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THE MULTIMEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE;AS GUTENBERG GOES GALACTIC, MULTIMEDIA TYPOGRAPHY RECASTS FONTS IN THE NEW LIGHT OF THE VIDEO DISPLAY TERMINAL.

By Published on .

If fonts were celebrities, they'd cast themselves in music videos and pound out words to thrashing rock music and strobe lights. That's the approach that Chicago's T-26 digital type foundry is taking with about a dozen fonts and dingbats starring in their own QuickTime movies, which will be included on a CD-ROM mailer and catalog later this year. Created mostly by the font designers, each movie is a freeform interpretive piece.

For example, Hat Nguyen's mime-shaped dingbats, called Voila, dance in an elegant operatic score, while the rave-induced Proton font, from Patrick Giasson, acts in kind, bashing onscreen to a conga beat in a piece intercut with wry stock footage of go-go dancers.

By sparking people's imaginations, "music, motion and film tend to add another level to any category," says T-26 founder Carlos Segura, who expects to eventually depict all of his 280 fonts in films.

"These fonts kind of come alive," adds font designer Jim Marcus, who worked on the T-26 Web site (www.t26font.com) and the interactive catalog interface. "As soon as you take a font, move it on the screen and connect it with a piece of music, it becomes a piece of art on its own. It's almost like a vacation for letters. It's a fun, whimsical thing when Q doesn't have to be part Queen or Queer."

Multimedia efforts such as T-26's marketing ventures are stimulating a reconsideration of typographic traditions. Up for debate is everything from how to market a typeface to whether a print font is suitable for VDT viewing. Perhaps the stickiest subject is whether, in an interactive context, type should act like it does on a printed page or if it should somehow respond to a user's whims.

Throwing out the fonts with the typewriter seems a bit extreme, but in the American Center for Design's 1994 journal, a London-based design firm called 8vo argues that designers lower their standards when they try to adapt a print typeface to the screen. "Is it enough to use print-based lettertypes and typographic systems on a feedback device where the screen resolution limits the eye to an environment of around 72 dpi?" ask designers Hamish Muir and Simon Kennedy.

Another problem they identify is that current screen technology is physically incapable of supporting true printing aesthetics. In trying to address these issues, 8vo created a font and featured it in a CD-ROM typographic journal called Octavo 8. Not only did the letterforms have strong vertical and horizontal shapes tailored to show up well in a digital format, but letters were limited to minimize blocks of text onscreen.

Easier than creating a new digital-only font, though, is pinpointing things that don't translate well onscreen. Serifs, for instance, which originated as a means to emulate a penstroke or to indicate the end of a letter chiseled in stone on a printing press, are recontextualized in the digital realm. Segura, who believes most fonts can live comfortably in both mediums, agrees that obviously thick faces with a great body and presence tend to look better onscreen. But he adds, "That's not to say serif fonts don't work well-they have to be balanced." A new T-26 release called Equipoize, by Sebastian Lester, addresses this problem. The font offers detachable serifs that come in a variety of styles and lengths, allowing a designer to fuse letters together or let them stand separately.

However, in small point sizes, fusing letterforms can result in an illegible disaster in multimedia. "You can set a magazine in 10 point," says Marcus, and readers will pull it closer to their faces. But in interactive presentations, the line of legibility becomes black and white; people simply "won't read black boxes of text on the screen."

Adding movement to type takes it even further away from a print paradigm. The CD-ROM Octavo 8, for instance, synthesizes text and spoken words, layers text with hyperlinks and employs interactive punctuation, such as a blinking comma, which when clicked leads to a related statement. "The type has to do something in response to you," explains Peter Spreenberg, an interaction designer at the San Francisco design firm Ideo, who edited Interact, the American Center for Design journal that featured 8vo's essay. Spreenberg predicts the next level in this medium will be typography that allows users to branch in several directions, depending on how they react to the moving type. To demonstrate his point, he's working on a series of type experiments to send to clients. One emulates a Pong game, where the ball is a word that changes every time you successfully hit it. Depending on how long it takes to win the game, the unraveling messages vary.

More common is simply moving type, and as more of it becomes animated on the Internet and in commercials, will people be content to read lines of body copy? Marcus doesn't think so: "I've noticed that the more and more multimedia presentations I do, the less I can rely on people to read static type," he says. The letters are "being their own courier of information rather than waiting for you to come around and pick it up. I don't think it's that big a step from what we're asking type to do now in print."

At the same time, because digital type isn't tied to a Gutenberg tradition, "there is a basic forgiveness for experimentation on the moving screen," explains P. Scott Makela, founder of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Words & Pictures for Business and Culture, who was recently appointed co-chair of the 2-D design department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. "There are no rules, that's what's so exciting; the typographic possibilities for film, video and new media all intersect."

However, Makela says he's frustrated with having to work within the parameters of the boxy computer or television screen when he creates animated type for commercials or films. With his interactive piece Digital Campfires, Makela experiments with projection systems to display his designs in a panoramic fashion (see above). He's also working with MIT's Media Lab on a Web site that will use full-motion video streams to create a TV experience. It's essential for graphic designers, Makela concludes, "to keep dreaming about text and language as a stream of information around you. The best multimedia program on a computer is not as interesting as a fairly bad movie on a big screen. And we have to

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