Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Grassroots geniuses with primitive pixels

I've always enjoyed watching people solve problems in letter design.  One of the simplest involves digital thrift: how few pixels does it take to make the alphabet?  Of course some letters take only a few, but a grid that will accommodate them all usually requires 5 dots on a side.  That's a resolution of 25 dpi.  And that's enough.

Those dots per inch of dpi can be just about anything: close-packed mosaic tiles, members of a marching band, ears of corn, Indian beads, or quilt squares.  American visual history is full of letters made out of the unlikeliest stuff.  The eye is predisposed to look for images in clusters.  Drop the resolution any lower than 5 x 5, however, and you start to get into trouble.  The craftswoman who made the cross-stitched motto here made up her design using a grid 4 x 4, often narrowing it to 4 x 2 or 4 x 3, and occasionally widening it to 4 x 5.  Discovering that she was in trouble, she came up with some charming solutions.  And some awkward ones, too.
This little cross-stitched gem lets you kibitz on the thought processes of someone winging it, coming up with creative solutions for insoluble tasks.  It is a nice example of American folk art lettering, much more revealing and endearing than something perfect executed from a printed design.  And it offers a cautionary lesson in why 5 x 5 is a kind of lower limit for rendering letters on a grid.  You'll be even happier with 5 x 7.   
You have to map out the whole alphabet when you put it on any grid--hexagonal cells, random crazy quilt, or repeated dashes.  Lo-res letters are full of pitfalls, as you can see if you look at the second B, the first M, and also H, E, K, N, and A.  How would you have solved these design challenges? Would you have resorted to single stitches sprinkled in with the cross stitches? 
  • The B that looked clear as a capital mutated into an 8 when it lost its serifs.  
  • The stitches that made the E's middle stroke had to be reconfigured into single dashes to fit.  
  • A single horizontal stitch was also required to make sense of the S and H.  
  • Single diagonal stitches made the center of the M, and would have helped make sense of the N.  The second M, allowed to spread to 5 x 4, is easier to read and more consistent. 
  • Meanwhile, the design allows for unnecessary widening of the second O.  
  • K could just as well be bottom-heavy rather than top-heavy.  

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