Scar trees & living typefaces

Old ways of engineering, made new for the web

Picture of Ben Swift

Written by: Ben Swift
2 May 2022


Yellow box tree on ANU campus. 📸 ANU Photography, 2016
Yellow box tree on ANU campus. 📸 ANU Photography, 2016

Hey everyone, Ben (from the Experiences team team) here. I came across a super-cool project today by Bjørn Karmann: a typeface (a family of fonts) which “grows” with the tree it’s carved into:

Occlusion Grotesque is an experimental typeface that is carved into the bark of a tree. As the tree grows, it deforms the letters and outputs new design variations, that are captured annually. The project explores what it means to design with nature and on nature’s terms.

Here’s an example of the “growth” of the letter a:

Image credit: Bjørn Karmann
Image credit: Bjørn Karmann

You can read the full story—and see more great pictures—on Bjørn’s website.

The Occlusion Grotesque project reminded me of the scar trees on our ANU campus, including the one in the title image for this post (above). Here’s a description from the ANU’s Connections to Country project.

Aboriginal people removed bark from trees to construct shelter, watercraft and containers, as well as for ceremonial purposes. The removal of bark stops any further growth in the affected area, resulting in a scar of exposed sapwood (called a ‘dry face’). Early European settlers adopted the techniques of bark stripping they observed from Aboriginal people, often to weatherproof buildings. Research indicates that both Aboriginal people and Europeans have created the scar trees on the Acton campus.

These engineering skills are tens of thousands of years old, and it’s really cool to see how old ways interact with new frontiers like typography on the web. And I love the cybernetic approach of setting the initial conditions (the original carving) but then letting the interactions between the tree and the local ecology determine the ongoing evolution, then carefully measured/recorded with electronic devices for digital re-use.

To see this typeface in action, here’s a poem we’re fond of in cybernetics, typeset in Occlusion Grotesque (the “Year 0” original at the top, progressing to the “Year 4” version by the end). I think you’ll agree that the message pairs quite nicely with the ideas behind the typeface.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace#

Richard Brautigan (1967)

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

You are on Aboriginal land.

The Australian National University acknowledges, celebrates and pays our respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the Canberra region and to all First Nations Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

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