Courtesy Ran Zheng.
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Name: LOOK/HEAR
Designer: Ran Zheng
Foundry: Unreleased
Release Date: Published 2016

Back story: Ran Zheng’s thesis project LOOK/HEAR uses sound to affect the shape of letterforms, creating an astonishingly rich and complex three-dimensional typographic system. Her letters respond to a range of ambient recordings made in New York City—from the relative stillness of Central Park to the clamor of the subway—as well as to aural input from visitors to her thesis exhibition. “As a graphic designer from China, I’m not familiar with [Latin] typeface design and typography,” says Zheng, a 2016 graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art’s MFA graphic design program. “When I began to think about my thesis project I wanted to explore typeface design and synesthesia, and the relationship between scenes and soundscapes, looking and hearing. I referenced this quote by Goethe, ‘I call architecture frozen music,’ which made me wonder if sound data could be frozen into letterforms to form a typeface. What would that typeface sound like? What would it look like in specific sound scenes?”

Why’s it called LOOK/HEAR? What did we just say?

What are its distinguishing characteristics?  Zheng drew each letter on a 15” x 15” grid, then rendered it with 3D software into 9 layers containing 9 different sound channels. The 3D geometry creates a visual system where different sounds can affect different layers of the letter. When the layers are mixed together and animated, the letters change style in real time, responding to the sound input. “In order to show a variety of dynamic letterforms, I chose five sound scenes from our familiar everyday life: a park, a street, a café, a subway, and an office. And then I selected the pair of words ‘look’ and ‘hear’ as the letters that would react to the environmental sounds,” she says. “When you hear the sound from the animation, you see the word ‘LOOK,’ and the title is ‘Scene 1.’ Then you see the word ‘HEAR,’ and the scene is identified as a ‘Park.’ This is a way to trigger associations about aural and visual signals, sight, and hearing.”


What should I use it for? You can’t, because it isn’t commercially available. But as inspiration for new ways to think about type separate from its visual qualities, you’re in excellent company.

Who’s it friends with? If Janet Cardiff is not LOOK/HEAR’s BFF yet, it’s only a matter of time.