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ascii: fun

EMBO Practical Course: Bioinformatics and Genome Analysis, 5–17 June 2017.

visualization + design

ASCII Art—Proportional Spacing, Tone/Structure Mapping and Fixed Strings


  1. ASCII art
  2. proportional spaced fonts
  3. structural character selection
  4. tone-based character selection
  5. fixed string ASCII art
  6. angled text ASCII art
  7. multi-layer ASCII art
  8. recursive ASCII art

download code


This is a Perl script and requires Imager. See README in the archive for instructions. I cannot provide installation support, but welcome questions and ideas about the method.


Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Part of the Pioneer plaque rendered with the sequence of human chromosome 1, using 8 weights of Gotham. (zoom)
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
DNA helix rendered with string 'dna'. (zoom)

After finding a typographic portrait of Christopher Hitchens, created out of Gill Sans letters by Miles Chic at Capilano University, I thought to resurrect software I wrote a long time ago that converts images into letters and expanding traditional ASCII art by using

  • proportionally spaced fonts
  • a variety of font weights in a single image
  • both tone and structure of the image to select characters
  • fixed strings to render an image in legible text


The representation of images by characters—ASCII art—has a long history. ASCII art extends the emoticon (or smiley) to represent a larger piece of work. Typically, the works use a fixed-space font (e.g. Courier), originally designed for display on a terminal. Despite the sophistication of computer graphics today, ASCII art continues to have a strong following with new work continually added to public online galleries.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Community contributions to ASCII Art Museum. ASCII art can vary from simple cartoon-like depictions to photorealistic interpretations. (source, zoom)

Photos and paintings can be ASCIIfied using a tone-based approach and automated methods exist to do this (Paul D. O’Grady and Scott T. Rickard (2008) Automatic ASCII Art Conversion of Binary Images Using Non-Negative Constraints).

Many artists generate new creations, exclusive to the medium. Typically this kind of ASCII art is based on the interpretation of structure rather than tone—this method has also been automated (Xuemiao Xu, Linling Zhang, Tien-Tsin Wong (2010) Structure-based ASCII Art).

Proportional spaced and multi-font art

I have written code to generate ASCII art from images by using proportional spaced fonts.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Fixed width fonts (e.g. Pragmata) are popular. ASCII art can be extended to proportionally spaced fonts (e.g. Gotham). More than one weight (or font) can be used to add contrast.

Below is an example of how Pragmata and Gotham can be used to different effect to render an image. When a proportional spaced font is used, the ASCII shape can more fully fill the image.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Comparison of fixed and proportional spaced fonts in ASCII art. Employing multiple weights adds contrast. The grey background is added to emphasize the original image. (zoom)

Let's see how these methods work on a real image. Many ASCII art Mona Lisa versions exist. Below, I render the Mona Lisa with Pragmata, Gotham Book and 8 weights of Gotham.

structural character selection

Two-tone shapes like the S in the figure above require selecting characters that match the structure of the image. (e.g. "|" matches vertical lines). For a given character and image position there are four distinct match possibilities—a combination of whether the character and image have a signal at a position. I show this in the figure below.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Finding the best character involves maximizing overlap (s1, s3) and minimizing penalty (s2, s4).

By maximizing scores derived from matches (s1, s3) and minimizing any penalties (s2, s4), a character is identified based on maximal coverage of the image region and minimum coverage of areas that are blank.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Ink artwork, or thresholded bitmaps in which there are only two tone values, are approximated using structural matching. Here I compare the method of O'Grady and Rickard with my naive structural matching. (zoom)

When proportional text is used, edges are better approximated, such as in the Homer Simpson example below which uses Gotham Book.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
For this image, 17pt text matches the detail well. (zoom)

tone-based character selection

Images that are not two-tone require that we match both structure and tone. Structure is approximated by the choice of character, while tone by choice of font weight. To select the best character based on tone, the character's average tone is compared to the average tone of the section of the image to which it is being compared.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Heavier weights are used to match dark areas of the image. (zoom)

It is possible to combine both structure and tone metrics in character selection. Below is an example of how an image with both tone and structure is interpreted as the tone and structure score weights are varied. The balance between these two metrics can be very hard to find—it greatly depends on the image. Tone-based mapping works well when font size is small and the image is viewed from larger distance—in this case, characters play the role of individual pixels with varying brightness. Structure-based mapping works with larger type and closer viewing distance.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A tone:structure ratio of 1:0.5 works well for the Star Trek logo. (zoom)

Continuous tone bitmaps are an idea application of multi-font ASCII art—images no longer need to be thresholded or dithered.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Applying both tone and structure character selection metrics to a greyscale image. (source, zoom, )

fixed string ASCII art

ASCII art is generated by dividing the image into a grid and finding the letter (the choice of characters is often expanded to include punctuation) that best matches the grid section. Typically, for each grid the entire set of allowable characters is sampled. Instead, we can limit the choice of character by successively sampling from a fixed string.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Fixed string ASCII art limits the choice of characters available at each grid. Characters can be drawn from a short string (e.g. 'ilovegotham') or from a larger corpus (e.g. Wikipedia entry for Mona Lisa). The string can be contiguous within the image, or locally within the font. (zoom)

rendered with the fixed string "monalisa" using 8 weights of Gotham.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Fixed string ASCII art rendering of Mona Lisa. (zoom)
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
DNA helix rendered with string 'dna'. (zoom)
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
DNA helix rendered with sequence from human chromosome 1. (zoom)

angled text ASCII art

Things get even more interesting when the text is angled.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
By applying rotations to the input and output images, the image can be approximated by angled text. (zoom)

multi-layer ASCII art

The image can be textured with multiple layers of ASCII art. In the example below, four layers of text are used, each with a different font size.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Part of the Pioneer plaque rendered with the sequence of human chromosome 1, using 4 layers of sizes (17pt, 33pt, 59pt and 93pt) and 8 weights of Gotham. (zoom)

Instead of varying size, the angle of the text can be changed among layers. This results in a pattern reminiscent of a halftone.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Part of the Pioneer plaque rendered with the sequence of human chromosome 1, using 4 layers with different text rotation (-45, -15, 15, 45 degrees) and 8 weights of Gotham. (zoom)

recursive ASCII art

An image can be asciified several times, with each iteration the asciified output of the previous step used as input for the next. At each step, the font size should be reduced to s → √s.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
ASCII, set in Gotham Ultra (zoom)
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The above image asciified using 8 weights of 105pt Gotham and the fixed string 'ASCII'. (zoom)
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The asciified example above, asciified again using 8 weights of 11pt Gotham and the fixed string 'ASCII'. (zoom)


news + thoughts

Essentials of Data Visualization—8-part video series

Mon 16-01-2017
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski

In collaboration with the Phil Poronnik and Kim Bell-Anderson at the University of Sydney, I'm delighted to share with you our 8-part video series project about thinking about drawing data and communicating science.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Essentials of Data Visualization: Thinking about drawing data and communicating science.

We've created 8 videos, each focusing on a different essential idea in data visualization: encoding, shapes, color, uncertainty, design, drawing missing or unobserved data, labels and process.

The videos were designed as teaching materials. Each video comes with a slide deck and exercises.

P values and the search for significance

Mon 16-01-2017
Little P value
What are you trying to say
Of significance?
—Steve Ziliak

We've written about P values before and warned readers about common misconceptions about them, which are so rife that the American Statistical Association itself has a long statement about them.

This month is our first of a two-part article about P values. Here we look at 'P value hacking' and 'data dredging', which are questionable practices that invalidate the correct interpretation of P values.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: P values and the search for significance. (read)

We also illustrate how P values can lead us astray by asking "What is the smallest P value we can expect if the null hypothesis is true but we have done many tests, either explicitly or implicitly?"

Incidentally, this is our first column in which the standfirst is a haiku.

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2017) Points of Significance: P values and the search for significance. Nature Methods 14:3–4.

Background reading

Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2013) Points of significance: Significance, P values and t–tests. Nature Methods 10:1041–1042.

...more about the Points of Significance column

Intuitive Design

Thu 03-11-2016

Appeal to intuition when designing with value judgments in mind.

Figure clarity and concision are improved when the selection of shapes and colors is grounded in the Gestalt principles, which describe how we visually perceive and organize information.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
One of the Gestalt principles tells us that the magenta and green shapes will be perceived as as two groups, overriding the fact that the shapes within the group might be different. What the principle does not tell us is how the reader is likely to value each group. (read)

The Gestalt principles are value free. For example, they tell us how we group objects but do not speak to any meaning that we might intuitively infer from visual characteristics.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of View column: Intuitive Design. (read)

This month, we discuss how appealing to such intuitions—related to shapes, colors and spatial orientation— can help us add information to a figure as well as anticipate and encourage useful interpretations.

Krzywinski, M. (2016) Points of View: Intuitive Design. Nature Methods 13:895.

...more about the Points of View column


Fri 04-11-2016

Constraining the magnitude of parameters of a model can control its complexity.

This month we continue our discussion about model selection and evaluation and address how to choose a model that avoids both overfitting and underfitting.

Ideally, we want to avoid having either an underfitted model, which is usually a poor fit to the training data, or an overfitted model, which is a good fit to the training data but not to new data.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Regularization (read)

Regularization is a process that penalizes the magnitude of model parameters. This is done by not only minimizing the SSE, `\mathrm{SSE} = \sum_i (y_i - \hat{y}_i)^2 `, as is done normally in a fit, but adding to this minimized quantity the sum of the mode's squared parameters, `\mathrm{SSE} + \lambda \sum_i \hat{\beta}^2_i`.

Lever, J., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2016) Points of Significance: Regularization. Nature Methods 13:803-804.

Background reading

Lever, J., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2016) Points of Significance: Model Selection and Overfitting. Nature Methods 13:703-704.

Lever, J., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2016) Points of Significance: Classifier evaluation. Nature Methods 13:603-604.

Lever, J., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2016) Points of Significance: Logistic regression. Nature Methods 13:541-542.

...more about the Points of Significance column