Paola Antonelli | Slideshows

The Typographer’s Guide to the Galaxy

F Rat, 2007 from Oded Ezer: The Typographer's Guide to the Galaxy

Have you ever looked at your handwriting from the other side of the sheet, holding the paper against the light? It is as displacing as watching your own photographic portrait and realizing that all the asymmetries you thought you knew and accepted are back in full force, making you look really odd and twisted and revealing a new soul. In the case of type and writing, it is a litmus test. There is no better proof of the elegance of a typeface than obfuscating its content. And if, as is my case when it comes to Hebrew (or Korean or Thai or Arabic…), one does not understand anything at all, there is no need to even reverse the sheet, the experience becomes purely emotional and aesthetic. Ah, the delights of ignorance! Characters from different alphabets become fantastic creatures and take on lives of their own. In the case of Oded Ezer, who calls himself a “typographic experimentalist,” some letters are indeed endowed with DNA and a biological structure, and become crawling insects and sperm.

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I first encountered Oded Ezer’s work while I was doing research for my exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind, which opened at The Museum of Modern Art at the beginning of 2008. The exhibition focused on some designers’ ability to interpret scientific and technological revolutions and transform them into objects that people can use, in other words to transform revolutions into real life. It was a show about experimental design and about the relationship between design and science, so I cannot express enough my elation when I saw Oded Ezer, a communication designer, appear on his website wearing a white lab coat and contemplating a vial, surrounded by tools that have nothing to do with those found in a typical design office. 

For the exhibition I chose one project, Typosperma, which is part of Oded’s series Biotypography. The subject of the fictional experiment are cloned spermatozoa with typographic information implanted into their DNA, “some sort of new transgenic creatures, half (human) sperm, half letter.” Typosperma made me think of many endlessly fascinating consequences — from the name of a new baby being decided at the moment of conception, to the idea that each ejaculation could be a uniquely original and lyrical poem. In the exhibition galleries, Typosperma was featured next to Lithoparticles, the work of two bona fide scientists, Thomas Mason and Carlos Fernandez, biochemists from the University of California Los Angeles, who had invented a new way to mark proteins using nanoscale letters. The meeting between the two scientists and Oded is a moment I will never forget because in the excitement, curiosity, and admiration they all had for each other lies the future direction not only of design, but also of science. They will not only need, but also seek out, an alliance to dream bigger and experiment.

Typeface design is a very rigorous, almost scientific discipline where minuscule variations and adaptations reverberate in meaning and impact. The formula for a successful typeface is the result of an enormous amount of trial-and-error work, not unlike a scientific experiment. Like scientists, typeface designers sometimes need to blow some steam. Ezer in particular felt the need to escape not only the exactitude of type design, but also the obsessive goal-orientation typical of the Israeli educational system. That is how he came to live a double life, as a successful commercial designer on one hand and as a pilgrim on a “path to the unknown,” as he calls it, on the other. 

Before Oded decided to mix chemistry and typography, his work already explored the inner soul of letters by letting them channel the personality of a poet’s or a musician’s work. He let them become three-dimensional and animated in posters and book covers — a direction explored across the centuries by armies of type designers, declared or unaware, and reprised by Ezer with renewed elegance. In a project called Tortured Letters, he bound, gagged, and stretched single Latin and Hebrew characters with frightening sadism. In another, he moulded them to look like little ants, already on the path to being full-fledged organisms. The Biotypography project in particular holds great promise for the future. Ezer thinks that since, very often, a type designer chooses a typeface for its ability to embody and render the feeling of a project, the step from object to creature is direct and typefaces should really become living, biological beings. As he explains it, “The term Biotypography refers to any application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof to create or modify typographical phenomena.” These fantastical creatures not only literally embody the dream of design and science coming together, but also let us dream about a super-human language that is shaped by biology, rather than by culture — the dream of a universal means of communication that we have sought for centuries.

This essay was first published in Oded Ezer: The Typographer's Guide to the Galaxy, published by Gestalten. The publisher and author have kindly granted permission to republish this essay on Design Observer.

Posted in: Typography

Comments [33]

Great stuff there.

I feel strangely inspired!

The Visual Word transcends the barriers of language as new linguistic forms emerge....... Word as image is simultaneously content-free and loaded with meanings along or within the situated context. Typography as a tool to map meanings is a science akin to cartography in more ways than one....

Valuable inspiring stuff of TYPE presented here.
Viren Brahmbhatt

this is from the senior curator at MOMA? This kind of degenerate, nonsensical who knows why anyway did it except for some kind of shock value "contemporary" (as opposed to "modern") work is more likely to appear at the new museum. To devote entire paragraphs on this disgusting trash merits a resounding "F" (without rat body attached).
Lawrence Markuse

Thank you, Lawrence Markuse, for reminding me why I stopped reading the comments at this site.

Thank you, DO editors, for bringing us this extraordinary artwork.

I enjoyed this post, give it a B for entertainment, and wonder how in the world anyone could describe it or the work it describes as degenerate, except in the case of one who has already begun to degenerate through frustration which is quite clearly on display in the posted neo-comment. Bill, can't you remove comments that are not written in English?
Bernard Pez

I am (and always have been) in awe of his work. He is a model of typographic whimsy, wit, and discipline.
Jason A. Tselentis

This kind of work written up by Antonelli should be called into question. Why the hell is this acceptable work? The debate continues.

The pseudo-democracy of the contemporary situation allows for anything to be permissible and nothing can be voiced negatively, except for those things considered "authoritative" or "evil" (i.e., Bush regime). To consider something as mere garbage is not allowed. Everything is okay, so keep marching in line off the cliff, buffaloes.
Jordan White

That this post receives so few comments except for ones adamantly against it, of which I must voice my support, indicates the vitriol that this sort of "controversial" "typography" and "design" perhaps rightly deserves.

The comment about this work belonging to the category of the "New Museum" is apt. Perhaps Antonelli should consider moving there instead, and letting someone else take her place- this kind of catch up to the young kids game is a bit stale.
Clay Gilson

Lovely things to consider here. Thanks for the essay; I love when communication designers wholly embrace the content of their experiments, becoming for a time practitioners of the science they study.
Elizabeth Carey Smith

Excellent article, reminds me of why Paola Antonelli is indeed the sharpest, most compelling persona in today's design culture.

Lawrence: May I remind you that Paola Antonelli is indeed the sharpest, most compelling persona in today's design culture? She thinks culturally and conceptually, not just aesthetically, and has a phenomenal talent, superpower almost, of seeing links between constructs that others fail to see. Something you'd easily come to appreciate had you watched either of her two phenomenal TED talks (here and here), or – God forbid – had you actually seen Design and the Elastic Mind.

But then again, all of these have a prerequisite for a certain elasticity of mind in and of themselves, which seems to be sorely missing here.

Either way, fantastic article.
Maria Popova

The only thing "elastic" about this kind of design writing and/or thinking is that it is now stretched to things of no value, to be spoken of for its own sake. The old standard of "beauty is truth" applies even less than ever, and this loose definition is what clearly puts many people in business nowadays in the "creative" fields.

stewart tierney

Great post and even better posts, good to subjectivity is alive and well.
Sizzle Creative Agency

I don't find Lawrence Marcuse's comments any bit incendiary. In fact, he may voice what many of us (including myself and my associates) feel when looking at such a disgusting image- especially when applied to the field that we work in and love (typography). It is no wonder that when I go to MOMA nowadays, I always ask myself, who does these new shows, and why??? (three question marks for emphasis). Seeing this filth covered by the senior curator of design, now I know. It wouldn't hurt to talk about the master Adrian Frutiger still alive and well and working in Switzerland- no, instead we have a rat with an F attached to it. Well, "F" that!
Beatrice Hillman Roos

esta muy padre el tema gracias.

im personally not really so keen on the "Biotypography" or "Typosperma" from a visual standpoint. though i really dont see what some commenters are getting so up in arms about . . . they seem more of an extracurricular art project done by a practicing designer being displayed at an art museum.

i do not think Oded or Paola are trying to pass this off as "the professional definition of graphic design and typography," but instead, as simply art that plays with the typographic form as, well, form.

as a designer, can you not appreciate letterforms as pieces of beautiful visual form, separated from their communicative meaning? can a designer not have an expressionistic outlet outside of the corporate design world? I realize design involves a lot of problem solving but it also involves a sense of artistry.

i do, however, really dig the other type experiments, such as in the Hebrew typefaces and marriage agreement and the Tipografya poster.

Wow. A shame to see such nice, earnest work overshadowed by what would seem to be overinflamed rage.

Perhaps those reacting so negatively should, say, pick up Rick Poyner's "No More Rules" and acquaint themselves with the past, say 20 years' worth of typography. (Beatrice, Frutiger? Really!?)

Or visit the nearest design school.

Or at very least, offer what, exactly, it is they find so offensive. I'm can't tell if the objections are formal, political, or aesthetic?
jay harlow

I am at a complete loss as to what is happening in the commentary here. "Filth"? "Degenerate"? "Disgusting"? I join Jay Harlow in asking someone to explain their rationale behind these words.

I have followed Oded Ezer's work for years, and consider him absolutely the most innovative, interesting and imaginative designer and typographer in the world. His work draws attention to the letterform by making it almost literally come alive. He makes us think about letters and how they can be stretched and manipulated and still be letters, still form words. We've all seen "I [heart] NY" done and redone a thousand ways, and none of them have ever had the energy, vibrancy, and _feeling_ of Oded's version.

Not only that, his forms—far from disgusting—are _beautiful_. The contrast of black and white, with underlying shadow, the long stretched forms ... absolutely stunning.

And those that might not be beautiful in the eye of the beholder: the weird, sci-fi forms, green and gloppy or eviscerated ... they're playful, whimsical and truly experimental. Typosperma? Oded is thinking outside of our little world of design, making typography reach farther than anyone else has. What's not beautiful about that?

Those who don't see this ... I just don't know what to say, except that you must lead very narrow, sad, unimaginative lives. Too bad.
marian bantjes

Extraordinarity: ,

thanks marian, you said it much better than i did, returning focus to the energy, craft, and beauty of the work.
jay harlow

Comment removed by the editors for language and tone.
Terrance Grimwade

Stupid. Thank goodness the new post by Shaughnessey has replaced this one when you open the page. It was horrible looking at the rat.


Yikes. This is the strangest and most displaced display of disdain towards an article, writer and subject I have seen in a long time in the comments section here.

I'm going to be parallel with Marian throwing in my praise and say that Oded's work is some of the most imaginatively uncomfortable work being done today in typography. And when I say uncomfortable I mean it as a compliment. He makes you consider what you are looking at, it's not just a bunch of things he throws together to give you a visual jolt for the sake of being cool or weird. You have to pay attention and digest it.

I have also known Oded, or known of Oded, since 2002 I think, when I started Speak Up, and he contributed to some very early Word Its. You could see the beginnings of what he has done today back then. Point of that being that his work and thinking has evolved, it has grown (sometimes typographically literally) into different directions and he has not stood still.

And the rat at the top of this entry grosses you out? Clearly you have never been on a New York subway platform. You would wish they were as mutantly cute as Oded's.

Forget about the rat. Please take the time to review the slideshow. It is really fantastic.
Rocco Piscatello

In a quick read of the comments I did not notice much said about the humor and playfulness of this excellent work.
Surely what drives the spirit to make these forms dance outside of their normal abode is, in a way, devotional and lacking in religion,
two qualities that open the gate to the best new work. I was delighted and inspired.
Thanks Paola always,
Howard Stein
Howard Stein

I really enjoyed this work, and I enjoyed the debate even more.

I can't understand how someone can consider this work "filth" and "garbage" though. I think it is very provocative in a good way.

I see it more as someone's imagination and cultural aesthetic really taking free range and creating something beautiful in it's own way.
Dan Newcomer

Excellent Essay !
Oded Ezer’s work is very interesting , I always get encouragement when someone post such kind of typographic experimental things !
Keep up posting !

How amazing is that slideshow! Astoundingly good.
Mark Cotter

Great post, really help me a lot. Thanks.
Keyword Elite

I really love typography. Whenever I have to choose a font a spend a lot of time trying to decide what captures the feel I'm looking for. It truly is an interesting world.

excellent slideshow. thank you.
Alicia Wade

I think typography like this blurs the line between graphic design and art. I absolutely love the concept and most of the examples in the slideshow. How can someone not enjoy the playfulness of a rat merged with a letter form?
Savannah Kaylor

Great Post really Help me with my work.. Thanks

Who would have thought that the (some whimsical, some theoretical, others conventional) works of a typographer and the appreciation of museum curator would be so controversial? I wonder what this blog post's "comments" would be if the internet had existed during the first modernist movement 100 years ago.
Peter Zingg

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