Interview with Mike Waters for Cloud Magazine
"That compression, that drive toward lucid simplicity, is addictive. I just can’t get enough ‘less’"
A typogram is an image combining both a word and a visual expression of the same meaning.
This in no way communicates how difficult it is to achieve and the mind it takes to do it. Come to think of it, that rather proves the point of the typogram as a concept – making words encompass more than their letters is an art form in itself. Aaron Kuehn has that kind of mind and the skill to wrangle the paradox inherent in typograms into a creative work. And it is a paradox, because how do you combine focussing in on something so tightly it achieves the perfect singularity of a word before exploding again to communicate so much more?
Q: Why do you work with typograms?
A typogram is a graphic manipulation of a word to better depict its meaning – the essence of graphic design. They are a creative challenge to concoct, often employing visual puns, and, as with all design, simplicity wins. But I have greatly expanded that concept beyond a single word to entire systems composed of typograms, the goal being the compression of a body of knowledge into a single form. That compression, that drive toward lucid simplicity, is addictive. I just can’t get enough ‘less’. The more dauntingly complex the system, the more fat there is to carve off the bone. It is the carving that brings me great joy, and so I love the typogram.
Q: How do you choose what to make a typogram of?
What is virtually impossible, but might just barely be achievable with a new tool, or technique, or perspective? What bodies of knowledge are cloaked in mystery? Which fruit is highest on the tree? That gets my blood pumping, because I am cruel to myself – masochistic.
Q: What does the creation of one of your typograms take as a process?
It’s ridiculously difficult and I purposely make it almost impossibly hard. I developed an entire family of custom typefaces to make it easier, but that only expanded the envelope of possibility. To prolong my sanity, I divide my time between ideation, research, responding to inquiries, fulfilling orders, confronting art thieves and, if there’s time left, design. I average one complete typogram per year.
Q: Are any of your typograms particularly special to you?
The Bicycle typogram was the first, and was the origin of the concept. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition asked me to create an ordinary diagram of a bike. I was working as a draftsman at the time, creating proposals and diagrams for large-scale and building-sized artwork. The diagrams used a familiar layout – an image in the center with radiating lines connected to labels on the margin, called ‘flags’. But, for complex artworks, the flags would get tangled into info-spaghetti. Tracing the lines between labels and image wastes brain power needed for comprehension, so I was curious if I could make an intelligible diagram directly from labels and that became the typogram. I put my name on it, and became an artist.
Q: Your work seems to walk a line between unorthodox art and ingenious design. Where do you see yourself on that spectrum?
I call it art, but mostly because ‘art’ is a shorter word than ‘design’. Contrary to the term, design is often unsigned whereas art usually is signed. Moving beyond anonymity and building public awareness of authorship is important to me. A particularly jagged facet of our depersonalised techno-dystopia is an ignorance of context. Rejecting the sterility of commodification, and choosing to see a work as connected to an author and to time and place, develops a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own connections. People also frame my work and hang it on the wall, so it must be art.
Q: Is there a conscious educational angle to your work or do you create for its own sake?
Education is everything! If I stand on someone’s shoulders, and you stand on mine, we might just be able to crawl out of the darkness. And the sooner, the better. But it’s not about memorising lists and categorising parts; it’s about relationships over time giving rise to holistic form. It is the lucidity of the totality that attracts people to my art, who are experiencing the product of months of research in a single viewing. On a practical level, my work has entered the curriculum of medical schools and hangs on the walls of elementary schools, so I try hard to be mostly accurate.
Q: How do people react to your work?
Unexpectedly, it has mass appeal. People feel good just looking at it, they buy it, they wear it and they want more.
Q: What inspires you?
Recently, it is wabi-sabi – the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It is my kryptonite, the anti-computation. I am hoping it encourages more productivity. I have a lot of unfinished work...
Q: What would you like to make a typogram of that you haven’t done yet?
Everything – the entire universe. But I suspect I’ll run out of time.
Typogram artist Aaron Kuehn talks to Mike Waters about the challenge of simplicity, seeking the impossible and his personal kryptonite