The Typed Image

Typographic portraits owe their history to the ASCII art of the 1960s-1980s. With word processing software, ASCII artists directly typed images using and combination of the 95 printable characters of the ASCII character encoding scheme. ASCII art was initially necessitated by the limited graphics capability of early desktop computers, but later found popularity amid trends for nostalgia. More recently, graphics software have allowed typographic designers to manipulate type in ways that were not previously possible. Nevertheless, many of the underlying principles of ASCII art remain in contemporary typographic portraits. Fuller characters (such as O) are still used to define areas of highlight, while narrower characters define areas of shadow. As is often the case in design, a trend initially inspired by the limitations of technology, has been embraced in hindsight, and improved while managing to maintain the appeal of its predecessors.


Dylan Roscover, Steven Paul Jobs, 2009.

As will many typographic portraits, Dylan Roscover's image of Steve Jobs relies upon the weight of the text to differentiate between the natural tones in a face. Type becomes texture. Tiny type, so fine that it is illegible, traces the fine lines of the skin, while larger, bolder typefaces are used to indicate highlights.

Although the audience's initial grand perception is of an image, on closer inspection the type also contributes verbal meaning. The letters are not used purely as texture or pattern, but also to contribute to a greater understanding of the meaning of the image. The type serves a dual purpose: pictorial and typographic. In its pictorial interpretation, as shadow and texture, the text works together to contribute to a single image; but read as text, the type lists numerous character traits of the subject, drawing not only a visual but also a verbal portrait of Jobs.

In case we do not recognise the subject by appearance, an in-image caption, running down the bridge of the subject's nose, ensures correct interpretation of the image, allowing no ambiguity. The text anchors the preferred meaning of the image, telling us precisely that this is indeed a representation of 'Steven Paul Jobs'.

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Cris Wick, Lyric Portrait, 2009.

In this 'Lyric Portrait' by Cris Wick, the shading from a photograph remains. The type becomes a series of frames through which we view the image. The type reveals surface colour and texture from an existing photograph, which the space between the text conceals the remainder of the image, turning figure into ground.

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Mehdi Saeedi, The Blind Owl, c. 2003.

Mehdi Saeedi's 'The Blind Owl' applies typographic forms to create the contours of the eyes, forehead, and the bridge of the nose. The type is complimented by inkblots and painted areas of shadow. The addition of painterly marks firmly asserts that this image is not computer generated. Though type has connotations of artificiality - it is nowadays assumed to be produced digitally - the inclusion of imperfections (the ink blots) and brush marks tell us that this work was produced by hand. In a post-digital age, audiences have lost faith in technology, and in the designers who rely upon it. Audiences are all too aware that spectacular effects can be produced with the single click of a mouse button, and are no longer in awe of digital 'magic'. This has prompted a revival of the hand-made. Hand-drawn type has increased in popularity, and imperfections (reminding us of the difficult and time-consuming processes of traditional creation) have been embraced by designers. In this portrait, Saeedi presents audiences with the best of both worlds. The type, with its neat contours, appears digital, while the inkblots add a personal touch.

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Jennifer Cruz, Type Portrait, 2009.

Jennifer Cruz's 'Type Portrait' appears not directly typed, but 'cut-up', constructed from 'found' type rather than created directly with the use of a keyboard. Here, type is stolen: removed from its original context. This recontextualisation of type has origins in the works of OUPLIPO (a 1960s group of French poststructuralists). OUPLIO constructed new texts from old, slicing up and rearranging existing texts by other authors to form new narratives. Removed from their original contexts, these extracts took on new meaning. In this portrait, a similar event occurs. Old text is given new, pictorial meaning. It's original authors have been forced to sacrifice control of their work, as in its new setting, it no longer operates as narrative.

It is not only the verbal meaning of the original text that is changed or lost in this portrait. The typographers' code is also twisted, and put to new use. Font size and weight, usually used to indicate a hierarchy of importance in a typed text, are instead used to differentiate between the lighter and darker tones of the image.

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TBWA\Chiat\Day , 51st Grammy Portrait, 2009.

Barak Obama's 2008 US election victory was due in no small part to his skill as an orator. Obama wooed crowds with emotive language, and his aims were summed up in a single, evocative word, 'change'. This portrait includes key phrases from Obama's campaign, including "yes we can", as well as a list of well known song titles.

Central to the election was the issue of race. TWA's collection of posters for the 51st Grammy Awards included typographic portraits of Grammy Award winners including Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, and Thom York, as well as politicians including Obama (who won Grammies in 2005 and 2007 for 'Dreams from My Father', and 'The Audacity of Hope'). The designers' decision to use a rainbow of colours for each image tactfully sidesteps the race issue. Every subject appears in many colours, gradiating from blue to red. But tellingly, these are all artificial colours. No skintones (white, black or otherwise) appear in the colour palette.

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The Typed Image

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