ASCII art is fun

Filling the blanks with character(s).

Screenshot from “whorunow”, ASCII piece inspired by JODI

The American Standard Code for Information Exchange, abbreviated with ASCII, was designed in 1963 to be used with teletypes. A few years later became the Standard Code for Information Exchange for all computers in the United States. Although new character encoding schemes — such as Unicode, ISO/IEC 2022, or Mac Os Roman — have since been introduced, ASCII still remains an internationally accepted character code for the interchange of text in the electronic domain.

When did ASCII become art

ASCII artworks are probably something we associate with less-known internet forums and obscure Read_me files. Often used to refer to all text-based visual art, “ASCII art is a graphic design technique that uses computers for presentation and consists of pictures pieced together from the […] characters defined by the ASCII Standard”(Wikipedia).

Since its early uses, when printers and emails still lacked graphics abilities, ASCII art has gone a long way. Today, the aim of artists like Andreas Freise at is to collect and catalogue a number of text-based visual works which have never before experienced public recognition . ASCII artists have not yet made it to physical art galleries because of a profound connection to the net as original exhibit space. In addition, due to ASCII’s easily editable nature, the artist signature gets often lost in the way, which makes it difficult to get to know the people behind the canvas.

My attempt at ASCII art

I approached the ideas behind an ASCII artwork from a contrasting direction to most net artists. While text-based pictures are made to be seen from a distance because of the object they represent, we rarely appreciate ASCII in detail. With whorunow, I wanted to draw the user’s attention to the shapes of symbols and letters — which more than often are typed using a monospaced font that retains its space between characters such as Courier New — as an homage to both typography and digital designers.

First step to creating my own ASCII piece was processing a screenshot of my Facebook profile through Picascii. Tools like the this let users upload their pictures and then automatically convert pixels to ASCII characters through recognition of luminosity and pattern complexity in an image. The resulting text-based image can be saved as .txt file for further editing.

Here, I used my Facebook profile as a canvas to represent people’s image of their online identity: a mirrored version of their persona in a constantly changing state, unconsciously reflecting an inborn search for new interactions.

Second step was creating an HTML page where to link my piece. A very simple structure was necessary, with the only addition of the <pre> tag. This tag is useful for formatting text that needs to retain spaces and line breaks as it is written, and it is the key element to display ASCII art correctly on a web page.

Overview of the code behind “whorunow” (continues to the right)

Set the monospaced font to a pretty big value like 12px or more and your ASCII is displayed as if it is being zoomed in (mobile browsing may vary, especially on iPad), letting you move around the page in any direction and actively explore the artwork. Key element to this piece is the addition of text, difficult to spot amongst the myriad of characters on the page. I believe it makes the experience engrossing, as people will scroll through the canvas in search of something, that may or may not be there.

Take a look around whorunow here.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.