The Creative Legacy of Teletext Designer Craig Oldham investigates

Cover Image - The Creative Legacy of Teletext
WordsCraig Oldham

Like Walkmans and VHS recorders, teletext now seems impossibly quaint. But designer and writer Craig Oldham explains that not only was Teletext a revolutionary technology in its prime, its creative legacy lives on with a new generation of artists who love its creative limits.

How did we manage before the internet? How did we keep up-to-date with breaking news or the football scores? How did we check the weather forecast, book our flights or see what was on TV later? All these things, and more, we now take for granted online. But before the internet, there was teletext.

Teletext is a videotex system where textual information is transmitted – via telephone or cable lines – and displayed on a television set or video display. It was pioneered in the UK in the early 1970s at electronics giant Philips. Its Lead Designer for Video Display Units, John Adams, devised a pixel-based canvas to receive and display all kinds of information in the form of fixed-width graphics through six colors (seven if you include white, eight with black).

In late September 1974, the BBC – to whom Adams had given his design – broadcast the world’s first teletext service, Ceefax, with an initial 30 pages of content. Later that year the UK’s main commercial broadcaster, ITV, followed Ceefax with its own offering, Oracle.

Viewers – rather than scrolling and clicking their way through content as happens on the web – browsed teletext services by punching in a combination of three digits between 000 and 999, loading up the information on the screen. The early teletext engineers and designers even coined the term “pages” for these new fixed displays, a term now universally understood in the so-called digital age. Before this, on early computer screens and DOS systems, digital information was displayed as one endless scroll.

A year later, in 1975, teletext technology evolved another groundbreaking idea – subtitles. Initially developed in the US at Boston’s WGBH TV station as “closed-captioning” for deaf and hard of hearing viewers, the BBC developed a system that could subtitle live programmes. And although it’s developed and evolved, this system remains in use today (although Twitter is often full of the mistakes made in the heat of the moment – see Stormzy’s recent Glastonbury performance).

Dan Farrimond
Dan Farrimond

The final gift from teletext, and probably the most visible signifier of its lasting influence, was the introduction of the menu, coded in four colors, that was eventually replicated on TV remote controls. Hit the red, yellow, green or blue button and you would go straight to one of four sections, a vernacular adopted in the digital transition and still used today.

But how it worked was perhaps less interesting than what teletext offered. At its height, hitting the red button or typing three little numbers into your TV set would load up pages on anything and everything – from news stories and sports scores, to share prices, games and quizzes (do you remember Bamboozle?). There were even crowd-sourced zines (such as Channel 4‘s Mega-zine) where viewers discussed topics like, “Why do triangular sandwiches taste better?” And so began a somewhat quiet technological and cultural revolution.

Teletext technology spread around Europe and then the world, from Germany and the Netherlands to Australia, Russia, Singapore and the United States (albeit briefly). It incorporated Cyrillic and Hebrew characters along the way, as more broadcasters got on board, each utilizing the technology to create their own systems. Through this spread, teletext evolved into a universal system, known as The World Teletext System, to bring instant information to the masses through their television sets.

Teletext was seen as a communication revolution – people could get the news as it happened and book a holiday without leaving the sofa. It gave people a glimpse at the possibilities opening up in front of us – a closer, globalized world, where access to instant information was the norm.

But alongside its systems and its content, teletext’s visual aesthetic caught the imagination too. The rigid and reductive framework of its grid system and limited use of color, all floating atop a sea of black, encapsulated ideas of far-off futures and imagined realities.

This visual language became a regular trope in science-fiction films and television, often displaying the graphics of spaceships and tech-saturated societies. Many people will remember Ripley in Alien making her enquiries about the unknown hitchhiker on the MUTHUR computer interface which is clearly inspired by the teletext aesthetic. But that isn’t the only cultural legacy.

“Pixel art is wonderful for learning graphic art concepts and techniques in small-scale,” says Dan Farrimond, a UK-based artist working with teletext today. “ very easy to pick up, but also has an often under-appreciated depth that requires knowledge of color, pattern tiling and scaling.”

Dan grew up using teletext – he checked the news, read the cartoon strip Turner the Worm and deployed its subtitles so he could stay up late watching TV without his parents knowing. But in 2006, he started to see it very differently.

As part of the 35th International Film Festival Rotterdam, Lektrolab organized a project called VBI Microtel which invited people to create and submit teletext art to be shown on NOS Teletekst in the Netherlands. This gallery displayed a creative ingenuity that inspired creatives around the world, and the project was instrumental in launching the inaugural International Teletext Art Festival (initiated by Fix-C, an art group based in Finland) a few years later. In 2012, Dan submitted “about a dozen artworks... evil clowns and an Andy Warhol-style banana” and he has been creating teletext art ever since.

And Dan’s not alone. Many artists use teletext as a medium today, including a lot of former employees of the system whom have since returned to it to create artworks and derivatives – people like Steve Horsley, who goes by the pseudonym Horsenburger, and Paul Rose, aka Mr. Biffo, who created the famous teletext video games magazine, Digitizer (1993-2003).

A large part of the attraction comes from teletext’s limitations. Its canvas consisted of 24 lines made up of 40, 7-bit, ASCII characters (and a little bit of wiggle room for ‘graphics characters’ which were essentially squares of colour). But teletext by no means created limited or flat graphics. The creative restrictions it imposed gave its designs a charming ingenuity, and the simplicity required to display its graphics required a healthy distillation on the designer’s part that challenged people to construct the most complex and intricate images using the most basic means.

And so what began as a creative challenge can now be viewed as an artistic and communicative aim—to make the incredibly complex more communicable, and the seemingly characterless more engaging. This remains a universal principle at the very core of any designer’s intention today.

Although the Digital Switchover, which began in the early 2000s, saw the gradual demise of teletext as we knew and loved it, the technology persists. It’s had a resurgence among a dedicated creative community who represent it through their artwork at festivals and digital get-togethers.

And in a neat twist, it lives on too on the internet – teletext’s god-child and the thing that seemed to put it out of business. Online teletext tools like edit.TF (created by Simon Rawles) or the ZXNet editor (created by Alistair Cree), ensure that its legacy will proudly live on.