OMG, WTF, IDK: sometimes you need to write fast—and sometimes you just don’t feel like typing. Abbreviations not only make our communication more efficient but they have long since become a stylistic device.
SMS (mostly referred to now as ‘texts’) has revolutionized informal everyday communication in many ways. SMS suddenly made it possible to exchange information anytime and anywhere via short text messages. And, initially, these messages were very short: users were limited to 160 characters so they needed to be brief otherwise it could rapidly become expensive. It therefore comes as no surprise that creative abbreviations began to appear to save on characters: ttyl, brb, lmk, lol or rotfl, to cite just a few examples.
However, this development was viewed with concern in public discourse, largely because linguistic studies have shown that the extent to which abbreviations were actually used was significantly overestimated. Nonetheless, or perhaps as a result, abbreviations have become a hallmark of text messaging and have also persisted in subsequent internet-based messaging services like WhatsApp. Although those services no longer apply any character limits, interactions are often so rapid that fast typing is vital, so acronyms like wtf or omg naturally come in handy.
However, an even more important consideration than speed is the way in which abbreviations have become stylistic devices that can signal, for instance, media literacy or affiliation with a particular group. That also means abbreviations offer added value compared to the full-length forms.
Type design studio Dinamo has picked up on this mode of everyday communication and, working with linguist Karina Frick, has designed a triple-panel installation that responds to exhibition visitors and addresses them with a range of acronyms. The result is a kind of typographic kit with various moving forms, based on the PATHOS robot kit developed by artist duo Pors & Rao at ETH’s Robotics Aesthetics & Usability Center (RAUC).
Nine motorized arms enable 511 different combinations of elements that can be used to depict the Latin alphabet’s 26 core letters, deploying a highly pared-down design as a conceptual nod to acronyms’ brevity. Visitors thus encounter a broad spectrum of ephemeral, constantly changing messages that encourage them to react and reflect.
Dr. Karina Frick, Deutsches Seminar, UZH & Section d’allemand, Université de Lausanne
Renan Rosatti, Dinamo GmbH, Basel
Fabian Harb, Dinamo GmbH, Basel
Enabled by PATHOS, Being Kit
Supported by Robotics Aesthetics & Usability Center (RAUC), Autonomous Systems Lab (ASL), ETHZ