Designer vs Developer #7: Becoming a creative coder

This is the seventh episode of designer vs developer, Google Design Advocate Mustafa Kurtuldu’s YouTube and podcast series aimed at improving understanding between designers and developers looks at the craft of coding. He speaks to Mariko Kosaka, a Developer Advocate on the Google Developers Relations Team, about the art she creates with code and how developers can embrace the notion of making something that isn’t necessarily useful but still has value.

Mustafa Kurtuldu’s Designer vs Developer series seeks to foster greater understanding between the two camps.

Released every two weeks, each episode deals with a different issue, from effective collaboration to whether too much testing and data ruins the creative process. In this episode Kurtuldu and Kosaka discuss the creativity that goes into coding, often thought of as a purely technical task. 

For each episode, Kurtuldu writes an accompanying essay. 

Coming to terms with the fact that coding is a creative medium just like traditional materials such as clay and paint

The arts have lived on the streets amongst the communities of the underprivileged fighting out against control, a response to political suffocation. Often depicted as sub-cultures, these movements of the Punk era in London were a rejection of the modernist Swiss Style of the 1940s and 1950s. In the late 70s we saw a typographic explosion on the New York train lines in the form of graffiti, which took words and turned them into graphics. Both of these movements focused on taking something old and remixing it into something new, mostly driven by the fact that those less privileged don’t have access to the same resources as the wealthier citizens. Punk kids couldn’t afford to print their magazines professionally, so they used stencils and scalpels to create their fanzines. The hip-hop generation couldn’t get their works into a gallery, so they made the subway their public display.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Art, to me, has always had a subversive origin, whether it’s the cartoons of H. M. Bateman or the artwork of the graffiti writer DONDI. Art has become a channel to push back against the system, becoming the voice of the voiceless.

Another example of expressing ideas against the standard grain is creative code, an art form that has existed since the 1960s. Instead of being functional like code, it creates something that’s expressive. A few years back, Google and the Barbican in London sponsored a contest named and coined a new term, DevArt, which commissioned developers to create a new digital art installation alongside some of the world’s best interactive artists at the Digital Revolution exhibition. The idea was to promote this ‘new’ movement of creating art in the code space. Although well-intentioned, the initiative had pushback from the grassroots coding community as they felt that the new art name and enforcing Google technologies was nothing more than a marketing stunt. In reaction, they also created an alternative virtual exhibition titled Hack the art world that was geo-fenced and targeted only to those at the Barbican event. It seemed the punk attitude to push back against the corporate machine was alive and well. One significant positive was the large number of submissions to DevArt. This showed a renewed interest from the general community in using the code medium to create art and show that it too could match the movements of Punk and Hip-Hop in years prior.

Coding in its nature felt like an elitist thing because it requires access to technology, devices and a minimum amount of education to even get started. But then again, is this any different from the artist who goes to art college?

Art and code always felt like a juxtaposition to me because I used to feel that code represented academia and the elite. I believed that code represented a new wave of modernism. That it took the soul out of the creative rite of passage, the playful (and sometimes painful) act of discovery, by condensing it down to just a step-by-step process.

Coding in its nature felt like an elitist thing because it requires access to technology, devices and a minimum amount of education to even get started. Much like buying a book on Punk art covers or having a graffiti piece hanging on the wall in a museum, there is something about having the privilege of learning to code on an expensive computer that didn’t add up to me. But then again, is this any different from the artist who goes to art college?

Photo: JJ & Special K — Creative Commons

Seeing the coding community and in particular open source community make me wonder if I have been wrong. My previous sneering attitude towards treating code as merely functional and not artistic, as it wasn’t made from paint, was nothing more than an elitist attitude of trying to define what art is because of blinded prejudice.

Art is and must remain accessible to all, whether you’re a kid in the Bronx or the privately educated Michelangelo in Florence. The moment rules are created on who can and can’t be involved; the movement becomes elitist and less able to challenge the status quo. Creative coding does question the foundations of the programming world because it exists to express an idea and not to process a sterile function. In that way, perhaps, creative coding is the most accessible and purest form of art after all.

You can learn more about design and UX at Web Fundamentals.

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