Why I stopped calling myself a creative coder

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Tagged: creativity

Creativity is rare

I grew up believing I was creative, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Because I had always been interested in art, I was given drawing and painting lessons. I was quite good at reproducing other artists' work, but when I finally had a teacher who allowed me to do anything I liked, I realised I had no idea what to do.

The grown-ups who called me creative for coming up with beautiful images were as innocent as me: they were just reproducing the age-long confusion between image-making and actual creativity. This is why the industry I work for—which includes design, advertising, video and others—is called the creative industry.

And this is why I have always been comfortable working in this field. I studied design and surrounded myself with other who had the same belief.

Later I started learning web development. I enjoyed coding, but didn't find the medium suitable for creativity. A couple of years later I found Processing, a Java dialect and programming environment aimed at artists. Its main purpose is to afford the creator with tools relevant to visual (later aural) arts, such as drawing on screen, incorporate mouse and keyboard interaction, and animation.

Processing helped popularise the term creative coding to a legion of artists and designers such as myself and it opened the doors of programming to many, who had previously thought it was purely technical and dull activity.

I'm glad initiatives such as Processing and openFrameworks opened these doors. However it's worth asking the question: why were they closed in the first place?

In my opinion, there are two main problems with the term creative coding. Firstly, it suggests programming visuals is always a creative activity. Secondly, that other programming practices are not creative.

The shortcomings of the first conclusion should be obvious, but I'd like to emphasise: not all so-called creative coding is actually creative. Creativity is rare, and we should acknowledge and respect it when it does happen.

The second conclusion, although less obvious to many, is actually more harmful: this myth suggests creative people should not gravitate towards the exact sciences. No one would agree with this idea if it was put this way, but when we use terms like creative coding or creative industry we are sanctioning this concept. This is tantamount to tacitly sending unimaginative kids to coding and potentially creative kids (but often just math-lazy, such as myself) to the arts. It completely ignores the fact that it takes incredible creativity to solve a difficult math problem or to find a more efficient sorting algorithm.

Expressive coding

While I think it is great to nurture talent, we should allow more room for the talent to grow before labelling it. Definitions matter.

It is quite telling that the Wikipedia definition of creative coding (at least at the time of this writing) is programming whose "goal is to create something expressive instead of something functional" (emphasis added). That is the core of what I had been trying to do with code. Creativity is not a process in and of itself, but rather a modus operandi that brings better results to a project, be it a generative visual piece, a math demonstration or the cure for a disease.

I'm not starting a witch hunt to end the use of the term, but I will allow myself to use a neologism even though I avoid coining terms for things that are well established. I would like to propose the use of the term: expressive coding to designate what I do. I will also encourage others to do the same; the term is more precise, and it still allows room for creativity. Ours and that of others.

I still like to think that I am creative, but for the right reasons. I also think many other professionals are and we should praise their creativity as well.