F Rat, 2007 from Oded Ezer: The Typographer's Guide to the Galaxy
Have you ever looked at your handwriting from the other side of the sheet, holding the paper against the light? It is as displacing as watching your own photographic portrait and realizing that all the asymmetries you thought you knew and accepted are back in full force, making you look really odd and twisted and revealing a new soul. In the case of type and writing, it is a litmus test. There is no better proof of the elegance of a typeface than obfuscating its content. And if, as is my case when it comes to Hebrew (or Korean or Thai or Arabic…), one does not understand anything at all, there is no need to even reverse the sheet, the experience becomes purely emotional and aesthetic. Ah, the delights of ignorance! Characters from different alphabets become fantastic creatures and take on lives of their own. In the case of Oded Ezer
, who calls himself a “typographic experimentalist,” some letters are indeed endowed with DNA and a biological structure, and become crawling insects and sperm.
I first encountered Oded Ezer’s
work while I was doing research for my exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind
, which opened at The Museum of Modern Art at the beginning of 2008. The exhibition focused on some designers’ ability to interpret scientific and technological revolutions and transform them into objects that people can use, in other words to transform revolutions into real life. It was a show about experimental design and about the relationship between design and science, so I cannot express enough my elation when I saw Oded Ezer, a communication designer, appear on his website wearing a white lab coat and contemplating a vial, surrounded by tools that have nothing to do with those found in a typical design office.
For the exhibition I chose one project, Typosperma
, which is part of Oded’s series Biotypography
. The subject of the fictional experiment are cloned spermatozoa with typographic information implanted into their DNA, “some sort of new transgenic creatures, half (human) sperm, half letter.” Typosperma
made me think of many endlessly fascinating consequences — from the name of a new baby being decided at the moment of conception, to the idea that each ejaculation could be a uniquely original and lyrical poem. In the exhibition galleries, Typosperma
was featured next to Lithoparticles
, the work of two bona fide scientists, Thomas Mason and Carlos Fernandez, biochemists from the University of California Los Angeles, who had invented a new way to mark proteins using nanoscale letters. The meeting between the two scientists and Oded is a moment I will never forget because in the excitement, curiosity, and admiration they all had for each other lies the future direction not only of design, but also of science. They will not only need, but also seek out, an alliance to dream bigger and experiment.
Typeface design is a very rigorous, almost scientific discipline where minuscule variations and adaptations reverberate in meaning and impact. The formula for a successful typeface is the result of an enormous amount of trial-and-error work, not unlike a scientific experiment. Like scientists, typeface designers sometimes need to blow some steam. Ezer in particular felt the need to escape not only the exactitude of type design, but also the obsessive goal-orientation typical of the Israeli educational system. That is how he came to live a double life, as a successful commercial designer on one hand and as a pilgrim on a “path to the unknown,” as he calls it, on the other.
Before Oded decided to mix chemistry and typography, his work already explored the inner soul of letters by letting them channel the personality of a poet’s or a musician’s work. He let them become three-dimensional and animated in posters and book covers — a direction explored across the centuries by armies of type designers, declared or unaware, and reprised by Ezer with renewed elegance. In a project called Tortured Letters
, he bound, gagged, and stretched single Latin and Hebrew characters with frightening sadism. In another, he moulded them to look like little ants, already on the path to being full-fledged organisms. The Biotypography
project in particular holds great promise for the future. Ezer thinks that since, very often, a type designer chooses a typeface for its ability to embody and render the feeling of a project, the step from object to creature is direct and typefaces should really become living, biological beings. As he explains it, “The term Biotypography refers to any application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof to create or modify typographical phenomena.” These fantastical creatures not only literally embody the dream of design and science coming together, but also let us dream about a super-human language that is shaped by biology, rather than by culture — the dream of a universal means of communication that we have sought for centuries.This essay was first published in Oded Ezer: The Typographer's Guide to the Galaxy, published by Gestalten. The publisher and author have kindly granted permission to republish this essay on Design Observer.