Recently I have designed some unusual sundials that, instead of a clock hand shadow, use shadows of words and pictures to tell the time. The process was quite fascinating and this post is a little longer than normal because I want to detail some of the issues I faced with their design.
To start with; how do you design a sundial that tells the time without the use of a standard clockface? One way is to use shadowtext, as I have shown here using the words “Coffee” and “Lunch” to indicate the start and mid point of a typical office day. This was not so hard to construct virtually using extrusion and boolean functions in a 3D modeler. I thought the expression of the concept was quite good; a visual trope of John Thackara’s writing about “Clock Time” vs “Event Time” from the book In the Bubble.
This was fine in theory but I soon discovered that the effect would not hold up throughout the year as the sun changed its angle in the sky. So I set up a simplified model of a celestial sphere within a 3D modeler (Rhino) with lights to simulate the direction of the sun at different times of the year. I could then play around with creating a shape that could cast a similar and recognizable shadow from many different lighting directions. This proved tricky though when combined with my desire to preserve the mystery and abstraction of the shadow casting object so that its shadow could not be inferred from its shape.
One experiment, of many, intersected the second word, Lunch, across a stretched out portion of the first word, Coffee.
It was about this time that I discovered Maarten Baas produced a shadowtext sundial while also studying at the Design Academy Eindhoven several years ago; it displays the phrases such as “About 3pm” or “nearly four” in Dutch. From the only picture I could find of it, a 3D render in the graduation book of 2003, I could see that he came up against the same problem I did in my first design and that it could not work well during most of the year. He subsequently produced a second sundial that uses this as a feature by only displaying the shadowtext clearly at one specific time of year. Much in the same way many conventional garden sundial designers highlight anniversaries and other specific times of the year with various optical effects – this is not so hard (relatively) because it only requires predicting the angle of the sun in one position.
However, I wanted to create a sundial that addressed the challenge of a moving sun as much as possible. I moved onto the shadow casting of icons, a pre-emptive suggestion by my mentor Satyendra Pakhale. These renders show the shadow casting of the coffee mug and knife & fork icons; the nodus is adapted to cast them recognizably at different times of the year and it is reasonably robust, working most of the year except for the extremes of summer and winter.
I didn’t think that the visual effect was worthy of the original concept of Clock Time Vs Event Time, however, so I went in another direction. We have a fair number of Japanese students in my class at the Design Academy, and we often have discussions about the long office working hours back in Japan – to which I relate, having worked there myself for a few years as a graphic designer. Sometimes I feel we can be stricter with ourselves about not working overtime – something the Dutch are actually quite good at – shops close dead on 5pm here and its hardly a 24 hour culture. To express this I played around with the emergency exit symbol and at 5pm everyday it magically appears from out of an abstract shape cast upon the wall. It works most of the year and the shadow casting object itself is quite abstract so there is little chance of inference.
The full idea, yet to be produced, is that is made from lightweight foam and uses a suction cup to stick to an office window. I did, however, hand make a prototype from wood – a painstaking process that required splitting the 3D model into slices, laying them onto sheet MDF, cutting them out then glueing the shape back together. Its an analog of the stereolithography rapid protoyping process, but hardly very rapid.