On the joys of pixel popping

Rachel Collinson

Ever done cross stitch? Followed a knitting pattern? Made a wee tapestry?

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 the side.

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 square inch.

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.

Epaminondas Cambanis Keith Whittle Andry Ratovondrahona Umaporn Richardson-Saema Mark Gatehouse
Javier Onate Zamiha Manji Irene Florou Umaporn Richardson-Saema Umaporn Richardson-Saema
Mark Smith Yami Trequesser Ricardo Amaral Svetislav Bankerovic Larisa Blazic
Arthi Amaran Chris Kakatsakis Samantha McKellar Christopher Aylott
Edward Cookson Joanna Griffin Matt Knight Julie Roebuck
Haro Lee Mayudia Mothar Sacha Davidson Tony Momoh Tony Momoh
Lizzie O'Grady Andrew Purdy Joan Smith Graham Fudger Tony Momoh