One of the coolest things I’ve had the opportunity to work on within the past few years was the teaser trailer and stealth media campaign surrounding Tom Warburton’s Galactic Kids Next Door: a hypothetical potential sequel to the Cartoon Network series he created and helmed, Codename: Kids Next Door. I did all of the storyboarding for GKND, plus a lot of the design work, and in particular, came up with an entire “alien” font and numbering system for it, one that we could use to write phrases and clues in. The fans really dug it. They had a lot of fun deciphering the symbols– so much so, that once the whole project was finished and revealed to the world, Mr. Warburton asked me to explain to his readers the underpinning behind what I had done, politely allowing me to take over his blog in order to do so. So the following is the explanation I published there:
Regarding the alphabet, you have to understand: I’ve been fascinated with letters and symbols all my life. As a teenager, I used to create substitution ciphers where the 26 English letters were swapped out for made-up symbols, and then memorize them, until I could write notes to friends in class and sight-read their responses without using the key. (We were always hoping the teacher would catch us and threaten to read the notes out loud, so we could watch her try…) Then in college, I learned how to translate and calligraph J.R.R.Tolkien’s Tengwar runes, the ones used to write Elvish. And then as an adult, I had fun bending my head around the D’ni script in Cyan’s Myst games, and working with fonts and typography of all sorts. So when Mr. Warburton said he needed an “alien font” for GKND, I was stoked. Right in my wheelhouse!
At first I thought he meant that he wanted science-fiction-y looking English:
But then he said, no, he didn’t want English. He wanted made-up alien letters, just like those ciphers I made as a kid. Even better!
Because of my age and background, my default starting point for cool-looking sci-fi anything is the work Syd Mead did on Tron. Also at that point, I had already nailed down the circuitry design for the booger reader, and followed that through with Chad’s handcuffs, so I knew I wanted to stay with that kind of ice-blue line and rounded corners for the letters. To get my head into it, I just started doodling symbols whenever I wasn’t doing anything else. On notecards. On envelopes. On 8.5 x 11 sheets of white Xerox paper. On the dog. Eventually my house was littered with pages and pages of them, like some kind of alternate-dimension Unabomber manifesto:
But out of that doodling and the stuff I had already learned about alphabets came some clarity regarding what I was looking for:
- The characters needed to be easy to draw, with a minimum of strokes. None of the 26 English letters takes more than 4 strokes to make, for example– and neither do the GKND letters, if you’re not too particular about hitting every corner perfectly.
- The characters needed to have a common design thread. Symbols that look like part of the same alphabet each use similar shapes, scale and/or mirror those shapes, adhere to common base and height lines, etcetera. For GKND, everything is based off either a square, or a triangle of roughly the same size as the square.
- The characters needed to retain enough diversity that they could be quickly distinguishable from each other, even at small size.
- The characters would ideally be capable of being elided or combined in ways that were interesting, and would make them more alien. Q and U, T and H, and other pairs of that sort were designed to work with each other.
- The characters would ideally retain just enough resemblance to the English letters they were representing that you could start to see it if you stared at them long enough. This is wildly subjective, of course, and not true of all the letters, but in general, you can sort of “find” the lowercase English character in each corresponding GKND character, if you look hard enough.
So with those guidelines established, I winnowed the pack until I got an alphabet that satisfied me:
It satisfied Mr. Warburton, too. (He’s great that way.) And it worked pretty well for the intended application:
The only punctuation we established was the colon, because that was the only character we knew for sure was needed. And the fact that it all looked twice as cool when we italicized it was just good fortune!
The numbers were a different challenge. Above and beyond their potential use in the website, we wanted to have them because it’d make it possible for both us and the fans to write KND Operative Numbers (which was what *I* wanted to do, and what I was pretty sure *they’d* want to do, too.) And I wanted all the same design principles we applied to the letters to also apply to whatever digits we created. So I started doodling again:
My early attempts were somewhat pictographic (that is, I tried to use geometry as an indication for digit value; triangle for 3, square for 4, etcetera.) But that rapidly got tricky beyond 6. Once you start trying to reinvent the wheel this way, you quickly discover that our digits and our number system are the way they are because they very efficiently fulfill the criteria of being quick to write and easy to read. (You’re probably not going to come up with something in 3 weeks that bests 3000 years of development by the entire human race!) But I kept trying. The one constant was knowing that I wanted to base all the digits on a circle, to distinguish them from the square and triangle-based GKND letters, and to avoid plagiarizing Richard A. Watson’s square-framed D’ni numbers. (Contrary to what I said above, RAWA managed to come up with an internally consistent, symbolically elegant way of rendering the numbers for the Myst games– and in Base 25, no less!)
We landed here:
The idea that started to pull it all together was to represent digit places by “flagging” the digits with add-ons, rather than listing more digits. So instead of writing 10 as 1-0, or 20 as 2-0, 10 would be a 1 with a 10s flag, 20 would be a 2 with a 10s flag, and so forth. With flags for tens, hundreds, and thousands, you could create 10,000 and 100,000 just by combining; ditto for millions, once you had its flag. It made the system more interesting and alien than just listing all the digits of any given number in a row, and better still , it had the side effect of making large numbers in round quantities just as quick and easy to write as small ones. (If you want to get all geeky about it, essentially the GKND numerical system eliminates non-information-bearing digits. Whoa.)
We went around and around on whether the system should be Base 10 or Base 12. (Mr. Warburton started bleeding from his nose, and possibly his eyes, after the third hour of listening to me rant about it.) We knew the fans were smart, and would be doing everything in their power to crack whatever we put in front of them, and I thought using Base 12 instead of Base 10 would slow them down a little. There was also the important fact that the number 12 was intensely significant to the Kids Next Door mythology, because 13 marked the advent of Teen status and Decommissioning. Ultimately though, we decided to stick with Base 10, because we wanted everyone to be in on the fun. Our favorite characters are from Earth, and use Base 10. The show is watched by Earth people (as far as we know) who use Base 10. And if we stuck to Base 10, then Numbuhs likely to be picked by those Earth fans would get the benefit of the place short-handing– whereas if we went with Base 12, Numbuh Dirty Dozen and Numbuh 2Gross would be in good shape, but nobody else. The Base 12 discussion did give us the idea of using that single dot over a digit as a quick way of notating a “teen number”, though, which made sense and gave us even more variety, so we kept that.
(The canon explanation of all this is that the OLD Galactic Numerical System of the ancient core GKND was Base 12 and pictographic. But as the GKND grew and expanded, more member races were using Base 10 than any other system, and they also needed a fully realized, flexible notation capable of advanced mathematics. So the NEW Galactic Numerical system is Base 10, but retains some of the old Base 12 pictographs, and a variant of the Teen notation. Which is pretty much what Numbuh Vine says in the Epilogue, before her human disguise goes on the fritz.)
As you can see in the diagrams, I did a preliminary exploration of what exponents and decimals might be like, but any further mathematical symbology or notation has yet to defined. Perhaps that’s up to YOU…
For the full story on how the project was conceived and executed, and all the creative people involved, you can check out the Warburton Labs blog.