Blog »

Obfuscating Meaning

March 29, 2018


I have a growing interest towards asemic art and calligraffiti. It started with interest in typefaces and I found out that there is a whole genre of artists making abstract calligraphy and asemic art.

The idea of asemic art is to create pancultural meanings with text-like scribbles, that are not letters. Wikipedia has an extensive article and references of asemic artists.

In history, everything seems sensible afterwards, but you can't see the forest from the trees in present. You could draw an arc from Jackson Pollock to graffiti, from graffiti to asemic art - But I don't know if I am in the position to do that.

What's the purpose, anyway?

In typography, meaning comes from understandable and recognizable glyphs. The shape of for example n vs. r needs to be recognizable and categorizable. If you begin to blur that line, reader can't make up his/her mind on what letter is being represented.

Losing meaning

Indivudual glyphs are then combined into words, semantical groups that represent something in spoken language. There are multiple writing systems used in the world. What is common for those writing systems is that meaning is conveyed to reader.

To further abstract the idea, writing systems exist on a two-dimensional plane and consist of basic shapes. Ultimately, of lines with different curvature.

Different ways of obfuscation

Tobias Frere-Jones tried to break alphabets, in order to see when the meaning is lost. He later used those anti-readability approaches to design the typeface for the Wall Street Journal called Retina.

Here's a few ways how to lose meaning:

Asemic writing

line-height: 0.2

letter-spacing: -5px

letter-spacing: -2px; line-height: 0.3; font-family: cursive;

Larger scale

Retna's custom writing system

The trend towards asemic art / calligraffiti is obvious in mainstream art. For example, artist called Retna has developed his own writing system. He uses is to create all-over paintings.

From Wikipedia: "He developed a distinctive constructed script which is derived from Blackletter, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Arabic, and Hebrew calligraphy, as well as more traditional types of street-based graffiti"


On Clyfford Still, basic forms and shamanism

Clyfford Still's journey from figurative painting to fully abstract color field painting is truly interesting.

He said his ultimate idea was that a vertical line represents life and a horizontal line represents death.

Thus, the basic curves that a writing system consists of convey a meaning of life and death.

Here's a painting to illustrate the idea: for a typeface designer it looks as if there is some proto-letters, but they look like dancers as well.

Mouvements by Henri Michaux

("Mouvements" by Henri Michaux)

The idea of a collective unconscious is a term coined by Carl Jung to illustrate the idea, that there are similar structures in the unconscious mind "which are shared among beings of the same species".


The prototypical nature of asemic writing can and will convey the spectator a meaning that is largely influenced by his/her own mind. But something more may lie beneath.

This is what I'm going to explore. Painting that has pancultural meanings. Expressing the invisible.

View more blog posts »