This article was written in 2014. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.
The people of Creative Mornings in Utrecht asked me to do a small talk about Freedom1 (video here). It’s always nice to get a topic for a talk, especially such a light hearted one. At least, if you look at freedom as a beautiful thing. But there are many definitions of freedom, and I think that I should mention one in particular before I start talking about the wonderful kinds of freedom the web has brought us.
“We decide and we order”
I have to start with the freedom we, here in the West, take for granted.
When I think about creative freedom I have to think about Ai Weiwei, an artist who goes in and out of jail because the government of the country he lives in doesn’t like the things he makes and the things he does. Just try to imagine what that means. I get scared when I do.
Or I think about Bassel Khartabil who’s been imprisoned in Syria for over two years now, without a trial, without an accusation. He was involved in creating open source software which enabled people to easily share stuff. Share ideas. Create things. He is in prison now. Thinking about this completely arbitrary punishment makes me desperate.
Or think of the six young, happy kids in Tehran who were forced to apologise for being happy on state TV. Their crime was dancing on the streets, like all kids around the world should be doing. Imagine growing up in a community where you’re not allowed to act normal. It terrifies me.
Or imagine that one morning you wake up and there’s martial music playing over the radio, all day long. Interrupted every now and then by an official statement by your new leaders that starts with
We decide and we order. And imagine that freedom of thought is illegal as of now. I can’t even try to imagine that. And yet this was the situation in Greece less than 40 years ago.
You were not allowed to think for yourself.
Trying to imagine this kind of craziness might keep you from becoming an asshole.
This craziness is the situation in many countries in the world. It’s important to remember this. And it’s important to realise that the web has made it much harder for repressive regimes to be completely totalitarian. It’s much easier nowadays to share alternative or unwelcome thoughts: we don’t need a physical printing press, and we don’t need to distribute physical copies. That’s why the open web is so important; and that’s why the web should not be controlled by a state, or an organisation. Remember that every now and then.
Freedom to be creative
I’m sorry for depressing you, but I can’t do a talk about freedom without trying to explain how important it is. Lack of freedom is terrifying, but freedom itself is something that needs to be celebrated.
Freedom is something we have, more or less, and it allows us to be creative. It allows us to create stuff. And since I was invited to do this talk, I’ll take the freedom to show the stuff that I create. First of all I think it’s important to understand that it’s easy to create stuff for the web. Much easier than it is to create stuff in real life.
A year ago, while reading The Mobile Book I saw this beautiful illustration by Mike Kus. My wife liked it too, we didn’t like one of our walls, so we decided to paint the illustration onto that wall. I had to create stencils in Illustrator, send them to a laser cutter, pick them up, buy paint, and paint the illustration onto the wall.
As you can see with your impeccable talent for proportions, I painted the illustration a few centimeters too wide. The white space around it was clearly too small. I had to recreate smaller stencils, send them to the laser cutter again…
…ask my kid and her friend to please get off my car so I could go pick them up, and paint…
…every single ball onto the wall again.
It took me a whole month to get this done. Creating stuff in real life is hard.
On the web this is easy. One evening I recreated this illustration of balls with web technology to thank Mike. Now if I found these balls to be too big for my browser, the only thing I would need to do is decrease the font size, by hitting ctrl + = (or cmd + =). The web gives us the freedom to adjust things to our liking.
Back when I still worked at an agency, everything I did made sense. Or at least, that’s what we said. Clients paid money for a useful website, we would spend all out time creating it. Everything was useful. I needed more nonsense in my life. So I started writing about it. I created a blog called Love Nonsense where I wrote about wonderful projects like the amazing Defiant Dog and the insane Rijks Vasilis project.
After completing the design I saw that the site was purely functional, again. Even at night, the stuff I did made sense. Back then, a young designer called Roberto Cecchi created a wonderful font called Bagarozz. It’s a font without spacing. The letters are displayed one on top of the other to create little monsters.
I used it to add a unique illustration to each article; the illustration is the title of the article set in the Bagarozz font. The fact that Roberto shared his creation to the world to be used freely gave me not just the opportunity to finish my design, it also enabled me to create lasers. On the web.
On a Fronteers conference a few years ago Paul Irish said that we need more lasers on the web. He proposed that every time we press the letter l on any website we’d get to see lasers. Of course I added this feature to Love Nonsense.
Geeks vs. Designers
It’s strange, but sometimes designers and geeks seem to take in opposite positions. We battle. We fight each other. I think these Bagarroz illustrations of a geek on the left, and a designer on the right illustrate this properly.
Stop using rounded corners, pixelfucker, they are terrible for performance!
OK, we’ll switch to flat design now that all browsers support them, nerd!
Responsive design doesn’t just give our users the freedom to use any device that they want. It also makes it possible to show what happens when you let a designer and a geek work close together.
I love you! Let’s imagine and create fantastic stuff that works!
Writing about creative nonsense made me creative. I started creating nonsense too. I was inspired by great artists like On Kawara with his pre-google, manic, personal data-collection, and by other artists like Jessica Hische who worked hard for years to create wonderful series of daily works of art. But unlike these artists, I am very lazy, so I decided to let the computer do all the work for me. That’s what machines are for, to serve us humans.
When a colleague of mine quit his job to become a freelancer I thought back to the days of freelancing and remembered the pleasure of doing nothing at all. So I created a site for him where nothing is published every day.
…for more than 783 days already.
A while ago I discussed this site with a friend of mine, Maarten P. Kappert, one of the more clever minimalists out there. And we agreed that this site didn’t publish nothing, it clearly published a word. It wasn’t minimalist enough. So we created Amor Vacui where a white image of random dimensions is generated every night around midnight. If you find it hard to stay up-to-date on the site itself, you can always follow the updates on Twitter, or on one of the most beautiful Flickr pages.
I now knew how to generate stuff of different sizes. Which is nice. It didn’t solve the problem that I really don’t understand colour and colour combinations though. So I started generating daily rectangles of random colours (with essential Twitter and Flickr accounts). And I created pages that generate one hundred different layouts every time you refresh your page. I still don’t understand colour, but these projects do allow me to enjoy my freedom to do nothing, while the computer creates endless amounts of stuff for me.
Freedom of choice
You might have noticed on the Daily Rectangle there is a small caption which describes what you see. It might, for instance describe an image like this: A rather saturated, light blue rectangle — not wide at all and not so high — on a highly saturated, light purple background. People with a black and white screen are now able to imagine what the colours look like.
Now if we think back to the illustration of balls that I painted onto our walls. Should it look the same on a smaller screen?
We can make it adapt to it, why not.
And we can optimise it even more for smaller screens.
The balls in this responsive illustration are created with a simple
border-radius. Most people will be able to see these radiuses, but not everybody has a state of the art browser. What should this illustration look like for these people?
The colours might be correct, but the shape is clearly wrong. Maybe we should better leave it up to the imagination of our visitors.
People with a healthy visual imagination who use Opera Mini as a browser, might imagine an even more beautiful illustration when they see this.
And people with an old version of Internet Explorer are free to make up the colours, not just the shapes. I think that’s wonderful. We are able to create stuff that can be used on any hardware, with any software the user chooses (or has to use). This is unique. Never in history before could we create stuff that everybody can see. This is amazing.
Freedom of independence
But the most amazing freedom that the web has brought us is related to the fact that our devices can speak to us. This means that even people who can’t see are able to imagine what Mike’s illustration looks like by listening to it.
Go ahead, click on play.
You’ve managed to read the whole transcript. I’d like to thank you for that.
1. This is not a word-for-word transcript. It is optimised for reading. And I put in some stuff that I forgot to mention in the talk