On the joys of pixel popping
Ever done cross stitch? Followed a knitting pattern? Made a
Maybe the thought of such lame activity brings a smug smile
to your face. It's the sort of thing you just can't
admit to and stay fashionable.
What on earth's it got to do with new media culture,
anyway? Such homely, farmhouse crafts just don't cut it
when you can take a digital camera snap or a scan of some
random object, mangle it with the face of a soon-to-be
ex-friend in Photoshop and print up your own t-shirt. Out with
the homemade jam and in with the paper jam.
But let's take a different look at this - please bear
with me while I take you on a digital detour for a moment.
There have been some interesting developments in digital
culture recently. We have seen an explosion in the use and
production of bitmap fonts, which don't expand and
contract easily like normal fonts but are designed to be
viewed on screen as small and crisp as possible. These allow
designers to take the crazy amounts of text information given
to them by demanding clients and cram it into the limited
screen space available while still preserving precious white
space. (This is essential to allow a design to breathe and
therefore remain interesting and readable, if you've yet
to hear a designer throw a wobbly about it. If you are a
designer, you'll probably be shaking your head in sad
recognition at this point.)
At first these fonts emerged for practical reasons but soon
became a mark of slick style and ultra-modern design on the
web (we shall put aside for a moment the fact that they are
not accessible to those readers with impaired vision.) They
are constructed not with curves, as the traditional font has
always been, but simply by carving a letter out of a block of
say, 10 by 10 pixels, much like the way text is displayed on
the tiny monochrome lcd screens of mobile phones.
Designing these - along with graphics and icons - far from
being slavishly boring, is curiously relaxing and addictive.
It's like relieving stress systematically with a sheet of
bubble wrap, but producing something pretty and intricate at
the same time. Add in the kudos of announcing you're doing
interactive design, and you've got a winning formula for
whiling away the hours - and, dare I say it, making money on
With sites like Warp Records (www.warp-net.com) and Flipflopflyin (www.flipflopflyin.com - the minipops
section especially) now going down in the history of the web,
pixel popping has become a major art form. Recognisable
celebrities are rendered in 4 jagged colours and only one
centimetre square. Like the appeal of small things in the real
world- spider mites, micromachines, puppies, mobile phones-
pixel art definitely has the greatest emotional power per
And yet, for all the machismo of the webdesign industry,
with its appalling gender imbalance, the technique itself
differs very little from making a cross-stitch sampler - a
talent which goes back hundreds of years and was purely the
realm of uneducated adolescent girls. You've got to admit
it, boys, it's not so uncool. There's a bit of passion
for traditional craft in all of us.
Whether icons would go down well at your local church sale
of work, though, remains to be seen.