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Made of Bacteria, This Living Type Morphs Into New Letterforms

Ori Elisar’s project Living Language blurs the lines between designer and mad scientist with his Hebrew symbols grown in petri dishes.

While most people create type on a computer, Israeli designer Ori Elisar creates his in a lab. For his final project at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Elisar grew Hebrew symbols from bacteria, creating living, changing letterforms.

Elisar has long had a personal interest in the study of language. While getting his undergraduate degrees in linguistics and archeology, he was interested in “how language is and how it works,” he says. “With this [graphic design] degree I was busy with what language looks like. Then I discovered at a conference in Belgium a whole new side of design that is biodesign, and it opened my eyes to a method of design without using a computer. I did the whole project—design, typography, everything—without even opening Illustrator.”

For his Living Language, Elisar “grew” the two script forms of the Hebrew language: the original old Hebrew alphabet, known as the paleo-Hebrew script, which has been a dead language for almost 2,000 years, and the modern “square” form of the Hebrew alphabet that is still in use today. “I started with the initial letters in the old books that look like art nouveau—it has a natural line, it grows,” says Elisar. Over time, the bacteria in the petri dish appears to morph into the new letters, growing into the thicker, blockier symbols of the current script.

To create this effect, Elisar uses a single petri dish for each letter. He renders the symbol from the old language in bacteria and the symbol for the new language in algal, a protein that the bacteria feeds on. When subjected to heat, the bacteria eats the algal, changing into the shape of the new letter. “I wanted to question the evolution of the hebrew letter,” says Elisar. “That was the question that I asked at the beginning of the project–what the letter used to look like and what it looks like today.”

Just like any scientific experiment, there are a certain number of controllable factors that affect the bacterial growth. The amount of protein, how the bacteria is placed on the surface and the amount of time it spends in an oven all play a role in how fast the bacteria grows and the form it eventually takes. Once the bacteria takes the shape of the letter, Elisar injects it with a blue die, which kills the bacteria and gives the petri dishes an electric blue color.

When asked about his next steps, Elisar says that he hopes to create an ink from bacteria that can be used on paper. “I want to be able to print a living organism on a piece of paper and I want it to grow on paper,” he says, acknowledging that he still has a long way to go before that would be possible. “This is an interesting suggestion for design that works on its own. You think of the word or the letter–what you want to say–and it does the design itself.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.