Art & Algorithm
Leveraging design and variable-data technology to produce a generative one-of-a-kind art print.
For Issue No. 13* of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly, we tucked 20,000 unique prints inside the front cover. If you think the artist created each of the 20,000 different versions all by himself, think again.
Twenty thousand images, none of them the same, the marriage of art and technology. Because of the random nature of the design and production process, it’s likely that the artist (and the creative team behind The Mohawk Quarterly) never saw any more than a handful of the 20,000.
*This article was originally published in Issue No. 13 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly.
Think about that. As designers, you’re accustomed to meticulously crafting every aspect of your work. You test and proof and press check. And yet the design team sent this job off to their print partners at Sandy Alexander knowing that the finished product was, for all intents, out of their control.
Freaky, yes (it’s disconcerting to not know how a major job will turn out). Creatively exhilarating, absolutely.
Each of these 20,000 unique pieces of art were created through a combination of art and algorithm. The project challenged everyone involved—forced them to reimagine the creative process, to get comfortable with randomness and to cede control. It blurred the lines between design and art. And got them thinking in new ways about printing.
Ever since Gutenberg set the first metal type, printing has been a disruptive technology. It changed the world by distributing knowledge, wealth and power. Printing happened in largely the same way through the centuries until the early 1990s, when the first digital press, the Indigo, transformed the basic methodology.
The next big shift: Variable data printing, which meshes a database with a digital layout to create customized pieces. Designers can vary text and image in ways most commonly applied to direct mail. Instead of a letter reading, “Dear Valued Customer,” it reads, “Dear John.” Marketers create personalized catalogs stocked with pictures of products you’ve recently purchased. In the marketing world, VDP is used with intention and planning to ensure each version is correct and predictable.
We take it for granted that a marketing letter is addressed to us personally, and we may not even know that the catalog we page through has been targeted. The technology behind these print pieces is invisible—and also fascinating and powerful.
Two questions underlined the Quarterly team’s approach to this issue: “Can we leverage what’s cool about variable data printing to create art, not commerce? And can we get comfortable surrendering control over the predictability of digital printing?”
Print as Art
“It was a little scary—but also incredibly intriguing,” says Frederique Gravier, the designer at Hybrid Design charged with developing the piece and the algorithm behind it. As close as she was to the project, she had little idea how the finished art would turn out.
Here’s how it happened: Dutch artist Merijn Hos worked in Illustrator to create an intricate, dynamic image with 9 independent layers. Using an InDesign plugin called SmartStream Designer and HP’s Mosaic print technology, the design team worked with Hos to develop a set of instructions that drove each layer to change in certain ways— scale, swap, turn on or off, or shift position. The plugin can run endless variations, each creating a unique finished image. So the instructions become part of the art, an extension of the illustrator’s hand.
Creative Director Caleb Kozlowski says Hos was the ideal collaborator. The artist favors undulating, curved shapes, and flat planes of bright candy colors—a style that lent itself to a randomized, layered approach. More important, Hos was excited by the idea that the outcome was mostly out of his hands. “He was very gutsy to let us do this with his work,” Kozlowski says.
“Coincidences—or happy accidents as I like to call them—play a huge role in my work, so I wasn’t scared at all of the outcome,” Hos says. “The work is very organic and nature-inspired—and in the natural world, you rarely see bad compositions.”
For decades, architects have turned to the natural world for inspiration, seeking ways to inform structures with curves, torques, blobs, folds and other non-angular shapes. And they’ve used mathematics and technology to help them iterate these complex designs. It’s still uncommon to associate algorithm with print media, but it’s part of a broader, emerging way to create: Parametric design. This method consists of a set of design constraints run through an algorithm to generate form. The recipe may be simple, but the results are not.
One of the advantages to this approach to design is an almost inhuman complexity. What would be impossible to create—or even imagine—can be produced under the right set of parameters. Tools like Grasshopper 3D (architecture) and SmartStream Designer (print) allow users to manipulate parameters—such as altering points along a curve or rotating an Illustrator layer by X degrees—whether randomly or intentionally, and to generate thousands of variations based on a core set of designs.
A hallmark of this generative approach is that organic forms take shape in a fluid kind of order. While architects have adapted it to simulate the complexity of nature in otherwise rigid structures, parametric design is also emerging as a tool in fashion to add an otherworldly edge to forward-thinking designs.
A New Way of Creating
The Quarterly team applied this thinking in two dimensions, letting algorithm and randomness disrupt their typical creative process. “It forced us to think about rough outcomes instead of final products,” he says. “It’s like having a child: You set the rules and instill certain values, but you can’t really control what the child does—they have their own will separate from yours. The best you can do is try to guide the outcome so it’s fairly close to what you want to happen.”
The designers ran several tests in-house, creating 20 or so prints at a time. “We were looking for variety and happy accidents,” Kozlowski says, “and wanted to like as many of the results as possible. We would go back and tweak the algorithm, playing the probabilities so we would get interesting outcomes as often as possible.”
Still, the finished artwork was largely unknown. And it still is. Want to see other variations on Hos’s art? Snap a photo of your print and upload it to Instagram with the hashtag ##MMQ13 and view what the creative community is sharing; tag @mohawkpaper, @merijnhos and @hybriddesign so Mohawk, the artist and the creative team can see the images, too.
“Can you possibly be happy with 20,000 random versions of something?” Kozlowski wonders. “You can’t. But you also get variations that you would never have considered. The algorithm did things our brains couldn’t have come up with. We just had to let it happen.”
The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here.
Issue No. 14 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly is titled Lead & Serve and celebrates those who pave the way by helping others find their paths.