Stewdio: Words Words Words @ Selfridges

25 January 2012

After the initial creative buzz of brainstorming and refining the idea for The Word-a-Coaster in Selfridges window we came to what shampoo ads would call “the science part.” How exactly do you select, typeset and print 30,000 unique fortunes? Luckily for us we knew just the man, Stewart Smith of Stewdio, and he helped make our crazy-mad dreams come true. In this interview he tells us how he did it, and chooses his favourite…

What was your initial reaction to the brief?

It sounded like fun. How do we collect thousands of adjectives? What do we do with them? How do we render 30,000 (or more) unique items for print?

How did you set about tackling it?

I started out by experimenting with a few different methods (including writing all of the adjective-gathering and render-generating code in Ruby!). But it became clear that the best tool for the job was Scriptographer, a free scripting plugin for Adobe Illustrator created by Jürg Lehni.

This approach allowed It’s Nice That and I to use normal Illustrator tools to setup a designed template containing all of the desired layout and typographic settings. From there I could write scripts to pull in adjectives from the collection we created, alter the designed template in various ways, and export the results for print—ultimately generating the 30,000 unique fortunes for Selfridges.

What were the main challenges involved?

This project held three main challenges. The first was wrangling together a royalty-free, vetted list of thousands of adjectives from Wiktionary. Parsing Wiktionary is a “sticky wicket” (as you Brits might say) and in the end the easiest way to do it was not to download and make sense of its freely available XML dump, but to write an in-browser JavaScript hack to leap from page to page collecting the adjectives. I was surprised and delighted by how quickly that little script did its job.

The second big challenge was to automatically scale the type size of the adjectives to be as large as possible on the card without breaking lines—a process I thought would be trivial. But Adobe Illustrator’s type engine doesn’t cooperate well at “high speeds” and when you’re rendering 30,000 documents, speed of export is everything. (If each document took only one second to render and save to disk that would take over eight hours!)

When you ask Illustrator’s type engine a question like “will this piece of text fit inside this box if I choose this font and this type size?” you have to really wait for it to refresh its model of what’s happening. If you don’t wait long enough between setting the type size and asking whether or not the text will fit, Illustrator will still answer you but it will do so based on whatever model it was thinking about previously—and that’s not very helpful.

Because Scriptographer uses JavaScript I was able to employ some fancy callback tricks and really optimize the process, reducing the render time by hours.

The final hurdle was pushing around the completed renders—30,000 EPS files constructed as per the printer’s specification. Uncompressed that was over 16GB of data. Just compressing the files took about half an hour, but reduced the load to a more manageable 6GB.

The printer was amused at how long it took just to copy over the final package, uncompress it, and output a few proofs for us. Or maybe “amused” is the wrong word?

How exciting is it to be doing a project for Selfridges’ window to be seen by millions of people?

It’s exciting of course, but whether the audience is ten or ten million for me the real fun is in the process of making. Having said that, I wouldn’t mind if some big shot director filming the next London-based blockbuster movie happened to use the Selfridges display as the backdrop for an important scene. I really enjoy it when artifacts of the day are captured in movies and the movies become widely distributed time capsules as they age. It’s a special kind of longevity.

Do you have a personal favorite from all the fortunes?

This changes each time I glance across the collection. For the moment my favorite is “Welcome to the VALID new you” where VALID is typeset in 54pt Albertus MT Regular. If you’re quick you can actually see this one for yourself as it’s sitting nearly up against the glass in the window display. It’s fortune number 25,958 of 30,000. If you happen to receive this one, do get in touch with me.

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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