Tag Archives: intuition

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man.

Zurich-2.png

FF Meta on the ZVV Nighttime network map, Zurich

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography (Suhrkamp)

Erik Spiekermann is a consummate pluralist. Able to move, seemingly without effort, between roles as a typographer, designer, writer, public speaker and merchandiser, he was once even a politician – A Green Party member of the Berlin Senate. Spiekermann is the author of Stop Stealing Sheep and Rhyme & Reason – two models of typographic rectitude for a lay audience – and the articulate upholder of standards of public design in many a conference lecture. He is the designer of Meta, one of the most successful typefaces of this decade, and founder of the typeface distribution company FontShop.

[…]

‘I am a typographic designer. A typographic designer starts from the word up; a graphic designer starts from the picture down.’

[…]

But how, then, does Spiekermann distinguish his approach from that of an avowed graphic designer such as Gert Dumbar?

‘Dumbar always uses space. He can’t have three-dimensional space because paper is flat, so instead he uses cross-sections – he dissects objects in space and puts them on the flat page. He is a spatial kind of image guy: he thinks in theatrical terms. I think in page terms. The page is the lowest common denominator of the book system. The page is the molecule and the atom is the word. You see, I read. I read before I design, and I write. I design outwards from words.’

[…]

His conversation is a stream of aphorism and metaphor. On national stereotypes in graphic design, for instance, we learn: ‘France is olive shaped; Holland is triangular, always very pointy and narrow; Germany is very square; and England is round.’ And on being a designer: ‘I am a servant, I’m not an artist. If I was an artist I would be oval, like an olive.’

As a typographic designer, however, Spiekermann is distinctively quadrilateral. His trademarks are a rectangular or braced bar that bleeds off the page and a palette of just two colours – black and red, in the craft tradition. While he is generous with words, Spiekermann is extremely parsimonious when dispensing colour, shape and typographic variation.

[…]

He has written that his intention for Meta was that it be ‘neutral design – not fashionable, nor nostalgic’, yet also ‘unmistakable and characteristic’. As far as is possible, these apparently mutually exclusive aims are resolved in the finished version. Meta has a News Gothic base – neutral – with an exaggerated contrast between bowl and counter-shapes for legibility and highly distinctive curved and flared (or ‘pseudo-serif’) stems. The fact that it has become the height of typographic fashion is ironic rather than blameworthy. Meta is a blue-collar typeface, workmanlike, practical, sleeves rolled up ready to do a job. It is well-balanced, neither pretty nor elegant, pragmatic but not unprincipled – not unlike its maker. Spiekermann is contemptuous of modern type which puts geometric harmony before contrast and therefore before legibility (he means Helvetica) and of highly formalised, theoretical design. ‘I detest Rotis,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘It’s overstarched, too perfect. I like to leave some dirt in my work, some imperfection. That’s why I like deadlines and budgets, otherwise the work can be too finished.’

‘Legibility is not communication; but in order to communicate type has to be legible’ is a truism with which MetaDesign likes to decorate its stationery. Another company motto, ‘My role is to communicate my client’s message – not my own’, sounds self-righteous until Spiekermann elaborates by adding the notion of interpretation, removing the conceit of objectivity. ‘What I like to do most is to interpret a message so that people can understand it. At the same time I like to add colour, in the journalistic sense, by using colourful language, in my case visual language.’

This is another compromise, between the mechanical constraints of legibility and the creation of a pleasing visual narrative, or simply of variety – legibility is qualified by readability. Information design and public signage have usually been regarded as zones of pure functionality in which there is no need to persuade people to want to read. But according to Spiekermann, the communication of hard information may be enhanced rather than impaired by the stimulation of the brain’s emotional centres. The trick (the word is used advisedly, it implies sleight of hand) is to add colour without sacrificing clarity. You can see the theory in action in MetaDesign’s timetable for the BVG, with its simple elaborated typography bounded by tectonic elements – bars, arrows, circles, each doing a job of signage – and underlaid by a page-sized circle in a contrasting tint out of which the bus number is printed. There is a manifest danger that this will make the timetable harder to read, in direct proportion to the extra visual stimulus it provides. The dilemma is solved by the change of scale between the display and the text faces, which forces the eye to focus on one or the other, rarely both.

The same principle is applied to the signage system for the newly unified Berlin underground and overground railways. MetaDesign exploits the riot of colour provided by the inherited coding of 19 different S-bahn, U-bahn and regional lines and adds to it the favourite brew of squares, pictograms, arrows and bars to grab attention and indicate direction. The result is noisy, a striking contrast to, for instance, Vignelli’s frankly dreary scheme for Milan or his austere, industrial New York subway signage. Does it work? Nobody knows. Sitting and consistency of implementation are at least as important as typography in a system as complex as Berlin’s city transport, yet MetaDesign has had almost no control over the way its work has been used and there has been no systematic evaluation of its success through pilot programmes. Spiekermann regrets this, of course. Many signs are poorly positioned and carry too much information and he would like to know how effective the system is.

The problem with such projects lies in establishing the boundaries of graphic (or typographic) design: where does graphics end and behavioural science begin? And how are clients to be persuaded to give designers greater responsibility? MetaDesign has provided good answers to both these questions in its corporate design work. But in information design, where the client is usually a state enterprise or city council, political manoeuvring and committee mentality foster conservatism. Spiekermann continues to complain that what the subway signs say and where they are placed are beyond his control.

MetaDesign preceded its work for BVG with a subjective study of how people act on the underground. The designers went to the stations, looked and learned, yet Spiekermann remains suspicious of schemes based on objective scientific analysis: ‘You know what to do from experience and intuition. You don’t have to go down the research route. Cognitive science ignores the fact that people are fuzzy, meaning out of focus – they have all sorts of personal preoccupations and don’t all act the same way.’ Spiekermann prefers to rely on his ‘designer’s instinct’, his informal rationalism and non-aligned, undogmatic common sense. Though he can draw on empirical and quantative studies of legibility and has evolved his own heuristic approach to readability, these lack the force to move German bureaucracy.

To recognise that the education of clients is as important as the genius of the designer is to lose innocence, to mature. The complete designer must be acquainted with the baser skills of persuasion, cunning and diplomacy. Spiekermann, who possesses the first two but lacks the third, used to protest too much that jobs turned out badly because of the client’s short-sightedness. Now, when I ask him what are his ambitions for MetaDesign, he responds immediately: ‘We must become more professional.’ This means, for instance, that MetaDesign now employs a psychologist to orchestrate client presentations and to persuade the designers to work in teams.

[…]

The method which might be said to be grounded in the principles of typographic design, consists in devising a framework of constants and variables based on proportion, orientation, spatial arrangement, colour and, of course, type, which combine to form a distinctive but flexible system. ‘A system offers an infinite number of possibilities,’ observes Spiekermann, ‘and a scheme is dead.’

Proportion is the fundamental constant. ‘I always use what we call rational proportions,’ says Spiekermann. ‘There are 20 rational rectangles, for example. The golden section is one, the DIN section another, 2:3, 4:3, et cetera. Proportion is the common denominator of any page or surface and it provides the basic discipline, out of which we derive the grid, and then add colour: the grid for reason, the colour for emotion.’ But Spiekermann himself uses only two colours: red and black. He admits that his colour sense is undeveloped: ‘Maybe deliberately so, I don’t know. But I certainly don’t trust it. I know colours are emotional and I don’t want to make a statement exactly about it, but … ’. For once he is nonplussed, because MetaDesign and Spiekermann are no longer synonymous, though he remains its primary force. He recovers, ‘Uli is our colour woman. She’s absolutely brilliant. She spends half an hour with a Pantone book and comes up with amazing colour combinations.’

Colour is used in a confined way, almost always within rational shapes, most commonly the bar or broken rectangle. Usually Spiekermann – or rather MetaDesign, for all its designers follow the same principle – will bleed the bar to provide a dynamic tectonic element which defies the arbitrary confines of the page. This element is common to Spiekermann’s personal card, his type specimen sheets and forms for Berthold, MetaDesign’s stationery, the Berlin city identity, the identity for Cologne-based radio station WDR, the Berlin railway signage, et cetera. The BVG identity does not include the bleed, but only because the client forbade it.

We spent a long time talking about this device, long enough for Spiekermann to begin to bristle. ‘How can we spend so much time talking about a stupid piece of rectangle?’ But is there not a danger that the elements of the system are too repetitious? Might not the DIN style be replaced by an equally ubiquitous Spiekermann style?

The answer combines attack with defence. In attack: ‘The device is used for obvious reason. It’s tectonic: it’s a roof, it’s the slab across the door. The square denotes territory, and it works like a colon, pointing somewhere , and like a hand on a shoulder it is possessive, saying “this belongs to this”; it represents the corporate embrace.’ In defence: ‘I must admit I am always appalled when I’m doing another tectonic element, but the page is tectonic, the page is rectangular – I didn’t invent it. I agree with you, there is a danger. I have a very limited box of tricks, but it is because they are so obvious and so rational. Yet despite this few people use them because they are trying so hard to be clever or to excel, or they simply cannot see the obvious.’

‘Don’t forget,’ he adds, ‘that I have to stay within my cultural framework otherwise I won’t communicate.’ I am reminded that the cultural framework is German. I think of the Lufthansa in-flight magazine I flipped through on the plane, set in three sizes of one weight of Helvetica, looking about as convivial as a mail-order catalogue for plumbing equipment. It helps me to understand why, when contemplating acts of typographic non-conformity as minor as making 7 point caption type bolder rather than lighter, Spiekermann cannot help a devilish glint coming to his eye. In Germany there is a way of doing things and you diverge from the norm – The Deutsche Industrie Normen – only at your peril.

The strength and flexibility of MetaDesign’s systematic approach is evident in the brevity of its corporate design manuals, which tend to contain a set of principles rather than a dictionary of canon law in which the design of every last item of stationery, product packaging or delivery vehicle livery is set in stone. ‘An identity manual is not stable – it must react to change within the company,’ says Mayer. This approach is symptomatic of the way digital production has transformed the nature of corporate design. Creating systems for use by non-designers is now an increasingly important process, as is the implementation of production systems, the installation of templates, logotypes and pi-fonts, and putting database management systems in place. These are all skills Spiekermann has nurtured since his work with Berthold in the mid 1980s. MetaDesign’s practice is based on the belief that without due attention to this larger part of any corporate design programme – consultation, implementation, training and maintenance – its visible manifestation will be weak and incomplete. The method exposes the fallacy that graphic design is solely about the creation of good-looking visual images – here it is as much about enabling others to create. In stark contrast with the heroic designer / client relationship of the past in which the designer sought direct access to an aristocratic chief executive, MetaDesign seeks consultation at every level in order to command support and participation. As a consequence, its solutions have tended to towards distributed, modular forms and away from monolithic identities.

[…]

MetaDesign is marked by consistent ingenuity and quality – Qualität, to use the nation’s favourite expression – rather than by creativity or pictorial brilliance. Indeed, its pictorial work is sometimes heavy and unimaginative by British or Dutch standards, but like Spiekermann himself, most of its designers are trained to start from the word rather than from the image. As Spiekermann says, ‘I provide the grammar. I’m the modest guy in the background. Nobody ever said, “Wow, what a great grid”.’

MetaDesign’s character is derived to a large extent from Spiekermann’s own motivation, which is the promotion of a high standard of public life rather than the private pursuit of transient beauty. He says he became a designer to change things that annoyed him as a citizen: ‘I use the underground every day, I use forms every day, I use my city every day. Street furniture, signage advertising – their standard is a measure of the quality of life. That’s why design, that kind of design, is so important to me – it is the interpreting of data, it is making the world accessible.’

[…]

Spiekermann is clearly happiest when the words he communicates can be seen to serve the public good. I suspect that in this respect, he is a citizen before he is a designer. He undoubtedly adheres to notions of ‘good taste’ and is something of an aesthete, but if the typographic designer in him has any moral superiority, it lies in his conviction that the meaning of words is more important than how they look. What words look like matters so that they will be noticed and understood. For Spiekermann, typographic rigour is about the preservation of literacy and efficient communication and not, as with some other sticklers in his own country and abroad, a fetish for what is pure and correct.

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Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From | Brain Pickings

Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From | Brain Pickings.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” painter Chuck Close memorably scoffed. “Show up, show up, show up,” novelist Isabelle Allende echoed in her advice to aspiring writers, “and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky put it similarly in an 1878 letter to his benefactress: “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” Indeed, this notion that creativity and fruitful ideas come not from the passive resignation to a muse but from the active application of work ethic — or discipline, something the late and great Massimo Vignelli advocated for as the engine of creative work — is something legions of creative luminaries have articulated over the ages, alongside the parallel inquiry of where ideas come from.

[…]

“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”

[…]

“Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.”

The Mystery of Go, the Ancient Game That Computers Still Can’t Win | Enterprise | WIRED

The Mystery of Go, the Ancient Game That Computers Still Can’t Win | Enterprise | WIRED.

Remi Coulom (left) plays against Norimoto Yoda in Tokyo. Photo: Takashi Osato/WIRED

Crazy Stone and Nomitan are locked in a game of Go, the Eastern version of chess. On each screen, you can see a Go board — a grid of 19 lines by 19 lines — filling up with black and white playing pieces, each placed at the intersection of two lines. If Crazy Stone can win and advance to the finals, it will earn the right play one of the best human Go players in Japan. No machine has ever beaten a top human Go player — at least not without a huge head-start. Even if it does advance to the man-machine match, Crazy Stone has no chance of changing this, but Coulom wants to see how far his creation has come.

[…]

In 1994, machines took the checkers crown, when a program called Chinook beat the top human. Then, three years later, they topped the chess world, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer besting world champion Garry Kasparov. Now, computers match or surpass top humans in a wide variety of games: Othello, Scrabble, backgammon, poker, even Jeopardy. But not Go. It’s the one classic game where wetware still dominates hardware.

Invented over 2500 years ago in China, Go is a pastime beloved by emperors and generals, intellectuals and child prodigies. Like chess, it’s a deterministic perfect information game — a game where no information is hidden from either player, and there are no built-in elements of chance, such as dice.1 And like chess, it’s a two-person war game. Play begins with an empty board, where players alternate the placement of black and white stones, attempting to surround territory while avoiding capture by the enemy. That may seem simpler than chess, but it’s not. When Deep Blue was busy beating Kasparov, the best Go programs couldn’t even challenge a decent amateur. And despite huge computing advances in the years since — Kasparov would probably lose to your home computer — the automation of expert-level Go remains one of AI’s greatest unsolved riddles.

[…]

The challenge is daunting. In 1994, machines took the checkers crown, when a program called Chinook beat the top human. Then, three years later, they topped the chess world, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer besting world champion Garry Kasparov. Now, computers match or surpass top humans in a wide variety of games: Othello, Scrabble, backgammon, poker, even Jeopardy. But not Go. It’s the one classic game where wetware still dominates hardware.

Invented over 2500 years ago in China, Go is a pastime beloved by emperors and generals, intellectuals and child prodigies. Like chess, it’s a deterministic perfect information game — a game where no information is hidden from either player, and there are no built-in elements of chance, such as dice.1 And like chess, it’s a two-person war game. Play begins with an empty board, where players alternate the placement of black and white stones, attempting to surround territory while avoiding capture by the enemy. That may seem simpler than chess, but it’s not. When Deep Blue was busy beating Kasparov, the best Go programs couldn’t even challenge a decent amateur. And despite huge computing advances in the years since — Kasparov would probably lose to your home computer — the automation of expert-level Go remains one of AI’s greatest unsolved riddles.

[…]

… games of Go are often so complex that only extremely high-level players can understand how they’re progressing.

[…]

‘THERE IS CHESS IN THE WESTERN WORLD, BUT GO IS INCOMPARABLY MORE SUBTLE AND INTELLECTUAL.’

This is not for lack of trying on the part of programmers, who have worked on Go alongside chess for the last fifty years, with substantially less success. The first chess programs were written in the early fifties, one by Turing himself. By the 1970s, they were quite good. But as late as 1962, despite the game’s popularity among programmers, only two people had succeeded at publishing Go programs, neither of which was implemented or tested against humans.

Finally, in 1968, computer game theory genius Alfred Zobrist authored the first Go program capable of beating an absolute beginner. It was a promising first step, but notwithstanding enormous amounts of time, effort, brilliance, and quantum leaps in processing power, programs remained incapable of beating accomplished amateurs for the next four decades.

To understand this, think about Go in relation to chess. At the beginning of a chess game, White has twenty possible moves. After that, Black also has twenty possible moves. Once both sides have played, there are 400 possible board positions. Go, by contrast, begins with an empty board, where Black has 361 possible opening moves, one at every intersection of the 19 by 19 grid. White can follow with 360 moves. That makes for 129,960 possible board positions after just the first round of moves.

The rate at which possible positions increase is directly related to a game’s “branching factor,” or the average number of moves available on any given turn. Chess’s branching factor is 35. Go’s is 250. Games with high branching factors make classic search algorithms like minimax extremely costly. Minimax creates a search tree that evaluates possible moves by simulating all possible games that might follow, and then it chooses the move that minimizes the opponent’s best-case scenario. Improvements on the algorithm — such as alpha-beta search and null-move — can prune the chess game tree, identifying which moves deserve more attention and facilitating faster and deeper searches. But what works for chess — and checkers and Othello — does not work for Go.

[…]

“A lot of people peak out at a certain level of amateur and never get any stronger,” David Fotland explains. Fotland, an early computer Go innovator, also worked as chief engineer of Hewlett Packard’s PA-RISC processor in the 70s, and tested the system with his Go program. “There’s some kind of mental leap that has to happen to get you past that block, and the programs ran into the same issue. The issue is being able to look at the whole board, not the just the local fights.”

[…]

Coulom had exchanged ideas with a fellow academic named Bruno Bouzy, who believed that the secret to computer Go might lie in a search algorithm known as Monte Carlo. Developed in 1950 to model nuclear explosions, Monte Carlo replaces an exhaustive search with a statistical sampling of fewer possibilities. The approach made sense for Go. Rather than having to search every branch of the game tree, Monte Carlo would play out a series of random games from each possible move, and then deduce the value of the move from an analysis of the results.

[…]

Black and white stones continue to fill the board, beautiful as always, forming what is technically known as a percolated fractal.

[…]

Coulom plays down the Electric Sage Battle. “The real competition is program against program,” he told me during one early phone interview. “When my opponent is a programmer, we are doing the same thing. We can talk to each other. But when I play against a professional and he explains the moves to me, it is too high level. I can’t understand, and he can’t understand what I am doing. The Densei-sen — it is good for publicity. I am not so interested in that.”

[…]

According to University of Sydney cognitive scientist and complex systems theorist Michael Harré, professional Go players behave in ways that are incredibly hard to predict. In a recent study, Harré analyzed Go players of various strengths, focusing on the predictability of their moves given a specific local configuration of stones. “The result was totally unexpected,” he says. “Moves became steadily more predictable until players reached near-professional level. But at that point, moves started getting less predictable, and we don’t know why. Our best guess is that information from the rest of the board started influencing decision-making in a unique way.”

[…]

…no programmers think of their creations as “intelligent.” “The game of Go is spectacularly challenging,” says Coulom, “but there is nothing to do with making a human intelligence.” In other words, Watson and Crazy Stone are not beings. They are solutions to specific problems. That’s why its inaccurate to say that IBM Watson will be used to fight cancer, unless playing Jeopardy helps reduce tumors. Developing Watson might have led to insights that help create an artificial diagnostician, but that diagnostician isn’t Watson, just as MCTS programs used in hospital planning are not Crazy Stone.

The public relations folks at IBM paint a different picture, and so does the press. Anthropomorphized algorithms make for a better story. Deep Blue and Watson can be pitted against humans in highly produced man-machine battles, and IBM becomes the gatekeeper of a new era in artificial intelligence. Caught between atheism and a crippling fear of death, Ray Kurzweil and other futurists feed this mischaracterization by trumpeting the impending technological apotheosis of humanity, their breathless idiocy echoing through popular media. “The Brain’s Last Stand,” read the cover of Newsweek after Kasparov’s defeat. But in truth, these machines are nowhere close to mimicking the brain, and their creators admit as much.

Many Go players see the game as the final bastion of human dominance over computers. This view, which tacitly accepts the existence of a battle of intellects between humans and machines, is deeply misguided. In fact, computers can’t “win” at anything, not until they can experience real joy in victory and sadness in defeat, a programming challenge that makes Go look like tic-tac-toe. Computer Go matches aren’t the brain’s last stand. Rather, they help show just how far machines have to go before achieving something akin to true human intelligence. Until that day comes, perhaps it’s best to view the Densei-sen as programmers do. “It is fun for me,” says Coulom, “but that’s all.”