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When did you first become interested in 3-D printing with clay? When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I decided to take a ceramics course. I had enjoyed a ceramics course as a studio elective during my undergraduate study in South Korea, and working with clay could also give me moments to meditate and ease out stressful thoughts. Eventually, I changed my MFA thesis topic to 3-D typography with ceramic material. I created 3-D, modular ceramic type by making plaster molds and casts piece by piece.

After graduation, I wanted to keep working with ceramic material but lost access to the ceramics facility. 3-D printing caught my attention because it does not need a big studio space and specialized equipment, like a casting table, mixer and kiln. I thought I could make more-intricate and more-varied modular designs without molds, so I googled articles and bought a DIY 3-D printer kit in 2015.

Assembling the kit was not very challenging, but calibrating and troubleshooting was not easy. It took a couple of months to successfully operate the first printer with no major issues. After I made a decent number of small prints, I wanted to build a scaled-up version that could print more-significant ceramic objects. I began to build my own tools, including custom 3-D printers and my own paste extruders to produce 3-D ceramic type and objects.

What’s distinctive about clay? Clay is a fascinating and sensitive material. First of all, it is essential to find the right viscosity of clay in order to build something out of it. It should not be too soft or too solid. If the clay is too solid, it cannot be extruded smoothly; if it is too soft, it has a higher chance of collapsing while printing. But collapsed prints often show their own beauty. I’ve found a way to work with the nonlinear character of clay—I call it print-and-drop, or collaboration with gravity.

What are some of the limitations that you are trying to overcome in order to further develop your work in 3-D typography? I really want to achieve faster printing speed and bigger-scale prints. I built a five-foot-tall 3-D printer, which can print approximately three feet tall, but I would need to develop a new extruder system for a bigger printer. Also, bigger prints have a higher chance of failing given the longer printing time.

I am always thinking about how 3-D typography can be a part of professional practices. 3-D typography has been a part of typography education to encourage keen observation, experimentation with form and collaboration. I want to push 3-D typography towards practical design projects, including signage, packaging, supergraphics and environmental graphics.

The most powerful skill of designers is the design process.”
 
Besides 3-D printing, what technologies or manufacturing processes are you most excited about? Parametric design, which is design that is defined by parameters. My coding skills—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Processing—helped me build 3-D printers, but it would not be enough to deal with more-advanced design problems. Recently, I have enjoyed working with Grasshopper 3D, a plug-in for the computer-aided design app Rhinoceros 3D. It enables me to design complex geometries and structures and reiterate the design based on the code.

I am also excited about the laser engraver/cutter. Laser machines have become affordable and accessible. More importantly, for graphic designers, they are as easy to use as printers and could be used for practical applications. Compared to 3-D printing, there are more choices of materials to engrave and cut. I am also looking for affordable options for a robotic arm, which could be used to 3-D print, write letterforms, move objects and more.

Where do you think the field of typography is headed? The next big thing in typography will be variable type. It is exciting that the typeface comes with variable features and that the curves are drawn with the code. Variable type could run on operating systems, design software and even web browsers. We may not need any font files in the future. Like what happened with 3-D printing, not only the idea but also the detailed plan to produce the object could be delivered over the internet and replicated by others. This will lead us, though, to a challenging question about authorship, originality and intellectual property, just like the disruptions caused by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and online file sharing in the twenty-first century.

Also, as we have been using digital devices more and more, there are a few ongoing discourses regarding the term postdigital; however, no one can authoritatively decide how to define the term. In my opinion, postdigital typography is engaged with tangible experience assisted and/or created with various digital controls. For example, digital fabrication techniques could play a crucial role in turning intangible ideas into tangible design products with physical substance, which could also be combined with augmented reality to build a strong connection between analog and digital. Multidimensional letters incorporate artistic expression, dimensional experience and even materiality. These letters acquire new characteristics, such as texture, structure, volume, dimension and even interactivity due to their physical tangibility.

How are you preparing your students for the future? The design field has expanded beyond the conventional notion of graphic design, and the design problems that designers deal with have gotten complicated. However, the core of design is creative problem solving in order to make meaningful interventions. I want my students to be problem solvers and learn how to apply the design process to tackle tangible and intangible design problems. The most powerful skill of designers is the design process.

As an educator and a visual communicator, my teaching approach is based on the belief that we all live in a cage that has been shaped by our own perception. The cage consists of many bars. These bars reflect an individual’s personal experiences, background, level of education, etcetera. This cage can be thought of as a filter on one’s eyes and mind. That is why we always want more diversity in art and design.

Also, many graphic design students are working and thinking on static surfaces, like paper and computer screens. Future designers need to be able to think in multidimensional space and try to bridge physical and digital experiences.

What materials are you interested in working with? I would like to use concrete in my work to make bigger-scale prints, create 3-D type and more. I have tested making a few small-scale concrete pieces in my office. Also, I would like to work more with locally sourced clays.

I’m also interested in working with flexible materials for 3-D printing, like thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). Unlike conventional plastic materials, TPU is soft and flexible and provides an interesting tactile experience with the geometry of prints. More importantly, it is durable and safer than ceramic material as it does not shatter. It is tricky to print something successfully with flexible filament, but I believe it would be an excellent material for functional design applications, such as wearable type and interactive objects.

What would be your dream project? Printing huge 3-D typography outdoors or creating typographic sculptures in a public place using both digital and analog fabrication techniques. People could sit on the type or even walk into sculptures; I wish they could see something like this. The material could be concrete; locally sourced materials; or organic materials, like clay and grass seeds. I made a small-scale test with clay, soil, paper and grass seeds and proved that it is doable. I would like to find a way to use this biotype project for something good, such as helping postfire restoration or deforestation. The piece I made, called I AM GRASS ROOTS, is still growing in my office after more than three months.

Taekyeom Lee is an interdisciplinary artist, although he prefers to introduce himself as a designer using artist’s materials and artistic sensibility. He is currently an assistant professor of graphic design at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He received an MFA degree in graphic design from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research explores 3-D type as a series of typographic explorations to seek a new way to create tangible letterforms in three-dimensional space. His interests in art and design are not solely focused on typography but also explore new methods of creating graphics and objects through an interplay between design fundamentals and various techniques. He infused digital fabrication into his research and has been experimenting with various materials and digital methods, such as 3-D printing, parametric design and computer-aided design. 

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