You would think ASCII text images would have died out by now, but they keep showing up on Facebook and social media in general. If you’re going to do ASCII graphics, you might as well do it right. So here’s an off-beat tutorial to using command line tools such as Figlet, Cowsay, Boxes, and other text toys to generate text art that will have your Facebook friends flabbergasted.
ASCII, ANSI, and Unicode art was all supposed to be ancient technology left over at the end of the BBS era. Not that ANSI art on Bulletin Board Systems was anything to sneeze at…
As the digital museum of BBS splash screens at TextFiles can tell you, text art of the late 1980s and early 1990s was its own kind of amazing, a folk art tradition that arose and died off before most people knew it existed. And now that we have this fancy WWW technology with streaming video everywhere, we keep expecting character text art to sigh its last.
Apparently, text art is the blue jeans of the Information Age; it never goes out of style.”
Except, what do we see all over Facebook walls? What do we encounter in the comments section on YouTube? And when we slum into the likes of 4Chan, or even the cheeky comment on Slashdot or StackOverflow, what do we behold? Text art, text art everywhere! Little blocks of ASCII bunnies and puppies, or tiny squiggles of emojis writhing through our Twitter feed. Apparently, text art is the blue jeans of the Information Age; it never goes out of style.
Well, if text art is always going to have a foothold in our modern web, we might as well do it right. So here we’re offering a little toolbox of text art toys and filters. These can be handy for both slinging cute signatures around on social media, or for app developers who want to add some formatting to their plain text documentation and code comments.
Figlet is typically the program responsible for every big ASCII font you see, such as that all over GameFAQs, which also has great examples of formatted text file documentation. Figlet is most comfortable running on a Unix platform, but it’s been ported to almost any computer OS. You’re out of luck trying to find it in app form for the mobile era, but if you happen to be running BeOS, NeXTStep, or an Amiga, they’ve got you covered. If you’re currently running all three of those, you are obviously superhumanly cool and we want your number so we can hang out as soon as possible.
Here’s the obligatory online Figlet server. Are we hipsters yet?
CowSay is the tiny ASCII art generator responsible for most of the ASCII art animals you’ve seen in your life. While, as the name indicates, it was originally just meant to generate ASCII cows and give them something to say, its library has expanded over the years to include everything from Tux the Linux penguin to Bart Simpson. Who is still on TV. Somehow. It even has text art for the Ghostbusters logo, which we also just re-encountered in a movie recently. Somebody break us out of this Groundhog Day loop.
CowSay is actually privileged enough to get its own Android app. It’s also so embroiled in Unix culture that it’s patched into the Linux kernel itself, with a man page and everything. If that isn’t enough, there’s always the online CowSay server. And here’s a whole GitHub dump of CowSay files, where you’ll note that it doesn’t matter what kind of critter you’re summoning, they’re all cows as far as this program is concerned. You’ll recognize many of these more compact critters from text sig and emoji culture.
For the practical developer who just wants some formatting for a long documentation file, Boxes has you covered. Easily generate a simple, but elegant banner frame for the name of your project, generate a little sub-heading banner for your file’s sections, and add a classy little touch of panache to your sign-off. It’s also great for adding chunks of comment formatting to your source code, in case anybody still documents in-code anymore. Yes, your programming class professor made us say that.
Boxes is the kind of program that wants to live compiled on a Linux/Unix-like command line while you ponder the GPL license over a cup of open-source Java. It can be compiled for Windows, if you’re hard up. It’s also apparently the only program of its kind, but then it’s a pretty simple and basic function that isn’t hard to replicate, perhaps better suited to a utility than its own stand-alone app.
Speaking of developers, we might as well toss in the two major ASCII-handling code libraries. AALib is the original portable ascii art GFX library, while LibCaca does most of the same with the addition of Unicode, advanced color handling, and canvas operations. Both are capable for rendering an image into ASCII text, although there’s many online utilities that will do this already. They’re also perfect for just-because-you-can geek street cred, like playing Unreal Tournament in ASCII…
If you’re looking to create actual ANSI-art images the way the old BBS scene used to, your best answer after 23 years is still TheDraw. It’s built to run on DOS, which means it’s now something you need DOSBox to run. This is outdated beyond all antiquity now, but for the authentic IBM ASCII character experience, nothing else will do.
For a bonus buck, check out the ANSI & ASCII Art app for Android on Google Play, which contains a gallery of art from those old BBS systems of the late ’80s and early ’90s. We would say “kicking it old school,” but this text art stuff just keeps hanging on for generations now.
Read more articles by Pete
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