Transcript of an interview recorded on 13 february 2007 at the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan. An edited italian version was published on Progetto Grafico 10.
SS: What came first for you, programming or designing?
JL: Programming, very clearly, and very early too. I was already programming when I was thirteen, out of curiosity, it was easy for me to learn. I was visually oriented, and fascinated by computer games. At that time there was this ‘computer demo’ scene, groups of adolescent people making real-time calculated graphic demonstrations, or animations, to prove they were extremely good – you know, this kind of skill-oriented system… they had competitions, meetings once a year, and it was mostly in Germany and Scandinavia.
SS: And were you part of this scene?
JL: Not really. I wanted to – but it’s a kind of nerdy thing…
SS. So it’s a good thing that you weren’t part of it…
JL: It was an interesting thing – it still exists. There were demo groups, and every group had a graphic designer – they called him ‘graphician’, I think – someone who wrote the music and at least one who did the programming. The programming was really advanced: they had very old, slow machines, like the C64, or Amiga 500, and they were pushing them to the limits of what you could do with that processor. It was all calculated in real time, and the software could not be bigger than a specific size, and with such a small size they could do amazing things.
SS: So you learnt to work in very strict limits.
JL: Yes, that was the fascinating thing about it, that they had chosen those extreme limits. There were different categories like ‘4kb animations’ or ‘64kb’ and so on.
I was not part of a group, but I learnt a lot by doing my own demos. I was fascinated by the visual aspects of programming, and also by the possibility of using programming in a creative way.
SS: So that was the start. Then you got to know more about graphic design through your brother Urs.
JL: When I was seventeen my brother started studying graphic design, and I was interested in it too. I had made a typographic project at the high school, and for that project I did a lot of programming, but I didn’t know about generative art or generative design. It was back in 1997, and the thing existed, but I had never heard of John Maeda, for example. There were things I wanted to do and I realised I could do them with programming. When I finished high school I started studying electro-engineering, but I quickly realised it was the wrong direction, it was only engineering-oriented, and there was no room for the creative side, I couldn’t apply the things that I had learned. So I started to collaborate with Urs.
SS: What do you think of all these people working between programming and design? You mentioned John Maeda; another example – on a different side – is Letterror. They are all quite different from what you do.
JL: John Maeda is very interesting: he’s trained as a designer and as an engineer, so he’s one of those rare people who can do both things with the same skill. He’s much further into engineering than I am.
SS: And what about the others coming from the same area, like Casey Reas?
JL: Funnlily enough, I think he’s the most interesting of all of them. He created a group of people following the same style, and many of them are too much into that ‘complex aesthetics’ of computational design. It’s kind of romantic, celebrating the machine. I try to avoid this, because I think you shouldn’t use the computer just for the sake of it, or just as an excuse. It should really have sense when you program something
SS: You should start with a purpose, and not just do something that lives on itself.
JL: Yes, exactly. With Scriptographer, for example, I just try to make this base for that kind of work, because it is integrated in an application that everyone works with daily. So the chance that you use it in combination with other ways of working is higher than if you do it in an isolated way. That was the initial idea.
But it’s dangerous: once you do a script, if you use it more than once it becomes an effect, and then you’re very close to Photoshop image effects.
SS: I read an article about Scriptographer on Eye magazine, and the author told that the risk of this tool is creating complexity for its own sake.
JL: That’s precisely the thing to avoid.
Letterror is a different example. They’re more production-oriented. They also do some of their work as a statement. They are in this clearly defined field of typography, that actually allows for a lot of programming: there are many tasks that can be automated. There’s a group of people – mainly their students at the KABK in The Hague – that really use those tools in making their own fonts or working for other type foundries. They really managed to create a kind of industry.
This is very different from the MIT group. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s more about being efficient. From that, it can come an aesthetic in type design, but funnlily enough I think the Dutch don’t do that, because they are so humanist in their approach: they make this weird combination, drawing humanist fonts and then automating as much as they can.
SS: In fact, if you see Letterror’s website, it looks like hand-drawn…
JL: Instead, a type foundry like Lineto does much more this kind of industry-oriented, constructed or engineered typefaces…
SS: But they are less engineered maybe, drawn one by one, with no interpolation…
JL: (laughs) it’s quite weird, isn’t it?
SS: The majority of your projects are the result of collaborations with other people. Maybe this comes from the fact that you are surrounded by other designers. Switzerland, together with the Netherlands, is probably the country with the highest density of designers per square metre.
JL: It has been a clear decision, although I didn’t think about it. I’m good in programming and I understand design, but I’m not a good designer on my own. I can do design that works if I have to, but that’s not really what motivates me. What I’m really interested in is this combination of the two fields. My first collaborations were with Urs (Lehni) and Rafi Koch, and we had a good common ground, we didn’t have to discuss because we could understand each other quite well. That creates a nice energy, and you’re more efficient if you’re not alone. Afterwards I started to work with other people, and I realised that everyone has his own way of designing or thinking – and that many people are interested in what I do. So they come to me with an idea they have and together we try to develop it. I prefer that to working on my own. I would like to do it even more, and also on different kinds of projects: I could work with architects, or with industrial designers, there’s no reason to do it only with graphic design. There has been recently a great interest on my work from the field of architecture, even if I wasn’t pushing in that direction.
SS: Let’s talk about the two projects you’re most famous for: Hektor and Scriptographer. Which one came first?
JL: They followed quite closely. The first one was Scriptographer, which I started to work on in 2001 while Hektor was my diploma project at the Ecal, in 2002. But both came from the impulse I had at school.
SS: So, you found a challenging environment to develop both these projects you had in mind…
JL: Well, my education was a sort of slow transition. I started from engineering studies and then moved to a new media design course in Basel. Finally I ended up in a school very close to graphic design where I attended the specialization course in interaction design but I was basically following more classes in the graphic design department. I think it was extremely positive for me being closer to that field. This was the very same reason I made that step for and joined Ecal. I realized I did not need to work more on technology or programming. What I wanted to learn was more about design. My goal was finding a way to apply my peculiar methodology to that field. Going back to Scriptographer, it was a sort of reaction to an observation i made at the Ecal. People were working so much with vector graphics without actually realizing that the tools they used were also defining the way they worked. I thought it was quite astonishing that people were really not aware of this even though its abstract mathematic description of shapes created a peculiar aesthetics they were deeply absorbed into.
SS: Because everyone is so conditioned by the tool he’s using…
JL: Or by school education. That’s why I wanted to make a statement about this in the form of a software application, something to broaden the potential of this number one graphic design software. It wasn’t so much about generative design only, it was more about offering users the opportunity to add more functionality to the tool they were working with or changing its existing functions.
SS: So we could say it was just like opening up a door into Illustrator to add new possibilities inside.
JL: Yes, or else like cracking the door open by a Trojan horse. And then creating a community website with an open source approach.
SS: And was it difficult to put together a major software company with an open source spirit?
JL: It’s been a kind of confrontation. And interestingly enough now, a few years later, Adobe starts to realize that open source is offering them a good chance too. Well, I’m not saying that I was the one to make them realize this but as a matter of fact, now they are more open to this kind of efforts, at least. On Adobe website there was even an article about Scriptographer, Hektor and other projects sharing the same spirit. In a way, Hektor was the continuation of that seminal idea. As a next step, in order to break up with computer limits even more, I decided to create an output device that could work also with vectorial graphics, transforming its typical aestethics into something different. This is related to my old fascination with those old PC curves, because they clearly lay onto a mathematical description of a shape or a path. And if you draw by hand you always follow a path, your hand always forms a path. So it was a quick move using that information to make the machine follow that path but what I wanted to do more was providing an output device that could keep this rough, a bit unpredictable aesthetics while, at the same time, you were still running the whole process with Illustrator in a very precise way. Because when you draw, your hand is trembling, it is unstable and here you have to draw for the machine: that’s the most interesting thing actually. Basically you’re just tracing standard vectors but you have to be careful, you have to think you cannot do anything, you have to adapt. Again, this is a process.
SS: And it is also based on the idea of working with limits…
JL: Exactly. With Hektor maybe more than with Scriptographer, you define a process or a platform, which offers a service, or allow a certain way of working. Then again I exploited that to work with many people and see the way the work with Hektor.
SS: So you’re going to make this application available to other people who may want to use it.
JL: Well, many people wanted to work with Hektor but collaborations were carefully chosen so far. Often I approach people whom I find interesting to work with or people approach me with a nice idea…
SS: Which is the most interesting project you have seen or was done with Hektor?
JL: I think there are two projects that I really like. One is this wall drawing made inside an art gallery Amsterdam which was done by Goodwill. The artist had the idea of using this wallpaper pattern – Compton, the last creation by William Morris – repeating it four times on the wall. What I like about this project is that here we have Morris, this art and crafts designer, at the very beginning of the industrialization. He was maybe one of the first who had to adapt to a technology, to a machine or whose designs were specifically made for the machine such as Compton. And then, there is Hektor, at the other end of the industrial revolution where machines are about to become human but are not as precise as they should be yet. It’s really the opposite situation but you still have to adapt to the machine, you still have to work with the machine in that special way. This is a sort of reflection about technology, about the process that seems to have led us here where we are now. The other project is maybe less ambitious, it was made last year in Japan with Alex Rich. We held some exhibitions and Hektor was used as a service. It was mounted on a wall where we had previously attached posters, just plain paper sheets. The task was drawing people’s portraits. First we took photographs of people who wanted a portrait, then Alex drew just very simple vectorial lines according to the pictures taken and in maybe fifteen minutes we had their spray portraits on the wall. It was a huge success, it was very nice to see the reactions, people taking pictures, filming, going back home with their portraits. We made something with a social impact with that machine. It seems complicated but its direct experience is simpler. You’re not just drawing a face, you’re designing a little animation and people can see the sequence of the drawing made by Hektor, playing what comes first what comes later. It’s more about the process than the final result.
SS: What about the community that grew up around Scriptographer.
JL: It’s slowly growing, there are not so many really committed users participating in the project, but there are a few, three or four in particular: one is a mysterious guy from Japan, doing really amazing scripts. Then there’s Jonathan Puckey and a few others. But it’s not the huge community that it could be. Most people using it just download scripts.
SS: How did you start? I suppose you mad the website to make your work known, and then prepared the first scripts.
JL: Just a few scripts. The first website was published in 2001, and then I mainly used Scriptographer to run Hektor, to make my own things, but never spending enough time on it to make the next steps. In 2004 I decided that I should do it properly and I started again with a new version, which was almost re-written from scratch, and a new website, which was developed in parallel. Since the new website is on line it really has helped for the community
SS: And you started having contributions from other people.
JL: The new website is really much more clear – I made it with Urs, and we really tried to make it as clear as possible and to find a structure that really helps the collaboration: there’s a forum, and you can comment on almost every page.
SS: You decided not to show many works made with Scriptographer.
JL: It’s not a decision, it’s basically lack of time. It happens with many of my websites, my personal website hasn’t been updated for a long time, the Hektor website for two years. I should do it, because there are many things I could show.
SS: On the other side, it can be good not to show too much, because you leave the possibilities open, it’s not a place you can go to copy some effects.
JL. You’re right. It wasn’t really intentional.
SS: But it’s a good side effect
JL: Yes, maybe. For Scriptographer what are badly needed are tutorials, proper documentation, all these things that are not really there yet. I think this is the fact that limits a wider spread. I should also make the scripting easier, at the moment it’s still a bit complicated. I’m still in the first phase, I’m planning to make libraries to make the whole process simpler.
SS: So it will be more accessible to people who are not good programmers.
JL: Exactly. I’m thinking how to improve it: one idea is to simulate the way you program with Processing, so people could use the same knowledge, but all these things would take so much time, and I hope that other people join in this effort, and so far this has not really happened.
SS: The risk is that many users see Scriptographer as just another tool in Illustrator.
JL: That’s what happens most of the time, I think. I see huge amounts of downloads, many people downolad the scripts, and in the forum area just ask questions when they have a problem. Many of the people who post problems have never posted before on the website. Most of the users remain unknown. When you use Scriptographer you should mention it, that’s the only restriction I put on the use of this tool. The idea is to spread the word. The platform profits from every work giving a hint about how it was done.
SS: You’re collaborating with Cornel Windlin and his type foundry Lineto.
JL: In Switzerland people don’t know how to pronounce it – they think it’s an Italian word…
SS: It’s a Postscript command, isn’t it?
JL: Yes, it’s a command to draw a line from one point to another. It’s used in font design also, so it became the name of the foundry, to show it has a close contact with technology.
I met Cornel Windlin through Urs and Rafi Koch. They made the Lego Font for their diploma project, and it was the first time I collaborated with them; they had a space, in Luzern, called Transport, a gallery in a building that was to be torn down, and they could use it for a few months for free, organising events, inviting people for lectures, all graphic design oriented. During that time they designed many fonts, including the LegoFont, and decided to make a CD-rom (not a DVD…) about them. They invited me to work on it – at that time I had decided to leave the technical university were I was studying, and it was a starting point also for me.
Urs sent a flyer made with the LegoFont to Cornel Windlin, and he ask them to complete the font so it could be sold on his website. Developing the projects we had started at Transport, we thought of an interactive font specimen for the website. I made the LegoFont Creator, a small application where you could play with that font, using its graphic elements also to construct other objects. It was like a mini-Illustrator that can only do Lego-based graphics. Cornel asked me to make it a complete application, that could also export vector graphics, and I first thought it was impossible. Then I started to research on that topic, and through a hack in Director I found a way to save those files as text files that can be opened in Illustrator. This was another important project for me, it allowed me to go further and to use this ‘hacker’ method in my work, making something from nothing. This way you can go beyond the limits of a software, and make unexpected things with it. That was quite new then. After that, Cornel invited me for another collaboration – the Rubik Maker, another little graphic application using the Rubik’s Cube as the basic element. Through these two projects I became part of Lineto, together with Cornel and Stefan Müller. I also designed the new website.
SS: Which is very different from the first website, that looked like an Ftp interface.
JL: Yes, but we kept the idea of the file structure as a navigation tool, but with a graphic user interface updated to the new millennium. It begins to look old again now; I started working on it four years ago. Now I’m working on other things for Lineto, some small changes in the website, font specimens made with programming, and some automation in font design too.
SS: As a designer/programmer, do you think that it could be a possible development for people studying graphic design now to learn both skills, or that this could be required in the future from people entering this field? or maybe this is just an option, a niche
JL: It should not be a requirement, because not everybody has an affinity with programming, and I think you can be a very good designer without knowing anything about programming, and that shouldn’t change. That niche of people who know both fields is probably going to grow: one example is Jonathan Puckey, he just graduated last year and he clearly comes from the design side – the opposite of me. He’s basically just interested in finding the right tools for his projects, not in becoming a good programmer: of course that is a side effect, but that doesn’t seem to be the main focus. I think we are going to see more and more people like that, that take the existing tools and try to use them in their own creative way.
It could be an option in schools, but you cannot force students in that direction. I remember the programming lessons, I was the only one really motivated, and the others were copying from my screen.
SS: So all the designers who don’t want to learn programming will all try to collaborate with you…
SS: A great part of work in this field that associates design with programming is based on the idea of randomness. I don’t know if you use it in your work.
JL: The concept of randomness is a funny one. If you ignore the fact that no computer can produce random numbers, because they’re not really random, but they’re random enough for us… but that’s technical.
SS: As long as we think they are…
JL: In a way, using randomness is quite honest. There are many projects using as a base any kind of external influence or data – the weather, the stock market and so on. Whether you use that kind of data or randomness, it doesn’t make a difference to the viewer. We have a concept of causality, and we always want to see cause and effect in the things we look at. Randomness really helps the imagination. Whatever you use, it should be visible in your work, and not simply explained next to it. Randomness can also be very playful: you could make a random layout engine, and hit the key one hundred times until it creates something which is pleasing to the eye. Why not?
SS: Lars Von Trier used random applications in shooting his last film, The Boss of It All. He said he’s a ‘control freak’, and the only way he had of giving up control was to give it to a machine. Other people use randomness for the same reason.
JL: You can really use it in interesting ways. But if you just use it to make things look complex, then it’s probably wrong.
SS: What do you think your next step will be? Are you already thinking about it?
JL: Maybe, I will only be maintaining all my projects, and making nothing new… (laughs). It would keep me busy for a lifetime. Of course I’m joking, but at the moment I feel a little bit like that. I’ve created projects that attracted a lot of attention, and now they keep me really busy, so I don’t have much time to think what I would like to do next. It takes time until these projects have received the care that they need: then I hope I can make something new.
SS: I’ll ask you this question again in one year.
JL: That’s better.