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Analog algorithms – a Q&A with MuirMcNeil

In a brand new interview, Hamish Muir and Paul McNeil of studio MuirMcNeil discuss their approach to design and the thinking behind System Process Form, their remarkable new publication now funding on the Volume platform.

Our crowdfunding campaign to publish System Process Form by MuirMcNeil has just over one week left to run. If you haven’t pledged for the book yet, you can read more about the studio’s work, its aims and influences right here – and head over to to find out more about the book.

Copies of the Collector’s Edition are still available – each one now ships with MuirMcNeil’s complete Two type system comprising 198 OpenType fonts, licensed for 1-5 users (with a value of £120).

Adrian Shaughnessy: How would you describe the MuirMcNeil practice?

MuirMcNeil: We are visual engineers. We began collaborating over ten years ago and have since developed a design practice that undertakes a reciprocal mix of commercial commissions and independent research projects. Having both had long experience as professional practitioners, although with very different backgrounds, we share an interest in the centrality of form-giving to the role of the designer. To us, this seems a more solid, permanent foundation to the practice than other issues associated with it, such as its commercial, social or political functions or consequences.

AS: As a duo, how do you work on a project. Are your roles interchangeable, or do you have specific tasks?

MMcN: In our working processes, we inevitably undertake many different tasks independently, using skill sets that are similar but not identical. However, we consider it fruitless to qualify or quantify our individual contributions in any way. All of our work is the product of our collaboration and none of it would have been made without each other’s input. We share an unequivocal interest in making, looking, evaluating and reflecting upon both the products and the processes of design. An awareness of our own judgements, influences, decisions and actions is what drives our work forwards.

AS: To what extent is your work dependent on technology? I read that most of your work is conventionally assembled using standard graphics software. Could you, for example, create everything you do with code?

MMcN: We work programmatically by putting ourselves physically at the mercy of the algorithm, using standard graphics software to combine mathematical processes, luck and error with old-fashioned skill, prescience and judgement. It would probably be perfectly possible to run automated programs to output work similar to ours but for us that would not be of any great value.

Our code is deliberately organic and visceral, as Christoph Grünberger called it, an “analog algorithm”, because it allows us to focus consciously on our decisions and their consequences; on thinking, making and seeing, rather than to pick from a glut of choices churned out by autonomous mechanical procedures. Much contemporary work produced using the latest cutting-edge digital technologies seems to champion the thrill of technological novelty in self-referential ways while overlooking human interconnection and meaning.

AS: Graphic designers have traditionally rebelled against restrictions of any kind that inhibit free expression. As practitioners of visual systems, how do you counter the assumption that your systems-based approach is restricting visual expression?

MMcN: We would not argue against that assumption. Why are we all so fixated on expressing ourselves today? Widely-held assumptions about self-expression, creativity and the power of ideas contribute massively to all-pervasive ideologies of materialism, consumption and individualism, fostering a tenuous sense of personal identity that has progressively become more fragile with every successive postwar generation, to the extent that, as the filmmaker Adam Curtis has said: “self-expression might well be the conformity of our time”.

We believe that ideas are overrated nowadays and that the most effective source of productive insight is to be found not within ourselves but in the act of making, in the decisions that motivate it, in the opportunities it affords and in the lessons that can be learned from it, whether positive or negative. In a 1995 interview, Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, challenged the conventional conception of the design process as a practice that must always privilege ideas above all else, suggesting that “there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product” and concluding that “it’s that process that is the magic”.

AS: The art critic Lawrence Alloway coined the term Systemic Art. He used it to describe art that was composed of (mostly) geometric forms arranged according to visible principles of organisation. There is also a school of systems-based music. Do you align yourselves with any of this theoretical or practical ideology?

MMcN: 1960s Systemic Art is certainly a source of inspiration to us, although the use of mathematics, rules, conditions and constraints can be found across many territories and many eras, from Bach’s compositions to the immersive audiovisual worlds of Ryoji Ikeda, for example. We are fascinated by the work of many pioneers of generative production methods; people such as Douglas Hofstadter, François Morellet, Manfred Mohr, Karl Gerstner and Carsten Nicolai, but perhaps most prominently by Sol Lewitt, a progenitor of conceptual and serial art who once said that: “to work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity. It also obviates the necessity for designing each work in turn. The plan would then design the work”.

Our approach is a modest attempt to follow this principle by adopting an analytical and propositional direction that is somewhat like a scientific method. By trying to focus accurately on our decisions, methods, intentions, judgements and so on, our aim is to transcend the local, short-term limits of attempting one-off solutions to one-off problems. Instead we try to dig down to the root or point-of-origin and to allow outputs to grow spontaneously and autonomously from there.

Working with both algorithms, choices and chances, we build expansive design spaces and then try to map them out by making a visual trace of everything we find there — or of all the good things. This liberates us from the heavy burden of having to be ‘expressive’ or ‘creative’ or to struggle to constantly invent new things, and leaves us open to new, unpredicted, exciting discoveries.

AS: Your book is called System Process Form. Why? And can you expand on what you mean by each of the three words?

MMcN: System – “All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” — The Buddha.

Process – “…it’s that process that is the magic.” — Steve Jobs.

Form – “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” — the Heart Sutra.

AS: Make a case for someone to back your book – what, for instance, does it offer that your highly active Instagram account does not?

MMcN: We enjoy using Instagram as a sketchbook where we can share things between ourselves and our peers, where we can play and put half-cooked visual morsels into the world. But that world is virtual, non-sequential and limited to tiny digital bites. System Process Form, by comparison, is a detailed survey of a structured design project in development, framed by an outline of the thinking and disposition that underpins it.

The publication will surprise and delight readers with its physical presence: the seductive magic of its large scale and the tactility of vivid ink colours overprinted on beautifully textured paper. System Process Form is as much about vision, colour, touch, heft and interaction as it is about a typographic system whose end results are as spectacular as they are unexpected.

System Process Form is a detailed survey of studio MuirMcNeil’s Two type system, an extensive collection of geometric alphabets where every stroke, shape, letterform and word is designed to work in close harmony. Check out the campaign to publish this book on