If you walk through the city of Liverpool, UK, this week, you might be struck by a mint green and bubblegum pink double-decker bus covered in geometric symbols shuttling purposefully past like an other-worldly rocket. This “Space Bus” is the work of London’s Studio Hato in collaboration with high-school students from the local Childwall Academy. It was imagined, designed, and created to roam the streets during the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, which starts this week.
Studio Hato has several divisions at Hato HQ in London; downstairs is dedicated to a Risograph printing facility (which has just released a new Jean Jullien book), and the graphic design studio sits upstairs, working for high-profile clients like Urban Outfitters, the Wellcome Collection, the British Council, Somerset House, and the V&A. Between these two, there’s also Hato Labo, the digital production arm of the company that works on websites, installations, and learning tools for the likes of Serpentine Galleries and M+ Hong Kong.
Since launching in 2009, founders Ken Kirton and Jackson Lam have felt especially passionate about running co-design, educational workshops that focus on giving participants the tools to play, collaborate, and express ideas through design (last year, Hato’s typography and baking high-school workshop taught type-design with malleable dough).
The mysterious-looking Space Bus is the most recent example of Hato fusing the studio’s interests and commercial output—specifically that of Hato Labo—with an educational purpose. Taking inspiration from pictorial messaging systems like Morse Code, Rebus, and the Rosetta Stone, Lam and workshop leader Margherita Huntley worked with students to create a new pictorial language using a digital drawing tool, and formed an alphabet that is meant to be a secretive “language of the future.” From here they created a narrative, imagining different messages that could be written with this new, future alphabet.
The digital tool that Hato created is bound to a simple grid, which gave pupils creative autonomy when designing shapes while still lending every pictorial form a sense of similarity and cohesion. This digital grid is based around the engraving production facilities that were available in 1977 during the NASA Voyager project—so Hato builds on historical, space-age imagery and combines this with digital software to create a system that’s both stone-age and intergalactic.
When Kirton and Lam are asked what the sentence written across the bus translates to, they’re elusive. “There is a key on the bus to help decipher it so you’ll have to use that,” they say. “We’ve promised the pupils not to tell anyone.” Passersby in Liverpool who spot the speeding Space Bus should have pen and paper at the ready in order to unlock the secret message.
For those not at the Biennial this month, Hato have shared the message and alphabet here for you to de-code.