Code is a tool—a string of numbers, glyphs, and letters that when arranged in a particular order can be wielded like a screwdriver. But code is a visual medium, too, like illustration or sculpting, that in the right hands can create something optically evocative. Poetic, even.
Since the 1960s, artistically inclined computer scientists and scientifically inclined artists and designers have programmed computers to make work that’s impossible to craft by human hand alone. For these so-called “creative coders,” the computer is an interpreter, responsible for translating impossible ideas into visual form; code is a material that can be bent and broken to that vision.
The history of computer-generated art and design begins in research laboratories equipped with high-powered machines, where computer scientists such as Bell Labs’ A. Michael Noll and visual artists including Vera Molnár created experimental forms that hover somewhere between art and scientific inquiry. In time, as computers became cheaper and their programming languages less esoteric, even more artists and designers started using the machines to push their respective fields in wildly new directions.
An inflection point for this new medium occurred in the mid-1980s, at MIT, where a group of likeminded designers were at work in Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop (VLW). Cooper, who left The MIT Press to start the workshop in 1974, was an early believer in the power of programming to transform the field of graphic design. Through the research conducted in her workshop, she inspired a generation of designers to explore the intersection of design and technology, and in the process built a lineage of creative programmers who, to this day, are shaping the fields of interaction design, graphic design, and new media art. This is their story, in their own words.
Head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic | Former director of the Aesthetics + Computation Group (ACG) at the MIT Media Lab
Interaction designer | Student in Muriel Cooper’s VLW and Maeda’s ACG | Founder of Small Design Firm
Information artist | Student in Cooper’s VLW | Senior research fellow at The New School
In the mid-1980s, Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop moved from a warehouse on the outskirts of MIT’s campus into the I.M. Pei building that housed the MIT Media Lab. The change in location marked an important transformation for the VLW. Armed with some of the best computers in the world, the designers in Cooper’s workshop shifted their primary research from printing presses to their new digital tools. Cooper’s workshop, while something of an outlier at the tech-focused MIT Media Lab, quickly gained a reputation as a safe space for experimental design. Its proximity to other Media Lab groups attracted science students such as David Small, who joined after completing a degree in cognitive science, and John Maeda, who never formally joined the workshop but was heavily influenced by Cooper and the VLW’s work.
John Maeda: I was on campus, and I saw what Muriel Cooper was doing with her team. She was thinking about how design and publishing could impact computers. She was the one who boldly believed that someday you’d read Helvetica on a computer screen. People would laugh at her because it was a 5×7 dot matrix font just blinking at you.
David Small: I was an MIT undergraduate studying science. I was into brain science and cognition, or at least I thought I was, but I was always really interested in photography. I had started taking photography classes, and the VLW was across the hall, so I just started hanging out more and more and getting interested in what people were doing. When I finished my undergrad work, I thought, “What they’re doing at the VLW is so much more interesting than what they’re doing in cognitive science.”
Muriel recognized earlier than anybody that computers were where it was at. She could’ve continued to be the design director of MIT Press forever, but she was like, no, these computer things that everyone thinks are lame are going to be really interesting.
Maeda: The VLW was full of designers trying to figure out how to use computers in interesting ways. I came from computer science, and I was interested in this design stuff, but I didn’t have any of it in me. It was Muriel who told me to go to art school. She knew what I was looking for, which was classic design training.
Lisa Strausfeld: Muriel just had this incredible freedom. She didn’t really assume the page, in the same way she didn’t assume the computer screen. She was deliberately very agnostic about technology even though she was at MIT and the Media Lab. She just wanted the content to be whatever it needed to be.
Small: The VLW had been in an old industrial building on the edge of campus where they were doing a lot of work with printing. The printing press did not make the leap into the new building, but suddenly they had a lot more computer equipment. There wasn’t a graphic design department anywhere else that had a million-dollar computer budget.
I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not graphic design.
Strausfeld: We were all expected to have computing skills. For students who were less able to code or were a little rusty, it wasn’t ideal. You had to have that facility under your belt to really make it worthwhile, because there was no discussion of programming. It was just a means to another end.
Small: We were very interested in what the computer could do to create stuff that no one had seen before. Different kinds of transparency and bringing things in and out of focus. If you looked at what we were doing and compared it to what real graphic designers were producing at the time, it was terrible. The tools weren’t good, and we weren’t necessarily good designers. We just kept saying, “Computers are the future of design.” People didn’t necessarily think we were crazy—a lot of people did realize that it was going to be true—but they still looked at what we were doing and were like, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not graphic design.”
Maeda: In the ’90s, when I was writing computer code to draw things, it wasn’t a normal thing to do. A lot of people had these visual art ideas, but they couldn’t write software to do it. Steve Jobs had just released his NeXT computer, and I went out and bought one. I opened it up, started running code, and suddenly I was making stuff that no one had seen before. I was making things that changed or were ultra-complex. I was combining a deep understanding of computer science with what I had learned from my classical design training. Not a lot of people had traveled that route, visually speaking. I was drawing millions of lines, and people would look at what I made and say, “How did you make that?”
Artist | Early student at the ACG | Director of Carnegie Mellon’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry
Information designer | Early student at the ACG | Cofounder of Processing | Principal at Fathom Information Design
Artist | Student at the ACG | Cofounder of Processing | Professor of art at UCLA
Elise Co: Interaction designer | Student at the ACG | Founder of design consultancy Aeolab
In 1994, Cooper unexpectedly died from a heart attack. Maeda, who had left MIT to study graphic design at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, returned to MIT in 1996 to start the Aesthetics + Computation Group (ACG) at the Media Lab. The ACG was meant to continue Cooper’s mission of exploring the intersection of design, art, and technology. But where Cooper’s research pushed at the boundaries of graphics and information design, Maeda was interested in learning how code could be used to create new, unseen forms.
During this time, Maeda developed Design by Numbers, an interactive toolkit that simplified computational design for non-coders. His goal was to democratize programming by teaching designers simple commands that could produce dynamic images in a 100×100 pixel box on screen. Compared to the technical tools his students were using at the ACG, Design by Numbers was simplistic, but it set the stage for Casey Reas and Ben Fry to create Processing, a more powerful tool that artists and designers still use today to create interactive work.
Maeda: Muriel Cooper had died and there was a search for faculty; someone to carry on her mission. At the ACG we took up all her assets. All the space became our space. It was an exciting time because it was the last time that academia had the edge on computing. We had the most advanced computers on the planet, and I got to recruit people who were the best in the world at knowing what to do with these things. People like Ben Fry, Casey Reas, and Golan Levin.
Golan Levin: One thing that was really interesting about John’s group at MIT was that it was called the Aesthetics + Computation Group. It wasn’t called the design and computation group or the art and computation group. There was a certain agnosticism about whether we were artists or designers. We were form-makers, we were form-seekers.
We were heavily inspired by the kinds of experiments made in the Bauhaus. We were trying to understand the fundamental principles of computational visual form. It meant you could have someone like Peter Cho, who was working on typography, and someone like Ben Fry, who was working on information visualization, and someone like Elise Co, who was working on wearable electronics.
Elise Co: Something we’d always discussed among ourselves, and something John would talk about, was the idea that we were designers who could use computation and code directly to make the things we wanted to design, rather than using Photoshop. It was about computation as a material rather than a tool.
Casey Reas: At the time, the barrier to learning how to code was extremely high. I don’t think it was really on the radar for most designers.
We were trying to understand the fundamental principles of computational visual form.
Maeda: I wanted to broaden who could code, so I created this language called Design by Numbers. I intended to make programming easier for people who are what I call “mathematically challenged.”
Levin: It was essentially this really reduced world of 100×100 pixels and 100 levels of grayscale. It was more of a pedagogical tool than a tool for doing anything “useful.” When Ben completed his master’s degree, he and Casey began to think about what it would be like if DBN was more than just an educational exercise. People wanted things like color and more pixels, and that was a reasonable request for design students who wanted to do more interesting things than what they could do in a 100×100 pixel, grayscale world. That was the birth of Processing.
Maeda: I remember when DBN came out, Ben and Casey built the second version of it. They said, “I think we need something more powerful.” And I was like, “What? This isn’t good enough?” I remember thinking, “Maybe you should work on your thesis.” I’m so glad that I was wrong.
Ben Fry: Later in the course of DBN, we were seeing how people would stretch it in different ways and try to build ridiculous things with this incredibly limited environment. As the maintainers of the software, we did a lot of toying with how we would approach it differently, or how we would use some of the nice things we liked about DBN and then expand it and get it closer to our own process for creating work.
Reas: For me, the idea of traditional foundational studies was really important to Processing. I thought it was another Bauhaus moment. I thought, in the same way that during the Bauhaus era we moved from arts-and-crafts production into industrialized production, it was time to move from industrial production into the computer software, information-based production.
I also wanted to change how software was integrated into arts and design education. I thought that the way schools were teaching students how to use Photoshop and Illustrator was entirely surface and didn’t even begin to explore the possibilities of new media. I wanted there to be a deeper understanding of the medium, rather than just using it as a tool.
I remember thinking, ‘Maybe you should work on your thesis.’ I’m so glad that I was wrong.
Fry: A lot of people would say that having to write the code to produce the page and images is actually a huge step backward from having a tool to do it. But one of the ways John put it that always struck me was this idea that you wouldn’t have a painter who doesn’t know how to mix paint themselves or work within their medium.
In part, it was a response to tools like Photoshop and Illustrator that allow you to build things, but really they separate you from the medium in a way that’s not always helpful. More importantly, you’re restricted by what the companies building those tools are making available to you. That’s a significant problem in terms of your creative output being controlled by a company whose priorities might not be aligned with yours and your best, most interesting, and most challenging work.
Artist | Student at MIT | Founder of p5.js | Assistant professor at UCLA
Artist | Student at Parsons School of Design under Golan Levin | Founder of School for Poetic Computation
Lauren McCarthy: Back in 2012, I’d heard this lecture by Zach Lieberman at Eyeo Festival. He was saying, “I know open-source is mostly men right now, but if you’re a woman, you’re welcome, too.” It was the first time that I was like, “Oh, I’d like to sit at the table.” It hadn’t gone through my mind before.
Levin: The environments were put out there by Casey and Ben and Zach in order to democratize the creation of interactive graphical environments. It was an open invitation for anyone to make stuff with these tools, but there wasn’t an open enough invitation for anyone to contribute to the environment, to the tools.
Zach Lieberman: It’s still a problem in that these tools tend to be made by a lot of white dudes. I think it’s really important to have a more inclusive and better community. These tools are trying to make it easy for people to get started and make things. We want more voices and more people at the table.
Now that we know what the medium is, we can use it in a more expressive way.
Lieberman: Today we have better tools and better communities. It’s broadened in some ways. If you wanted to do this stuff 20 years ago, you needed to be at the MIT Media Lab or in some place in academia, and now it’s really different.
At one point this stuff was new. It’s not new anymore. And I think that’s also really exciting. When the technology is new, a lot of what you’re doing is very formal; it’s about figuring it out. But as the medium establishes itself, then it’s really more like artistic expression—What does code mean and how can we use it to tell really meaningful stories? Now that we know what the medium is, we can use it in a more expressive way.
This story first appeared in Eye on Design magazine’s “Invisible” issue. To read it in print, grab a copy.