ANSI Art and ASCII Art – Origins in Standards

A white stegosaurus designed in ASCII art or ANSI art

While both ANSI art and ASCII art have fizzled in popularity since their glory days on bulletin board systems (BBSs), they have remained consistently practiced, adored, and shared in specific pockets of the Internet over the years. Furthermore, as culture has grown fascinated with a nostalgic backwards glance over the past decade, the retro style of ANSI and ASCII art has attained newfound passion.

Today, various social media channels are dedicated to the two styles of art, including subreddits for ANSI art and ASCII art, as well as countless collections on Tumblr tagged ANSI art and ASCII art.

What is ASCII Art?

ASCII art is essentially images created only through text characters. ASCII (pronounced ask-ee) includes a set of 128 characters, and the art utilizes control characters and graphic characters, such as letters, digits, and symbols. While ultimately tracing its origins to text-based art delivered though typewriters, ASCII thrived as the visual language of pre-WWW networks like BBSs and Telnet.

ASCII, or the “American National Standard Code for Information Interchange,” was once synonymous with ANSI X3.4, or the “American National Standard for Information Systems – Coded Character Sets – 7-Bit American National Standard Code for Information Interchange.” This standard specified the 128 characters with their coded representation.

In 1996, the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) X3 became the ANSI-accredited standards developing organization INCITS, so ANSI X3.4-1986 was redesignated INCITS 4-1986. The current standard for ASCII is INCITS 4-1986 (R2022): Information Systems – Coded Character Sets – 7-Bit Standard Code For Information Interchange (7-Bit ASCII).

Please note that INCITS 4-1986 is the U.S. national version of the “International Standard for Information Processing – ISO 7-bit Coded Character Set for Information Interchange,” ISO/IEC 646-1991.

What is ANSI Art?

Before delving into this topic, it is important to stress how the name “ANSI art” can be misleading and inaccurate. As we have noted in several other posts, people colloquially refer to particular products as “ANSI x” to denote their adherence to specifications found in American National Standards, which typically bear the name ANSI.

ANSI art is an improved form of ASCII art, and it is constructed from an expansive set of 256 characters, including letters, numbers, and systems that are found in the IBM Code Page 437. These characters, which allow for the representation of shapes and patterns, are also known as the extended ASCII and are used in MS-DOS and Unix environments. ANSI art is also distinguished by its use of special ANSI escape sequences (or “ANSI escape codes”) that color text with the 16 foreground and 8 background colors offered by ANSI.SYS (pronounced an-see-dot-siss), a DOS device driver. ANSI art and text files that incorporate ANSI codes carry the .ANS file extension.

ANSI art and the other terms containing ANSI here are misnomers, and the common usage of the name ANSI to describe these concepts results from ANSI X3.64-1979. This American National Standard was created by the coding committee X3L2, which collaborated in close cooperation with the European Computer Manufacturers Association (EMCA). EMCA also developed their own standard for the extension of the 7-bit character set, EMCA 48.

These two standards were eventually merged into an international standard, ISO standard DP-6429.

As stated in the scope of ISO/IEC 6429:1992 – Information Technology – Control Functions For Coded Character Sets, the current edition of the international standard, it:

“defines control functions and their coded representations for use in a 7-bit code, an extended 7-bit code, an 8-bit code or an extended 8-bit code, if such a code is structured in accordance with International Standard IS0 2022.”

In the 90s, the American National Standard was withdrawn in favor of the international standard.

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