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Work / Graphic Design

Feelers out – the bizarre digital typefaces of Ari Weinkle

Boston native Ari Weinkle caused a stir last year when he unveiled Feelers – a project that brought digitally-generated forms together with the discipline of typography, bending the rules of both in the process. Based on the movement of animal appendages, the alphabet uses tentacular flicks in the place of swashes, and slug-like bodies as stems. When seen as static images the letters look poised, as if ready to pounce, but when animated they tremble like specimens caught under a microscope.

The typeface, which was broadly covered by the creative press and even broadcast on TV, established Weinkle’s ability to blend the strict requirements of type with unnervingly organic movement. It’s a penchant that’s repeated in his Varicose alphabet – which shows the forms of letters billowing in and out, like clouds – and contrasted in Enfold, which puts a Monument Valley-style spin on things, showing letters folding as if being unwrapped from around a cube.

However despite the popularity of Weinkle’s unconventional approach, Feelers was first inspired by a traditional source – old brush lettering type specimens. While working his way through a creative block the designer started experimenting with these brush-style letters in 3D, using it to uncover new ways to tackle their shapes.

“I noticed that the letters could be treated like muscular joints,” recalls Weinkle, who developed the forms in Illustrator before adapting them in Cinema 3D and adding movement. Lighting and texture was used to create a translucent effect, and the letters’ washes of colour were borrowed from the hues of deep sea creatures. “Immediately they had a weird vibe that I tried to push further,” he adds.

Weinkle traces his interest in visual experimentation to a raft of “elaborate craft projects” created during childhood. After spending his teens immersed in painting and photography, he completed a graphic design degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, which introduced him to the discipline. “I like that design encourages minimalism and requires perfect execution,” he elaborates.

Now working as a full-time interactive graphic designer, Weinkle spends his nights and weekends crafting bizarre typefaces – a process he finds offers an antidote to the formality of daily projects.

“My client work often has to adhere to certain styles that relate to a given brand,” he says. “That means I’m constantly researching different techniques, much of which I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.”

Although Weinkle started out making more illustrated, ornate typographic experiments – often using typefaces designed by others – he’s found his work increasingly leaning towards building and experimenting with letterforms created by himself.

“I’m more interested in creating my own foundation,” he says. “I like designing the letters I’m working with in tandem with the style I’m pursuing. Another significant shift is working with type in motion. It adds a whole other realm of possibilities for expression. I’ve become more and more interested in trying to combine my weird ideas with type.”

It’s precisely this weirdness that renders Weinkle’s work so compelling – although the designer attributes its success to type’s position in the visual world, describing it as “unlike anything else”. By shaking up its formal rules and combining it with artistic expression, he believes results can be achieved that aren’t possible in any other medium.

It’s a hope that’s voiced in his work, which questions the requirements for legibility by instead emphasising letterforms’ inherent beauty. Weinkle’s alphabets hover somewhere between artwork and usable typeface, without quite settling for one or another.

Part of their fascination also rests in their purely digital existence – an aspect which, of course, can’t be captured between the pages of a print magazine. It’s something Weinkle comments on, admitting that digital type can lack the “glamour” of physical, by being removed from the tangibility of paper stock or ink effects.

“But what you gain is not insignificant,” he counters. “There’s the inherent illumination from the screen, the added dimensions of time and movement and the lack of permanent form.”

“I’d love to see them in a gallery setting with a ton of monitors to display them,” he adds. “However the reality is that most people will see them online or on their phones, which is okay too.”

Weinkle’s comments reflect the world type has had to adapt to over the years. Typefaces that were originally created for a handful of print purposes have continued to be expanded and adapted to serve a myriad of new digital requirements. And as companies and brands begin to incorporate generative solutions and movement in their branding, Weinkle’s work seems to offer a peek into the future of typography.

“I think motion is going to become more and more important,” he says. “Brands are already designing the way their logos animate."

“But it will go beyond that,” he adds. "Programming will allow generative, moving type, to be created on the fly. I’m really excited for what’s coming next.”

This article appears in issue three of The Recorder, Monotype’s magazine that is available for pre-order here