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Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day With the Legacy of April Greiman - Queen of Digital Design

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On a day that celebrates the amazing contributions of women in science, technology and mathematics it would be easy to assume that 'creative art' is not a category that would demand attention. Lovelace's mother certainly didn't think so, using militant 'logical' education to quash any passionate, poetic influences that Ada may have inherited from her infamous father Lord Byron.

However, the earliest computer technologies that Lovelace pioneered have had the most tremendous impact on the world of art, and nowhere more profoundly than creative design. Today the term 'graphic designer' is synonymous with the Apple Mac or more specifically Adobe Suite, yet as little as 20 years ago mark-ups, cut-and-paste images and type setting were the order of the day.

This seismic leap from analogue to digital is astounding within itself, but it was the pioneering work of April Greiman in the early 1980s that truly revolutionised the use of digital technologies as a creative design force. Traditionally trained but already revered as a hugely successful No-Wave designer for her deconstructed, post-modern works, Greiman encountered her first Mac computer in 1984. At this point many designers were extremely skeptical of the idea of integrating digital technologies into their design practices, suggesting that such systems were unreliable and would compromise their creativity. Greiman on the other hand, immersed herself in this new binary world, pushing digital capabilities to their absolute limit and embracing the potential of the pixel.

Creating what she referred to as 'hybrid imagery' she used the innovative MacDraw program to produce multi-layered texts, images and drawings. At a time when the temperament of a computer mimicked that of a hormonal teenager, sections of a design piece would frequently disappear, move, or become distorted for no apparent reason. Far from allowing such issues to compromise her work, Greiman continues to relentlessly push the boundaries of graphic design and challenge what was expected from a profession based on order and rules.

One of her most astounding works was the solo edition of #133 Design Quarterly magazine entitled 'Does it Make Sense?', in which she challenged the preconceptions of a publication format by producing a fold-down 2 x 6 foot poster depicting her own life-size body. The bitmap style and layered icons not only turned the International Style of traditional graphic design on it's head, but presented a disillusioned society shaped by changing perceptions of feminism.

Even today such a feat of design would seem challenging, but at the time the enormous files and volatile equipment meant that the printing process had to be left overnight. Famously on inspecting the final print out, Greiman discovered that half of her body had disappeared, resulting in the employment of an ever-handy back up floppy disk followed by another nail-biting night.

In an industry that has been so traditionally dominated by men, the influence of a groundbreaking woman such as Greiman is a testament to the art of risk and innovation. Unfortunately the presence of women holding significant positions and appropriate recognition in the design world is still comparatively small today. This issue is coupled with the evident saturation of digital technologies as the insatiable Apple empire continue to grow, resulting in a system of learned and well crafted graphic creativity being diluted and replaced by amateurs utilising desktop publishing to claim the 'designer' label.

Greiman's work may now appear outdated by some, as grainy bitmaps, pixels and desktop icons hark back to an era when the notion of the digital was new and exciting. However there is a clarity and emotion in these raw images, where the switch from analogue is evident and strained. To only see these pixels is to miss the real messages behind the work. She used this revolution to perpetuate her own politics and question the world around her, an ideology that is too often lost in the glossy, neutral images we are constantly surrounded by in contemporary design. Many practitioners could learn a lot from Greiman's legacy and use new technologies to communicate exciting and relevant ideas, but first they must be convinced that - in a subsequent shift from this designer's experimental approach - creativity reaches far beyond the boundaries of a monitor.