Wednesday, 11:32am
3 February 2010

Text without type

Building Sound: can a website work with just speech, space and colour?

Here’s an interesting sound-based concept – a website that has no type or lettering whatsoever, other than the URL.

(But see note below* for a new development.) It caught our eye (and ears) because we’re still buzzing with all the ideas thrown up by last Friday’s ‘Design 4 music, music and design’ event at St Bride Library, writes John L. Walters. But this isn’t a music site. It’s full of copy (with a smattering of ‘theory-speak’), yet there are no characters in sight – not even a dingbat.

The site is for ‘Building Sound’, a funded research experiment based on doctoral studies by Ella Finer and Fabrizio Manco at Roehampton University. Each coloured line is a timeline for an audio file of spoken information. The bottom line is an email link – navigation is easy unless you like to browse with the sound turned down.

The concept of the website came from Finer and Muggeridge; design is by Fraser Muggeridge Studio and Wolfram Wiedner. Muggeridge explains: ‘The idea came as I was driving down a road discussing the project and I just said, “why don't we just do this website with sound and no text!”’

‘It was a bit like using the lines like dummy text. Then I did this sketch (below) and that was basically it done. Obviously, it took a long time to craft, but the idea was very simple.’

buildingsound sketch

Within the site, an explanatory speech (on the orange bar) states that the website’s form ‘is the result of an attempt to question how to build a website beyond text’.

‘Ella had the idea that the bars correspond in length to the length of the sound file,’ says Muggeridge, ‘and it was Wolfram’s idea to have the two grades of colour for each bar's “on” and “off” status, and the listening time elapsed.’

‘Other questions arose,’ he continues. ‘How would Google pick up a website if it had no text? The spoken text (by artist Marcia Farquhar) is also embedded as a hidden text file, so that the website can be found if searched for and iPhones can pick up the website as a text-based site.’

I was reminded of the type-free movie title sequence for Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Designer Michael Worthington wrote about it in ‘Voice control’ (Eye 68).

fahrenheit 451

Above: frame from type-free title sequence at the start of Francois Truffaut’s movie version of Ray Bradbury’s Farhenheit 451. All credits are spoken over the images.

There will be a ‘Building Sound’ afternoon symposium this Friday (1-4pm, 5 Feb 2010) at the Olivier Stalls Foyer, National Theatre, Southbank, London. Admission is free, but please contact [email protected].

* A note from the site’s makers: ‘The latest development with the website is to provide a link for those hard of hearing to follow to a text-only version. This is something Ella and Fraser had intended from the outset, as the information on the site must be accessible to all. The changes have been made after researching how best to make this work, without taking away from the impact of a text-less page and following advice from Lois Keidan.’

‘Building Sound’ is Part of the AHRC ‘Beyond Text’ programme, as a student-led initiative.

Eye, the international review of graphic design, is a journal you can read like a magazine and collect like a book. It’s available from all good design bookshops and at the online Eye shop, where you can order subscriptions, single issues and (new!) classic collections of themed back issues. Eye 74 is a Berlin special.