From Zurich, cross-media experiences between art and research, graphics and programming.

Jürg Lehni, Swiss designer, developer and artist gave a lecture at SPD on Tuesday, February 13th. The meeting, with an introduction by Silvia Sfligiotti, SPD, was open to the public and was promoted under the SPDtalks! programme, a series of lectures by international designers focused on the most interesting research trends in contemporary graphics, product and car design, architecture.

Designer and artist, Jürg Lehni works on technologies to broaden visual design territory. He is well known for research projects all linked to this topic such as Scriptographer, an open source plug-in which is able to customize and extend the functionality of Illustrator; Hektor, a portable graffiti output device for laptop computers and Vectorama, a visual multiuser playground to allow users creating vectorial pictures together simultaneously. To learn more:

The integration of different media, between design and technologies, research and professional practice will take center stage during the all the SPDtalks! lectures scheduled at SPD in Milan, via Ventura 15, until May 2007. Among the invited guests not to be missed in the visual communication area, also the Dutch collective Lust and the eclectic designer Martì Guixé.

Here follow some excerpts from the meeting with Lehni.

Silvia Sfligiotti: Let’s talk about the two projects you’re most famous for: Hektor and Scriptographer. Which one came first?
Jürg Lehni: They followed quite closely. The first one was Scriptographer which i started to work on in 2001 while Hektor was my diploma project at the Ecal, in 2002. But both came from the impulse I had at school.

SS: So, you found a stimulating environment to develop both these projects in your mind…
JL: Well, my education was a sort of slow transition. I started from engineering studies and then moved to a new media design course in Basel. Finally I ended up in a school very close to graphic design where I attended the specialization course in interaction design but I was basically following more classes in the graphic design department. I think it was extremely positive for me being closer to that field. This was the very same reason I made that step for and joined Ecal. I realized I did not need to work more on technology or programming. What i wanted to learn was more about design. My goal was finding a way to apply my peculiar methodology to that field. Going back to Scriptographer, it was a sort of reaction to an observation i made at the Ecal. People were working so much with vectorial graphics without actually realizing that the tools they used were also defining the way they worked. I thought it was quite astonishing that people were really not aware of this even though its abstract mathematic description of shapes created a peculiar aesthetics they were deeply absorbed into.

SS: Because everyone is so conditioned by the tool he’s using…
JL: Or by school education. That’s why I wanted to made a statement about this in the form of a software application, something to broaden the potential of this number one graphic design software. It wasn’t so much about generative design only, it was more about offering users the opportunity to add more functionality to the tool they were working with or changing its existing functions.

SS: So we could say it was just like opening up a door into Illustrator to put new possibilities inside.
JL: Yes, or else like cracking the door open by a Trojan horse. And then creating a community website with an open source approach.

SS: And was it difficult to put together a major software company with an open source spirit?
JL: It’s been a kind of confrontation. And interestingly enough now, a few years later, Adobe starts to realize that open source is offering them a good chance too. Well, I’m not saying that I was the one to make them realize this but as a matter of fact, now they are more open to this kind of efforts, at least. On Adobe website there was even an article about Scriptographer, Hektor and other projects sharing the same spirit. In a way, Hektor was the continuation of that seminal idea. As a next step, in order to break up with computer limits even more, I decided to create an output device that could work also with vectorial graphics, transforming its typical aestethics into something different. This is related to my old fascination with those old PC curves because they clearly laid onto a mathematical description of a shape or a path. And if you draw by hand you always follow a path, your hand always forms a path. So it was a quick move using that information to make the machine follow that path but what I wanted to do more was providing an output device that could keep this rough, a bit unpredictable aesthetics while, at the same time, you were still running the whole process with Illustrator in a very precise way. Because when you draw, your hand is trembling, it is unstable and here you have to draw for the machine: that’s the most interesting thing actually. Basically you’re just tracing standard vectors but you have to be careful, you have to think you cannot do anything, you have to adapt. Again, this is a process.

SS: And it is also based on the idea of working with limits…
JL: Exactly. With Hektor maybe more than with Scriptographer, you define a process or a platform which offers a service or allow a certain way of working. Then again I exploited that to work with many people and see the way the work with Hektor.

SS: So you’re make this application available to other people who may want to use it.
JL: Well, many people wanted to work with Hektor but collaborations were carefully chosen so far. Often I approach people which I find interesting to work with or people approach me with a nice idea…

SS: Which is the most interesting project you have seen or was done with Hektor?
JL: I think there are two projects that I really like. One is this wall drawing made inside an art gallery Amsterdam which was done by Goodwill. The artist had the idea of using this wallpaper pattern – Compton, the last creation by William Morris – repeating it four times on the wall. What I like about this project is that here we have Morris, this art and crafts designer, at the very beginning of the industrialization. He was maybe one of the first who had to adapt to a technology, to a machine or whose designs were specifically made for the machine such as Compton. And then, there is Hektor, at the other end of the industrial revolution where machines are about to become human but are not as precise as they should be yet. It’s really the opposite situation but you still have to adapt to the machine, you still have to work with the machine in that special way. This is a sort of reflection about technology, about the process that seems to have led us here where we are now. The other project is maybe less ambitious, it was made last year in Japan with Alex Rich. We held some exhibitions and Hektor was used as a service. It was mounted on a wall where we had previously attached posters, just plain paper sheets. The task was drawing people’s portaits. First we took photographs of people who wanted a portrait, then Alex drew just very simple vectorial lines according to the pictures taken and in maybe fifteen minutes we had their spray portraits on the wall. It was a huge success, it was very nice to see the reactions, people taking pictures, filming, going back home with their portraits. We made something with a social impact with that machine. It seems complicated but its direct experience is simpler. You’re not just drawing a face, you’re designing a little animation and people can see the sequence of the drawing made by Hektor, playing what comes first what comes later. It’s more about the process than the final result.