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A black screen erupts in a flurry of colored particles that
scuttle like leaves in the wind, gradually revealing the smooth
contours of an Audi TT sedan. Made by Universal
Everything, the Sheffield, England-based design firm started by
Designers Republic member Matt Pyke in 2004, the piece is less a
commercial you'd see on TV than a breathtaking visual sculpture
you'd find… well, you might find it in a museum as more
exhibition spaces recognize the growing artistry of motion
graphics. But most viewers saw it online, as a viral video sent
spinning from person to person and tagged with multiple exclamation
points. What makes the video stand out is how it captures an
emerging aesthetic quality—of unfolding, of organic emergence, of
algorithms made visual.
Stills from the viral/HD-TV spot for the Audi TT sedan by Universal
The source of this visual spectacle? An award-wining program
called Processing, created six years ago by C.E.B. Reas and Ben Fry, who were part of
the Aesthetics + Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab, where they
worked with John Maeda. Recently recognized by the 2006 National
Design Triennial and awarded a Golden Nica at the 2005 edition of
Ars Electronica, Processing emerged from a desire to have a tool
that would help designers understand programming. "Ben and I both
studied graphic design so we don't come at this from engineering or
computer science background," explains Reas, who now teaches in the
Design | Media Arts program at the University of California, Los
Angeles. "We came to it as designers and the language thus has been
New York Magazine illustration by Ben Fry.
The difference Reas references is the fact that Processing uses
a simplified language syntax and intuitive interface that lets
designers start experimenting immediately. Some use it primarily as
a way to test ideas. Says interaction designer Raegan Kelly, "For
me the appeal of Processing was that it is a non-proprietary open
source programming sketchpad for visual artists who grapple with
problems of data display in computational environments." She
continues, "It's relatively easy to learn, and allows one to move
fairly quickly from idea to proof of concept, one idea at a
time—which means there is no need to develop a complex codescript
to see if what you want to make can be made, and ultimately will
say what you are trying to say."
The Venice, California-based company Motion Theory was
among the first design firms to use Processing in their work. "We
first used it in an R.E.M. video five years ago," explains Motion
Theory co-founder Mathew Cullen. "We wanted to try Processing for
the video because we were exploring very abstract concepts related
to visualizing superstrings, emotion and other forces we can't see.
Processing offered us a way to explore some new looks that we
couldn't possibly hand animate."
Since then Motion Theory has used Processing on assignments for
HP, Nike and
dozens of other projects—a
recent spot for Nike, for example, visualizes the nascent
calculations required to make a putt by Tiger Woods as a swirl of
graphics swimming around the golfer's head. Again, the visual
quality suggests an unfolding process, something much richer than
might be signified using traditional animation techniques.
Frames from Nike "One," in which Motion Theory used Processing
to visualize thoughts, for Wieden+Kennedy.
"In the hands of the right artist, Processing can be an
important part of an overall look because it helps to manipulate
images in very specific ways that relate to the underlying
concepts," explains Cullen. "We like to make sure that design is an
intentional process that not only communicates a message, but the
nature of the design itself echoes the communication. Processing
can sometimes achieve this—and even if it doesn't, it can just help
us to develop great visuals that we couldn't otherwise create."
Screenshot from Harris's interactive Universe.
The Processing Exhibition space is a testament to the tool's
wide range. Projects include Jonathan Harris's interactive Universe, which allows users to create
personal constellations from data collected from news sources and
to derive meaning based on their own orchestration of it. Fry's
work often similarly manipulates information streams. Last year, he
used Processing to craft two print illustrations for New York
connections among 50 top blogs, using information from the website
Technorati while the other shows a globe made
from the names of significant blogs. He has also created Salary
Vs. Performance, a sketch that allows users to compare the
money spent by 30 baseball teams in relation to their success
throughout the season. Processing is particularly apt for these
applications, namely visualizing information, and creating ways of
making connections among data sets.
Yo so la Juani title sequence still.
However, Processing is also great for making beautiful things,
and indeed, many designers will post their work with a sheepish
admission that it's eye candy. The opening title sequence for Bigas
Luna's film Yo so la Juani, for example, looks like a
stunning, multi-layered 3-D Spiro-graph drawing come to life, and
there are innumerable examples of beautiful, complex moving image
works made using Processing. Designer Marius Watz maintains
the Generator X
blog, home to many examples of Processing-based art, with
categories that include "beauty of numbers," "computational design"
and "performative software."
"There is a place for and a need for wondrous things," asserts
Kelly in response to Processing's role in generative art. "There
are times when I see something by Jared [Tarbell], a simple
computational visualization of a complex math equation iterated on
screen, that completely captures me, causes me to think about
beauty and systems and things normally only understood by brains
very different than mine. I would like to think there is a place
for that alongside standardization protocols, universal access and
deep data sets."
Marius Watz's GasWorks
That beauty now surfaces in unusual places, such as an ad for an
Audi sedan. More importantly, though, Processing is allowing
designers to push the boundaries of design itself, expanding its
borders to include new realms and processes. Reas notes that in
less than a decade, graphic design has embraced motion and sound,
and "that's now happening with interface and interactive design."
But Reas also points out another key factor: Processing helps
designers build a sense of code literacy, which in turn will
contribute to more sophisticated considerations of what Watz calls
generative aesthetics and design as a computational process that
unfolds spatially and temporally.
Willis explores the strange delight of the Cinematic Orchestra’s “Lilac Wine” video and its designer/director, Vanessa Marzaroli.
Section: Inspiration -
motion graphics, typography, Voice
Having your first bona fide
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Section: Tools and Resources
R. Michael Hendrix was named a 2008 Fellow by AIGA Chattanooga. AIGA Fellows are recognized for their significant contributions to raising the standards of excellence within their local design community.
Section: Inspiration -
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