• 10.28.09

Beyond Grunge: Dutch Designer Wins €10,000 for a Font Grown From E-Coli

Printed in a book and on a billboard, the font changes shape and colors as it breeds and dies. Is it a burgeoning discipline?

Jelte van Abbema

Last week, Jelte van Abbema won the Dutch Design Awards‘ €10,000 Rado Prize, which goes to a promising young designer. One work that caught the judges’ attention is Symbiosis, a font printed in bacteria.


Van Abbema created the font by stamping bacteria into paper, and then placing the paper in a jury-rigged incubator, which provided the right humdity and warmth for the organisms. As they multiplied and died, the resulting fonts changed color and shape. As van Abbema says, bacteria “transforms the image to something new,” creating something that is literally alive, changing every minute without ever being tended.

These are early days for experiments like these–most haven’t been much to look at, and they’ve more often created strange, sensationally hyped news stories than beautiful objects. For example, there was the artificially grown “leather jacket” that had to be “killed” because it was growing too fast; and there was, of course, artist Steven Kurtz, who uses petri dishes in his art installations and was briefly arrested and held on bioterrorism charges. But van Abbema’s work is a bit less high concept, and decidely good-looking–and others will surely follow down this path, given how cheap and easy at-home bioengineering has become.

Van Abbema’s press release says, “To cause no epidemic he followed a
course at the department microbiology of the university Wageningen.” Should we be worried, as experiments like these near the reach of those who are irresponsible or even malicious?

Jelte van Abbema

[Via Dezeen, which has more pics and info]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.