William Jacobson’s dialogue with his machine explores the border of text and language
The Swedish designer uses generative techniques to explore the boundary states between chaos and control.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 19 July 2021
One of William Jacobson’s generative artworks show four treatments of the phrase “Structural Framework” in degraded chassis of letterforms in black against a plain white background. On the top left, the phrase is set in italics, if you can call it that, and the one below it resembles embossed masonry, its skeleton destroyed like a smudged piece of clay. Alone, each treatment is almost illegible, but you start to be able to see what they say when viewed together. You can make out certain letters from afar. A stray S or a ligature between a T and a U. Looking closer, all you see is a mess of lines that do not fit the visual markers of language that you’re used to.
Hailing from Stockholm, William grew up surrounded by the clean and monochrome design heritage of Scandinavia. “I was already from an early age quite fascinated by the polished and meticulous ways of treating illustration and typography. I very much looked up to Olle Eksell and his classic designs for Ögon Cacao,” he tells It’s Nice That. “However I found myself being equally drawn to the roughness and destructiveness from the scenery of urban graffiti and tagging. This sort of reflexive, iterated ruthless manner of fusing type and image through illustrative lettering influenced me massively.”
“These sorts of boundaries and tension between opposites — order versus chaos, neat versus messy, constructive versus destructive — is what I've always been interested in and drawn to. The exploration between those borders is what informed my practice both in thinking and making,” he says. “My interest in boundaries is also very evident in my process. It derives from a constant curiosity on how to exploit the inherent qualities found in different mediums. But more importantly, it's also about the alternative qualities. I often have this urge of finding different ways to manipulate, systemise or deconstruct conventional mediums and fuse them with others.” He cites Harold Cohen and his drawing machine Aaron as an inspiration.
In William’s work, the erratic and arbitrary brush that he controls is intentionally limited by the rational and precise computer software that creates the visual language of his work. “I’ve always praised illustration, both digital and physical, as the most vital foundation of my practice. But I think it is the way you use it that excites me the most. This search and exploration of alternative systems, whether it's primitive or not, to manipulate mediums outlines my process and practice,” he says.
If the smallest unit of a digital image is a one-by-one pixel, William’s work can be seen as a way to reestablish what this smallest unit is. Each work takes a unique shape or gesture as its smallest unit, iterated to form more familiar shapes. Whether they’re blocks, scribbles, ovals or curves, the technique William employs often creates similar impressions of shapes by using completely different building blocks.
In his final year at the Royal College of Art, he continues this exploration of the borders between states. In the deliberate “mistakes” he makes in his work, he creates this visual dialogue between himself and the computer. “Throughout my research I've been asking myself questions on typography and type such as: what constitutes a typeface? What constitutes the borders between text and language? I've been trying to find some ambiguous answers in the produced outcomes,” he says.
With the help of the Runway ML software, a generative software that has the capability of using machine learning to translate words into images, he creates the visual foundations of his experiments. William feeds the software with text from his dissertation as well as those written by artists working with generative art for his final project, a book titled A Thesis on Generative Written Language. “It serves as a specimen for generative typography and its metamorphic character set, questioning the conventions of typography. An ambiguous and arbitrary thesis that aims to explore the thresholds and borders between type and image, text and language through a vernacular typographic system,” he says. This roughness and destructiveness central to his work is ultimately a conversation between the artist and his tool, exploring the threshold of what is legible to us by this investigation into typography.
William Jacobson: A Thesis on Generative Written Language (Copyright © William Jacobson, 2021)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.