Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Willem Velthoven 1 Jan 1992

van Blokland, van Rossum

Erik van Bokland, Just van Rossum, BittPull Postscript bit-font system, Den Haag 1992

Mediamatic is usually typeset in Albertan, a typeface designed by Jim Rimmer for his own company (Giampa Textware) in Vancouver. But for this number we had a testversion of Bitpull at our disposal.

The young Dutch typographers Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum are known for their radical, experimental approach to computer typeface design. They do not spend much time on the traditional, everyday duties of the typographer, like inventing original forms and applying them to the entire alphabet, along with sensible spacing. Van Blokland and van Rossum are more occupied with rooting around in the digital dirt letters are made from nowadays.

In modern computer typography, shapes and interrelations of letters are no longer preserved in a drawing, a copper template or a photographic negative.
They are stored in a digital form-description.
Only at the moment of use is the letter drawn on a screen, printer or some other computer-driven device, using this description. This allows changes in the forms of letters to occur during use. Trite examples of this are changes in size or slant of the letters, tricks that produced a great deal of uglyness during the emergence of digital typography in the 80's.

Van Blokland and van Rossum are more interested in the structural possibilities of programmed letterforms. This led to the creation of Beowolf in 1990, a group of letters whose form is determined more or less randomly (See Mediamatic vol. 5#3, autumn 1990)

In the same period, rumours were making the rounds about a letter virus capable of violent seizure of power over the typography of Macintosh computers.However, it seems that this virus never escaped the laboratory in The Hague. Is the name of the (very irregular) typography periodical Letterror in any way connected to this?

In 1990, there was also speculation on the possibility of context-sensitive letter types. An example of this might be handwriting; the letters are always related to their neighbours. But other possible sources of influence are the length of words or sentences, the placement of letters and words in a sentence or column, or even the meaning of the word the letter is part of.

Apple is planning to market Quickdraw GX next year, a new version of Macintosh graphic routines. Quickdraw GX is still secret, but is said to contain the basics necessary for context-determined typography: Apple's aim is to increase the possibilities for using Japanese, Chinese and Korean characters. With a glint in his eye, Erik van Blokland assured me that he can imagine a few other applications for these routines. Next year at about this time we can expect to see the first intelligent fonts…

In the meantime, Bitpull is a peculiar aid for the computerised retro-typographer. Upon its official release, van Blokland predicts a revival of cash register typography. The typeface flirts with the visible pixels of monitors and matrix printers. The basis of Bitpull is the rough raster of an arbitrarily chosen screen font. The Bits that were pulled in this issue of Mediamatic were borrowed from Apple's Chicago.
The BitpullChicago letters are made of image particles, each of which is, technically speaking, a letter. This means that the particles are manipulable both individually and as a group. The form of the particles is established in the actual Bitpull fonts: Twelvebits Regular, Twelvebits random, Twelvebits Round, Objects, Screen and Worm.

The choice of pixel forms (characters) in a font is a random one, accomplished by the Bitpuller program. In this way, letters are created that resemble primitive bits of printing. But as soon as the adventurous designer begins to pull the bits, they start resembling roadside filth, a grab-bag or chocolate sprinkles. Because the letters consist of clouds of separate pixels, individual interference is mortally dangerous. Bitpull disintegrates under one's hands.
Letters become extremely unreliable and the typographer must be constantly on his guard not to get lost in the micro-typographic chaos of ByteHappy