Some might say that Jürg Lehni is a programmer who has made the leap to graphic artist…others might say it’s the other way around. Jürg’s innovative work with vector graphics, web applications and scripting has forged him into a man just as comfortable with design as he is with algorithms. Jürg came to PingMag to talk about his work in online design applications and to introduce Hektor – an autonomous robot artist. Additionally, listen to the podcast to hear Jürg’s thoughts on collaborative design and to hear two Apple Macs having a very strange conversation…
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Written by Jon.
The first two projects Jürg introduced were early forays into exactly that. To compliment the creation of the Lego font by his brother Urs Lehni and Rafi Koch, Jürg created a fun tool that anyone could use online to fool around with the isometric Lego font and make whatever they wanted to.
Jürg is a man…
…with a vector obsession!
The result could then be exported to a standard .EPS file for use in Adobe Illustrator – but, of course, you would have to purchase the full font to use the .EPS file. Nice idea for viral marketing, and impressive .EPS export functionality, especially when you consider this was built in 1998!
Jürg: The Lego font came in two types – one was called AM and the other PM – you can see the shadow is different. I always liked that detail.
Keeping a similar theme but with almost the opposite purpose, Cornel Windlin approached Jürg with the idea to create a Rubik Maker which allowed you to play with the iconic Rubik Cube in a simulated 3D space. This was then used as a tool for Cornel to create a font based on the Rubik Cube.
Jürg then began to talk about his love affair with vector graphics, which has a significant influence on most of his work.
Jürg: All my work has one connection or another with vector graphics…it’s interesting as a mathematical tool because it’s easy to do things with it and often the results are quite nice!
Vectorama is an online design application for multiple users. People share a single working area (called “the playground”) and use a library of objects that users can freely drag onto the playground – with other users seeing the changes in real-time.
Jürg: This is based on vector graphics for several reasons – one is that vector graphics are very small, so with only a little data you can create quite a precise image of something, which is good for having it on the web, multi-user etc.
Jürg: Also at the time, a popular trend with designers would be to have your own private library of objects that you use in your work – our idea was to share our libraries and let everyone use them, like a design machine. It was kind of a statement also, sort of “de-mystifying the design process”
Vectorama has been running since the year 2000 and has kept records of the state of the playground every 5 minutes since that time. Visit the vectorama history to view the stunning range of pictures that have been created by collaborations of users from all over the world. Incredibly, despite the fact that there have been hundreds of thousands of images saved over this 6-year period, Jürg says that because it’s all vector data, the total size of all the files is only about 70mb.
Sticking with the vector theme, Jürg showed us a project called Scriptographer. This is a plugin he created for Adobe Illustrator that allows users to write their own scripts, to theoretically create an infinite amount of different drawing tools. Many of the drawing tools are based upon the movements of your mouse pointer – creating complex patterns as you draw.
Jürg: It’s kind of a mixture of working by hand and the script behind it – it’s not just “programmed design”. I’m a bit suspicious of generated design as art, to me that’s a bit too easy.
Scriptographer forms the base for Jürg’s most famous project (which has graced the cover of I.D. magazine), Hektor (a collaboration with Uli Franke).
Hektor is a robotic graphic output device that works with Adobe Illustrator and Scriptographer to create giant-sized versions of vector graphics that you feed it. The way Hektor works is best understood simply by watching it, so have a look at these videos:
It takes the form of a can of spray paint housed in an automatic button-pushing container, suspended by two motorised belts. Over a few hours, Hektor will (rather hypnotically) work it’s way up and down a wall, creating a spray-painted giant rendition of the illustrator file you have sent to it via the computer.
Jürg: For me it’s not about graffiti, it’s more about being an output device and bringing the “dirt” back to vector graphics which always looks very clean.
Hektor is a very light installation and as such, the can in the middle can become quite unstable during sharp movements. To counteract this, Jürg wrote a special Scriptographer script for Hektor which calculates where the “sharp” turns are going to be on any given vector image, and creates a smooth path for Hektor to follow. This can be seen in the images below – Hektor follows the lines but does not spray on the red paths – these are just there to smooth Hektor’s movements.
The Scriptographer script correctly determines a smooth, circular path for Hektor to follow, even when drawing complex shapes with many corners, such as below.
Listen to the podcast to hear more on Hektor and also to hear about Hektor’s successor, “Rita”. Hektor is currently on display in Tokyo at the Information Gallery until this weekend only. If you too are interested in “dirty vectors”, make sure you pay Hektor a visit and get your portrait sprayed!
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