Quickly pivoting—2020 and 2021 seemed like years of quickly pivoting to keep businesses, processes, incomes, and relationships stable during a global pandemic. Graphic design saw a pivot as reflected in Excavating Form within Design Education, an exhibition of student work from Kathleene and Christopher Sleboda’s Newly Formed graphic design course at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Newly Formed pushed students to practice graphic design as experimental form—all surface, not so much function—to break regular habits and work with public platforms as a means of communicating. Each of the eleven projects created during the term referred to a different word that began with the letter Z, each word prompting thought about patterns, motions, and cultural conventions.
The resulting experiments are documented in Excavating Form according to, perhaps, the limitations of remote work and education, through screen capture images, cropped previews, and files reviewed in Preview instead of posters, books, and other communal materials. The black-and-white presentation scheme creates a sense of continuity for an extreme range of projects and ideas stirred up by the provoking letter Z. Amidst typographic sets are excursions in symbol forms, flag-making, and intentionally obscured displays of language.
Two wall texts in electric blue are set in a typeface, One-Time (Key)Pad, designed for the class by Kit Son Lee. As recordings of common sayings in Zoom meetings (“SORRY I WAS ON MUTE”), they set the conversational frame used for this production in design education. There is a boldness or high-contrast sense to the student work, which is emphasized by a bright red banner in the gallery that presents, with almost princely import, a selection of the course’s design briefs. Newly Formed favored a certain kind of directness in execution, a directness good for both digital file-sharing and the anchoring of experimental work.
Kathleen Sleboda has taught at RISD since 2017 and began teaching at the University of Connecticut in 2020. She is the co-director of publisher Draw Down Books and was previously an archivist at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Christopher Sleboda has taught at RISD since 2016 and began teaching at Boston University in 2020. He was previously the Director of Graphic Design at the Yale University Art Gallery and is co-founder of Draw Down Books. Together, the Slebodas run Gluekit, a graphic image and photo illustration studio.
Forough Abadian Mei Ahn Lena Al-Kaisy Corinne Ang Baijun Chen Everett Epstein Adam Fein Cameron Galley Yingxi Ji Shreya Kumra Kit Son Lee Quinn Lockwood Simon Misner Ethan Murakami Georgie Nolan Catherine Park Christopher Sleboda Kathleen Sleboda Marcus Soltzberg Will Sumrall Stefan Tesliuc Asta Thrastardottir
One-Time (Key)Pad is a typeface designed to counteract digital surveillance for both text as image and text as text. Modified from Google’s open-source font Noto Mono, O-T(K)P interrupts each letterform with stripes to mimic the camouflage pattern of zebras, preventing their reading by computer vision. However, there exist many typefaces that are illegible to computers in this way; O-T(K)P takes this illegibility a step further by addressing the fact that digital fonts are softwares.
When one types an “A” on a keyboard, what appears on the screen is an image served up by the computer as a visual representation of the code of the typeface. This visual “A” is essentially arbitrary to the computer; the code itself is what tells the computer that the letter is an “A.” O-T(K)P turns this encoded information against itself by mapping human-readable visual letters to different code positions in the typeface. O-T(K)P therefore requires a custom keyboard configuration.
For a user of O-T(K)P, typing an “A” on the custom keyboard will yield a visual “A” on the screen, but to the computer reading the “A”’s code, it would be a “V,” or whichever letter the “A” was substituted with in that particular version of the typeface. Each distributed version of O-T(K)P employs a different substitution based on the One-Time Pad, a supposedly uncrackable cipher technique used in WWI, which relies on randomizing the substitution for every individual letter within a message (i.e. every “A” in a message could be anything from A-Z). A single version of O-T(K)P is therefore not a true One-Time Pad. However, it is possible to generate over 400 septillion versions of the typeface, using a different substitution for each letter each time. The more people use this typeface, the more uncrackable the code becomes. O-T(K)P thus encodes into itself a hope for collaborative action against surveillance capitalism.