a relatively enduring medium. The messages displayed on this poster are not fixed, but changeable. The playful mix of stasis and fluidity results in a medium that is enduring, but the messages it carries are not. The intention of the work is to provoke thought and interaction, and make our relationship with text, in all its forms, visible for a while.
This concept of paper pixels and the reveal of information is something you also used to great effect in your poster which 'mitigates the tension between the real and the virtual by exploiting the strengths of both' this is really clever design thinking! How did this hybrid media evolve?
I created this during the early stages of my research when I hadn’t fully pinned down what the project was about yet. The idea was to encapsulate my half-formed notions on the subject of ‘print vs. pixel’ in an ‘academic poster’, so people (and I) could get an aerial view of how I was thinking about the project. Because I’m interested in how medium (print and screen-based) affects how we generate meaning from text, the form of the poster is almost more important than the content.
In ‘Academic Poster’ information is contained within paper folds, which represent ‘paper pixels’. These are discrete packets of information that may be consumed individually or in combination with other ‘pixels’, making it modular in design – a concept borrowed from web design. It is an open document that can be appended or deducted from on an ongoing basis, while the sculptural form of the folded paper invites interaction and exploration to access the text.
People who are not directly involved in print can view it as an archaic technology, out-moded in our digital age. It was important to me to bring what are usually seen as digital qualities to paper and highlight its versatility as a medium. ‘Academic Poster’ is not a traditional poster form, it is a nonlinear document, without a beginning, middle or end.
There are many entry points, making it a hypertextual document, within which text reveals itself progressively.
A QR code at the bottom-right links to a typographic video, ‘Paper is Dead’. The video (which is little more than an unfinished sketch) is an experiment in reverse poetry, exploring the tension between paper and pixel. Although crude, QR codes give paper digital functionality, bridging the gap between the physical and the virtual.
‘Academic Poster’ is representative of the early stages of my project, when I was still couching it in terms of one thing versus another. The problem with that way of thinking – when you set it up as a battle – is there can only be one victor.
You describe the screen as both a literal (physical and psychological barrier between reader and content. How (if at all!) has your understanding of typography in digital environments evolved or transformed since conducting your paper pixel based experiments?
The project did give me the opportunity to crystalise my thinking, to really examine it and reconcile some conflicting views I had. On the one-hand I was educated as a print designer, and worked for most of my commercial career in the print and publishing industries. I think it’s fair to say I approach my work with a print-bias.
But, obviously, in the twenty first century, and especially as an educator, the sheer ubiquity of screen-based text, access to content and digital tools is incredibly exciting. Digital texts are not physical objects and are freed from authorial and physical limitation. We can interact with them, turning them into new texts, altering their form, content, context, circulation and distribution. But, in spite of all that, the screen doesn’t excite me as much as the page – as a designer or as a reader. Why not?
I did fear that my preference for printed books over e-books was my nod to ‘hipster’ in place of the ability to grow a beard. I’m not a millenial or screen-native. I received my degree in Graphic Design in the mid nineties, when the internet was just beginning to become ‘a thing’. I remember getting a summer job in my second year of college, and someone tried to explain ‘electronic mail’ to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone outside the company with an email address, so I didn’t see the point of it and used the phone instead ;)
I entered the print and publishing industry at a really interesting time, right at the point when traditional print technologies were giving way to digital processes – so I had the benefit of both worlds.
For most of my design career the screen was just an odd other-world, especially in the early days when the tools were quite blunt. I knew my typography was just passing through this digital limbo of the screen, but the important thing was the finished piece of print which came off the press.
Many of my design students are supremely confident in a digital environment, but struggle with translating work from the screen to print. For a lot of them the majority of their work might have only ever existed in pixel form, so when it comes to making a physical artefact, they wrestle with things like scale, imposition or just the practicalities of trimming and mounting work. They are surprised when these two worlds, physical and virtual, don’t neatly translate one to the other.
This assumption of a seamless join between virtual and physical not only affects the design experience, but the reading experience as well. A lot of long-form digital texts, e-books especially, try to recreate a print form. The logic is sound – readers are offered a familiar visual environment. There are pages with margins, headers, footers, even page-flip transitions. But e-book readers are not just readers, they are users. Our brains process, retain and generate meaning from the screen in a different way than they do from print.
Contemporary studies on the efficiencies of screen-based texts seem to indicate that texts are becoming less easy to read. Research suggests that a screen-based reading experience leads to a loss of speed, comprehension and context, sense of control, and immersion and continuity when compared with print-based readings. Our ability to create ‘mental maps’ of a text is impaired when we read from a screen. I believe that we need a new approach when designing long-form screen-based texts. I think we need to think of digital text as terrain, and designing a digital reading experience is as much about way-finding and map-making (topography) as it is about typography. (This is just a notion at the moment, but one I’d love to explore in future work.)
Your work addresses the reader experience, exploring the ways hypertextual nature and 'spatial instability' of digital environments effects comprehension of text. You have some (beautiful!) analogue typographic experiments that explore hypertextuality. Can you tell us about these pieces and the thinking behind them?
When we think of hypertextuality most of us think of those blue, underlined hyperlinks that connect web pages or cross reference within online texts. When we jump around between these links, I believe a lot of us consider this as reading a series of different documents. But there is another way of looking at it. You could consider the total reading experience as one unique document that you have constructed by remixing these texts.
By jumping from link to link you are revealing the text of this ‘document’ progressively.
When it came time to do my MA, I revisited a childhood interest in medieval scribes and set about linking their practices to contemporary design and visual communication processes. The more I found out about them, the more similarities I found. I was particularly interested in the phenomenon of ‘mouvance’. Essentially, early medieval scribes weren’t just copyists or transcribers, they remixed stories from many sources and in the days before copyright this was perfectly acceptable – the concept of a story belonging to any one person didn’t really exist, so there could be many versions of the same story.
A link between how manuscript texts were read / authored / constructed over a thousand years ago and things like publishing on social media, blogging, memes etc today is fascinating to me. In many ways, I believe there is a recurrence of a medieval model of publishing. (This is exciting, but also a little alarming to those of us who make our living from producing copyrightable material.)
The piece ‘Hypertext as Typography’ aims to tie a lot of these concepts together and get people to see hypertextuality in a different light.
Rendering this concept of evolving text, or content that reveals itself progressively, led me to use quilling (curling paper) to fill out a glyph I created using Illustrator. As well as being aesthetically similar to the intricate designs found in The Book of Kells, it also gives the idea that discrete packets of information are held within the letterforms, some of which can be manipulated to reveal even more text. This interaction, and the document being changed by the reader (who puts it back together again and therefore also becomes author) is the core concept of hypertextuality that I wanted to explore. The document becomes something fluid, that changes on ‘reading’, and the presence of ‘the hand’ in the work (both authoring and reading) is clearly visible.
#longliveprint! You astutely describe the predicted death of print media in the mid 90's as a lingering and exaggerated demise! What is (in your opinion) the qualities of print as a media that makes it so resilient and enduring?
I think you have to look at media through the lens of its relationship with society, and that relationship, just like society itself, changes over time. Harold Innis, a communications theorist and historical economist, writing in the 1950s divided communication technologies into two categories ‘time binding’ and ‘space binding’.
Time-binding media facilitate the endurance of messages across time. Space-binding media facilitate the expansion of messages across space.
When Innis was writing in the fifties, he considered print a space-binding medium. Something like newsprint was cheap, accessible, portable and throw-away. He considered vellum manuscripts and stone engravings to be time-binding media, enduring and fixed.
I think it’s justifiable to interpret a long-standing medium, such as print, as one whose bias may change from space to time (and perhaps back again), when viewed as a point in a continuum of an ever-changing relationship between media and society.
So, in a contemporary context, print could be described as a time-binding medium favouring fixity and legacy, while screen-based media give rise to dematerialised and fluid artefacts that facilitate space-binding. In this context, the tension between print and pixel is age-old, affecting many civilisations that struggled to find balance between time-binding media (favouring tradition and stability) and space-binding media (favouring change and secularism).
To explore this concept, I created over 400 booklets, which were exhibited during a Graduate and Post Graduate Exhibition of Work in 2014.
The booklets were A6 folding to A7 in size, with print on only the first and last pages – “With words we tattoo time…the legacy of our story selves.” The remaining pages in the booklets were left blank. I asked visitors to the exhibition to take a booklet and write something in it, to think of it like a Facebook post they could read twenty years from now; it could be profound or mundane, it didn’t matter. Without exception everyone who participated wanted to ‘think’ about what they would write. I wonder if the same consideration would have been required if I had asked them to post to Facebook.
The perceived durability and fixity of the medium had directly impacted the content. I had thought of methods of retrieving the information from individual booklets, but realised this would go against its time-binding nature. The booklets are out there, ready to be found and read years from now, but they are not part of a searchable database, their contents are space-limited. The booklet covers reflected this notion of fragmentation, dispersion and lack of hypertextuality. I sliced the word ‘Legacy’ into 400 unique slices and these became the spines for each booklet. Each booklet’s spine means nothing when viewed in isolation, but when all 400 booklets are stacked in the correct order, the word ‘legacy’ can be read.
There was a time when books were treasures – only for the lucky few who could afford them. Further down the time-line print became cheaper and mass-produced – it was the every-man’s medium. Today that position is taken by digital media. We publish, read and author online. Developments in the digital delivery of the written word are concerned with devices primarily; functional considerations such as responsive design, screen resolutions and band-width, while print is playing to its strength, exploiting its sensory capacity, becoming yet again a rarefied object and ward of artisan publishers.
And in your quest to discover how medium (be it the page, the pixel or the written word) embodies meaning what have you learnt?
I suppose I’ve learnt that medium doesn’t embody meaning – which was a bit of a shock. As a graphic designer I pride myself on producing work with meaning, that communicates to people. I carefully and meaningfully decide on the right typeface, stock, format. There’s hardly any point in doing that if I’m not creating something that has meaning in it – right?
Well, Berlo puts it beautifully, “Communication does not consist of the transmission of meaning. Meanings are not transmitted, nor transferable. Only messages are transmittable, and meanings are not in the message, they are in the message-user.” So, as designers we’re more like conductors. In very simplistic terms, conductors don’t create music, they wave their arms about silently. Graphic designers don’t create meaning in the logos or posters or books they design, they faciliatate the reader / viewer to generate meaning from them. Eventhough Berlo was writing in 1960, what he’s describing is the central tenet of user-centred design.
Intended meaning can be lost or found in a particular medium, emphasised or muted. Encoded meaning is subject to many simultaneous and circuitous decodings – meaning to concepts to words to concepts to meaning; marks to glyphs to characters to words to meaning. And then there is the meaning imbued by the medium itself – status, value, legitimacy, possessivity and permanence. The experience of decoding offers yet another layer of meaning – the aesthetics, smell, sound, texture, heft, fragility and responsively of the medium as it is interacted with.
To illustrate this, when I began my career full colour printing was an expensive medium. As digital printing became more available, full colour printing became more accessible and lost its status. Clients who wanted something to look special or expensive chose single or two-colour litho. It was more expensive than digital printing, but would have been considered the cheap option a decade before. So, meaning is not in the medium, but in how we decode or perceive it.
Before exploring the transmission of encoded meaning through media. Your analogue visual experiments began with looking at the shape grammar of typography. Focussing on the question: 'what is it about certain letterforms (shapes) that communicate?' I love the Modularity you explore in this instance of 'meaning', which is formed entirely with 'a', 'e', 'g' and 'i'! This is a clever exercise in modularity, repetition and legibility. What were your learning outcomes from this experiment?
These typographic experiments were an attempt to visualise my views on medium and meaning at a more micro level. The written word is a medium. Drill down further, typeface is a medium. Further again, individual letterforms are a medium. In this experiment the only letter-forms are the ‘e’, ‘a’ and ‘g’. The other letterforms are made up by repeating the ‘i’ form and adjusting kerning. In spite of all this deconstruction, the word ‘meaning’ is still legible.
On a superficial level my intention is to communicate the word ‘meaning’, but if this word was read digitally by a device, it would read ‘iiieaiiiiig’. Meaning (the process and the word) is only generated in my mind as the author, and your mind as the reader – the word itself is meaningless.
In other words, meaning is not an end-product. Meaning exists at the beginning and the end of the communication process, but it is necessary to encode that meaning to transmit it between two minds
Text is ubiquitous, we’re surrounded by it in the physical and digital world. We are constantly reading – text messages, billboards, cereal boxes, programme descriptions on our television channels – you’re doing it now. In a literate society it comes as easy to us as breathing, so it’s difficult to isolate the experience. These typographic experiments were an attempt to highlight how we generate meaning from text, to make our relationship with text visible for a while.
You build upon this modularity of shape thinking with your experiment 'medium' where you use pins to construct your forms. (I love the shadow and depth created by these!) This is a technique you have used in a number of your experiments and I read on your behance page 'We no longer just create tools to master, but virtual environments to inhabit and explore – why?' I am curious if the spatial depth and dimension created by the pins is a nod to those environments? Or if not what is it about the pins as a medium you enjoy?!
I don’t consider the outcome of this experiment to be a particularly successful one – the deconstruction of letterforms goes too far and legibility is lost. But the process of making it did inspire further, more successful typographic experiments. Using pins to create outlines of letterforms allowed me to render them without printing them. When letterforms are printed our natural inclination is to read them. I wanted these forms to be consciously viewed rather than read.
These experiments led me to the realisation that I was deconstructing and constructing letterforms – breaking them down to their fundamentals, and building them up again. I began to think of the experiments as studies, examinations – much like the pinning of butterfly specimens. I was, in a very literal way, trying to ‘pin-down’ the communicative property of letterforms. The pins are not securing anything, but are used to mark out space, to outline letterforms that aren’t there. So yes, you are right, using pins in this way was an attempt to make visible the tension between the physical and the virtual – print and pixel.
The push and pull between physical and virtual is at the core of all the work I produced for this project. The debate between print and screen-based text can be traced to the origin of their difference – one inhabits a real world, the other a virtual one. This intrinsic divergence leads to a tendency of pitting both media against each other. But if we reframe that debate as one between time-binding and space-binding communication technologies, then the issue becomes one of finding balance between the two.
At the fulcrum of that balance is the notion of legacy. Time-binding media facilitate the endurance of messages over time. I believe one of the ways this is achieved is that content accessed via these media is not mediated through a device (or software) that is prone to obsolescence and deterioration. Binary is not a native human language and so we relinquish some of our agency as media consumers to our devices to translate or decode the digital media we consume.
The unrivalled access to information which digitisation offers is not unconditional. Digital instantiations do not lend themselves naturally to archiving. The importance of making lasting marks with our texts, and by extension our thoughts, should not be overlooked in post-digital society. Designers and typographers must consider legacy in all its connotations – as the archive of societies’ knowledge and stories, and ‘legacy’ as it refers to obsolete devices and file formats.
I was fascinated to read in your faceforward paper that Irish scribes were the first to implement word spacing which 'gave rise to faster more efficient reading' and helped aid in the spread of literacy! Can you tell us a little about your 'islands of words' experiment (which I love!)
Actually, this is where it all began. I set out with the intention of identifying Irish medieval scribes as designers when I began my MA. I like to think that Ireland’s pedigree as a literary nation is the legacy of its scribes.
Over the course of centuries they perfected their medium and honed the visual form of the written word. Making structural changes to the alphabet, they changed forever the way we read and generate meaning from text.
Before the seventh century Latin was read aloud, partly due to the convention of writing in a long continuous stream of letters without spaces separating words.
This contributed to making literacy the elitist preserve of a few. Seemingly unconcerned with maintaining this status, and possibly because they themselves were learning this new language (Latin), Irish scribes devised methods of making the written language more comprehensible – one of these was the word-space. This gave rise to faster, more efficient reading, which did not need to be sounded out. These insular manuscripts and scribes, so called because the Irish are an island people, eventually spread to Britain and continental Europe. Perhaps it is no surprise that an island people made islands of words.
The piece itself is a fairly straightforward visualisation of this. Again it’s about trying to make the invisible visible. In this case, as every typographer knows, the space is as important as the substance.
The scribes solved a communications problem through design in a manner so efficient that we still employ their innovations today. This structural change to the written word is a user-centred design feature, or as Seanger put it, they sought to create a text that was “unambiguous and easy to read”.
As I mentioned earlier, research suggests digital, screen-based texts are becoming less easy to read. I think there are exciting opportunities for designers in post digital publishing to devise a better, more efficient reading experience, just as our scribal ancestors did.
But to do it, I suspect we will have to approach the screen as its own medium, and not try to merely replicate a print reading experience on screen. We may find the solution is as simple and genius as the scribes’ solution of putting spaces between words.
Siobhan thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge and beautiful work with us! How can our community get in touch and follow you and your work?
Thank you, Nicole for the opportunity to talk about this project. If anyone wants to find out a little more about my research, my academic blog can be found at http://maicm.ittdmc.net/s-murphy/ where you’ll also find my social media info. For those who prefer a more time-bound method of communication, any queries can be sent to me at the Department of Creative Media, North Campus, Institute of Technology Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland.