Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 1999
John Maeda Design By Numbers MIT Press, 1999. 250 pp.; 200 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (0262133547)
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A recent profile of Jasper Johns finds the painter amid various projects in his studio (“A Master of Silence Who Speaks in Grays,” New York Times, Sept. 5, 1999, Section 2, page 29, col. 1). On the wall is a work in progress that includes a string suspended from two points along the perimeter and forming a gentle curve as it arcs across the canvas. When told by a house guest that the resultant curve not only has a name but also a precise mathematical derivation, one frequently used by engineers, the artist is taken aback: “I’d never heard the word (catenary) before,” declared Mr. Johns. “You know, you do something, and you just do it; I never thought that anyone had figured out a mathematical formula for it” (29).

By way of contrast, consider John Maeda’s, Design by Numbers, a primer on computer-assisted graphic design which insists that if the artist is not thinking in terms of elegantly conceived and mathematically derived code, then that person is missing the essence of true digital production and its potential rewards. While the Johns story fits neatly with a romantic view of the artist instinctively sifting through the visual world, it may be a model that has little to do with the criteria for making, describing, and evaluating images in the digital realm. As has been the case in every other creative enterprise in which the computer has inserted itself (communications, film, publishing, business, etc.), standards of practice are being overturned and rewritten; Maeda’s project alerts us to the particulars of the situation in the graphic arts.

Design by Numbers (DBN) confronts us with what many artists, curators, and historians intrinsically have known about working with the computer but wanted to postpone for as long as the protective walls of the preexisting visual culture were still standing. Maeda states the challenge with typical clarity: " . . . drawing a stroke with a pen is no different from drawing a stroke with a mouse. The real challenge is to discover the intrinsic properties of the new medium and to find out how the stroke you ‘draw’ via computation is one you could never draw, or even imagine, without computation" (175). Accordingly, "the true skill of the digital designer is the practiced art of computer programming . . . " (20). Programming is inherently mathematical; thus, the digital Jasper Johns would first “see” his catenary as a well-crafted line of code (and Maeda does insist on the visual beauty of code as having a direct relationship to its graphic offspring) and only later as a graceful arc. If one is to take Maeda’s challenge seriously, the implications for training artists and for the evaluation of once reliable visual evidence are considerable, as we already peer more often at the monitor than the canvas. In short, Maeda is urging us to get involved with the DNA of electronic imagery by working through the invisible source code and not to be satisfied with standard surface manipulations. It’s biotech vs. plastic surgery.

It should be reiterated that graphic design, and not fine art, is the universe in which Maeda operates and the field to which the virtues of Design by Numbers are most readily applied. The work of Paul Rand, for example, not Johns, has inspired Maeda. However, E. H. Gombrich’s work of the late 1970s in the area of optical effects resulting from replication, systems, patterning, and figure-ground reversals in the decorative arts also comes immediately to mind. Others will find the numerically driven conceptual projects of the 1960s by Mel Bochner or Sol LeWitt, to name but two examples, resonating within Maeda’s formulaic reasoning. Consistent references within Maeda’s text to drawing, painting, and the hand suggest that he consciously reaches out to the fine arts as we conventionally know them, and in doing so, raises questions about authenticity in digital imagery; what, he asks, truly qualifies as digitally conceived image-making?

It is refreshing that Maeda’s case for digital mastery is not another breathless anticipation of virtual futures yet to come, based on little more than anecdotal evidence. Instead, DBN is a carefully calibrated demonstration of visual literacy for a lay audience from the perspective of a well-versed programmer. It should also be noted that the book is, in fact, an enticement to test-drive DBN on a dedicated website (dbn.media.mit.edu). Although even the novice can execute some striking maneuvers with the program, it is doubtful that the experience will inspire sudden confidence in one’s ability to program (getting a driver’s license doesn’t qualify one as an auto mechanic). Nevertheless, the determined reader and user of DBN at least will begin to understand, if not to sympathize, with Maeda’s appeal to the artfulness of logical thinking as manifest in writing code. In essence, Maeda insists that you get “under the hood” of your computer and deal with it on its own terms. Not surprisingly, he has little patience for software and hardware tools (electronic drawing tablets, for example) that aspire to the “feel” of predigital media and, in the process, disguise the reality of what really happens in the box on your desk.

Without apology, Maeda touts his ability to write a program to solve an immediate need only to throw it away after the task is completed. This bravado and his “grind your own pigments” approach to programming has an obvious appeal to any devotee of craftsmanship and the benefits of thoroughly understanding the tools of the trade, digital or otherwise. In particular, Maeda reminds us of the computer’s awesome capacity to execute mind-boggling, detailed, and repetitive tasks with ease, potentially resulting in spectacular formal arrays. The painstakingly produced, crystalline paintings of Ross Bleckner can serve as a convenient demonstration of this point, because of the artist’s well-documented devotion to the science of paint; one could also easily imagine Maeda building a mathematical engine that would produce the same elegant result in that the ends/means equation would be so much leaner. “Manipulating numbers is much like sculpting in clay or mixing paints,” insists Maeda, “the only difference is the computer’s speed and precision” (69).

Recently, the graphic output of both Bleckner and Maeda has been applied to the ongoing Absolut Vodka ad campaign. In the Bleckner contribution, the artist renders the familiar bottle silhouette with his signature polygons as in the painting series mentioned above; Maeda’s version takes the form of innumerable feathery blue lines. This comparison is interesting mainly because the two examples remain within the realm of abstraction or, more precisely, hard-edged abstraction. As the DBN vodka bottle demonstrates, the computer is particularly effective when asked to do one thing and to do it with inhuman tenacity, consistency, and multiplicity (snowflake design would be the ideal application). In contrast, representational images, or even looping, willful lines seem awkward, at best, in DBN’s visual vocabulary and demonstrate both the built-in limitations and potential beauties of this particular language. One can easily imagine DBN applied to great effect in the realm of graphic design or corporate logos, where formality, as much as formalism, is the primary motivation.

It is no surprise that Design by Numbers is a finely crafted book, one that takes advantage of classic graphic design principles, a clear set of governing principles, generous amounts of white space, and a restricted font palette. Other than the full-bleed chapter breaks, all of the image examples are limited to squares of less than one inch. This excessive restraint seems purposefully calculated to separate DBN and its serious message from examples of the “new typography” frenetic, overlapping, twisted, and basically illegible text that has become the hallmark of the computer’s impact on graphic design conventions. The decision to keep the organization of the book simple and extremely linear is a function of Maeda’s keen eye for his intended audience, “people who were too late for the computer design boom, those who hated the computer when it began to take control, or those who have just begun to take on the computer” (13). Just when the reader (presumably a nonprogrammer) is about to give in to the initial impression that the book is essentially for the mathematically inclined, Maeda will offer an insight or example that could only be made by one who is not bound by digital dogma and shares the concerns of artists and designers of all stripes. Although the artist or critic may not be taken with the restricted palette of DBN, it is difficult not to appreciate Maeda’s attempt to construct a bridge between the two sides of the brain that must operate simultaneously in order to fully engage the contemporary tools and design challenges of digital media.

Wellington J. Reiter
Associate Professor of the Practice of Architecture at MIT and Principal of Urban Instruments, Inc., a multidisciplinary design firm based in Boston.

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