Monday, November 5, 2007

Graphics, a digital world

Images have been used as a tool for story telling, information distribution, and marketing since pre-historic times. From picto-graphs to the design of flags and tiles for royal courts, the craft of graphic design has always been a facet of society. Images and graphics help us communicate globally by allowing us to ignore most language barriers.

A computer-generated graphic is defined as 'the process by which a computer displays data pictorially.' In the modern world, computers supply artist and developers with the tools to create visual data. Artists started utilizing computers to design and develop graphics (by using data manipulation) in the mid 80's. Macintosh computers were the first to popularize the graphical user interface (GUI) for presenting data and information. A GUI uses icons, symbols and pictures, rather than text to display it's data. Today most computers run a GUI operating system, allowing for user ease and quick navigation. Macintosh was a clear leader in personal computing and graphic design. In the late 80's however, 3D graphics were born when SGI computers came to life, propelling our cinema and game industries into new worlds. Yet today, Macintosh computers still lead the way in computer-generated graphic design for print, web and film, they have made their cutting edge software and hardware available to the general public, while continuing to offer professional quality cutting edge technologies.

Vector and Bit-mapped graphics are the two major types of graphic structures used in in modern computers. Understanding each type of graphic structure is important when creating images that support the overall concept of the intended design. Utilizing the tools and capabilities of each format is essential for creating graphics, especially with high resolution images.

Vector graphics are drawn into the computer using a mouse, or digitizer tablet where mathematical formulas create lines and shapes. Vector graphics are created in Architectural programs like CAD, or graphic design programs like Adobe Illustrator. A group of graphic elements, such as lines and shapes, creates a vector graphic. Each element, although grouped, holds its own properties allowing it to be selected and manipulated independently of the others. For example, this allows the graphic element to be scaled (resized) smaller or larger instantly.

Bit-mapped images, also known as raster graphics, are created when pictures are scanned or imported into the computer and each pixel is individually defined. These images have the potential to provide realism because they originate from the original scenes via SLR or digital camera. The computer automatically divides an analog image when scanned or imported into hundreds of horizontal rows, with each row containing hundreds of "pixels" (dots). The computer then saves the code containing memory of how many bits, per pixel a certain images holds. This is then measured and used in dots per inch (dpi) format. For example, a monochrome bitmap holds one bit (on/off) per pixel. As shades of grey increase, or elements of color are introduced into the image, the file size grows with the bits per pixel ratio.

3D graphics are images that are vector based and are designed and displayed within a 3D program, allowing the artist and the audience to create and or experience the graphic from all angles. When working in 3D the artist has an obvious advantage because they are able to 'virtually' use three dimensional space. Software tools allow the artist to utilize lights, shadows, camera angles and a rotatable stage for 'realtime' 3D effects.

Animated graphics are now a part of our daily lives. From the web to movies, computer animated graphics are an emerging technology which has captured people world wide. SGI and now Macintosh computers lead with the most popular tools for computer-generated animation and graphics. In 1995, Pixar produced the first full length computer-animated film, Toy Story. Today, many programs like Maya and Lightwave dominate the animation film industry, Adobe Flash is the most widely used application for creating animation online.

Web graphics are graphics that are optimized for viewing on the internet. Bit-mapped, vector, 3D and animated images have special plug-in's utilizing formats that allow the user to view and sometimes interact with the graphic media. Graphics for the web are created with very low resolution usually 72 dpi or less so that the images will load fast when transmitted and downloaded electronically. Web-formatted images are not meant for high quality print. They are intended for viewing online.

Graphics for Print design are especially difficult to engineer. The Artist must prepare graphics for many different kinds of print outputs. There are 2, 4 and 6 Process and Spot Color Ink Presses where the individual colors are printed on the paper, creating the image with layers of colors. Today there are ink-jet printers that use jets of ink dropped in pixel like format on the paper. Ion or electron deposition printing similar to a photo copy, uses toner to fix the image to the paper. With literally dozens of printing formats and file types, designers must choose the best way to display and print their images using various softwares and technologies.

Every industry and occupation requires some knowledge and use of graphics. Visual aids for communication are a daily party of our interaction with society. We are constantly bombarded by graphics, and most often these graphics are digital. Understanding how these complex images are created is important for artist and audience alike. Students around the world are learning basic and technical aspects of Graphic Arts in colleges and universities world-wide. They are specializing in Architecture, Computer Science, Print, Film, Multimedia, New Media and many other industries that utilize computer-generated graphics. These students learn industry specific software tools to build specific types of graphics. With the world at our fingertips it is simply amazing what can be seen graphically today.