Masterpieces of Graphic Simplicity: Pictoplasma's Character Explosion


The digital character, so popular now it can be found everywhere from websites to billboards, will be celebrated at an upcoming conference


The iconographic digital character, a little masterpiece of graphic simplicity, is so popular now, you can find variations of it swarming websites, billboards, and food packaging, infesting video games, kiosks, and all things digital. Pictoplasma was founded in 1999 to establish "a considered, stylistically sure-footed, high-quality collection of character representations against the daily glut of random mascots and pathetic sympathy seekers," says Peter Thaler, founder and creative director. "From the start, Pictoplasma's goal has been to free character representation from a commercial context and the popular psychology of storytelling, while linking an upcoming breed of design to the birth of a new, graphical language beyond all cultural boundaries."

The project has developed into a vibrant network of character creators. And Pictoplasma has published numerous compilation books and DVDs, organizes annual conferences and festivals in Europe and the U.S., curates exhibitions, and has generally become as ubiquitous as the characters they represent.

Story continues after the gallery.

New York will host an orgy of reductive and abstracted comically-surreal figures with the third Pictoplasma conference at the Tishman Auditorium of Parsons The New School for Design on November 4 and 5. It will be what Thaler calls "character overdose," featuring more than a dozen selected artist and international designer lectures, including Gary Taxali, Raymond Lemstra, Geneviève Gauckler, Jon Burgerman, BeatBots, Mark Jenkins, and more. Also, for the first time in the U.S., there will be a 'Character Walk,' a tour through partnering galleries and art spaces presenting selected exhibitions, installations, and art-happenings of some of the most distinctive contemporary artists. All are free.

Thaler says the conferences are a mix of "inspiring artist presentations, theoretical lectures, hands-on workshops, eye-candy animation screenings, and, of course, selected exhibitions, installations, performances, and group shows." The curational process takes up to a year before the festival even starts. The artists are selected to ensure a balance "between great, outstanding artistic work, an echo of an overlaying topic or trend that we are momentarily interested in, always trying to find a good melange between the various disciplines and media, and, of course, trying to find a good mix between established and upcoming talent."

As character design moves from novelty to institution, the big question is whether these icons will start to wear thin. Or, is there room for more ingenuity? "The idea of character design is that reduced and abstract figures with an anthropomorphic appeal are the key players in the flood of images of the digital age," Thaler asserts. "They are used to attract attention and appeal to the viewer emotionally. This has been relevant in the last decade of new media, and so it could be seen as the pictographic trend that might be over soon." However, Thaler insists, character design has a timeless quality, "and we're not expecting a decline in the near future." As long as communication is key, "characters will most likely continue to dominate contemporary visual culture, simply because that's what they are best at: They communicate globally. They target the viewer on a direct, emotional level, bypassing language and cultural barriers."

Image: Pictoplasma NYC.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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