Urban Alphabets at Make It in St. Petersburg

2 weeks are gone without a post here and that is not just because I am busy preparing many projects for Media Labs Spring Demo Day (May 29th at Taik in Helsinki, you are welcome to join!) but also because I have been in St. Petersburg/Russia for a long weekend. St. Petersburg was very nice in itself (I had a great tourist guide! I enjoyed the Russian Museum most!) but I also gave a lecture and ran  a workshop at Make It Center.

The lecture was mainly about my experience with studies in Germany, the theory behind my Master thesis “Interacting in Public Space – How New Media influence our behavior in Public Space” and finally I showed some projects of mine that deal with New Media in Public Spaces (mostly these). Anna did a great job translating from English to Russian to make sure that all students got the whole theory part, which was really quite theory-heavy. Including those translations the lecture took about 2.5 hours and I was really happy that the students were so active and asked questions in between so that they could follow the rest of the talk. I also got quite some learning experience that it might be very difficult to explain some of that theory I am myself dealing with all the time to complete outsiders. It takes another step in the effort to explain things.

Then we started a workshop using the idea of urban alphabets. As the app is not available in the app store and I could not take about 15 devices with me, we had to do a more hands-on-non-digital workshop: First the students went out in groups for about 1-1.5 h equipped with digital cameras to take photos of letters. I went with one of the groups who it seemed did have a lot of fun searching for letters (see also images in this post). Back at Make It we prepared the photos for printing, printed them (black and white) and cut the letters out of the images. Here also the whole student group worked together as one group and made a community effort to cut and organize the letters so that we could then use them to write own texts. For me it was really great to see that the students took over themselves and organized sorting and writing messages using these letters. The photos above also show the outcomes of all the workshop. I think we saw quite well that many versions of the letters exist (see e.g., variations of letter X). Also the black and white printing of the letters made it a lot easier to read the messages we wrote later on. Maybe in the future app there will also be a black/white-filter to increase readability.
One of the students, Rita (if I get her name right) was searching only for letters that could be made up just from objects. I really like this idea of making letters from objects or seeing objects as letters. One of the ideas of urban alphabets was also that all possible shapes can be seen as letters (with the letter O as the most prominent example).

Additionally during the workshop 2 student groups (I think each 2 students) used the urban alphabets app that I made in Russian for this occasion. Outcomes can also be seen in the pictures above. After explaining the difficult parts in using the app as it is right now (mostly how to crop with the 2 finger gesture) it seems that it was relatively easy to use the app. However, I really realized again that the menus need to be more visual so that I don’t need apps in all different languages but it could be understood without text translations.

After the workshop in itself we did a small round of reflection where I asked the students to tell me their ideas of the urban alphabets project and but also was asking for critique. Mostly they gave me very positive feedback but they also came up with new ideas of how the app could be used: As the students in the course are working on a project on how to develop libraries in future they suggested that the app could be used by children in the library to explore the different fonts in different books. Also there was a suggestion that one could make alphabets sorted by font types and/or even type faces. It also showed clearly that this paper-based-approach is more fun in a group (only one student worked on a full alphabet by himself).
Talking with Anna, who is the teacher at Make It she reflected that she liked the cultural emphasis of urban alphabets: How coud different cultures have different styles and could we say that there are better and worse urban environments based on the fonts used? I think that we can decline the second part of the question, however, I agree that this cultural emphasis is very important.

During the workshop many students did ask for the app to put on their phones (requests of course for all possible platforms you can imagine). It gave me quite some motivation to sit down during the summer and really make the app in objective C so it can be properly used and put into the app store by September (for Walk 21 in Munich, that’s the new goal).

So in the end: I really want to thank Anna Kholina who invited me to Make It Center and helped me organizing the trip, Alex for being a great tourist guide and most importantly all the active students of the Make It Course that they made the lecture and workshop such a great experience and gave me a lot of valuable feedback!