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Coming to terms with creative coding

Or what’s behind an expression

A few days ago I was thinking that I always had a problem with the word ‘creative’. It’s something that might be stuck from my advertising days.

When I worked in advertising, I used to hear this word and its many forms being thrown around until it became meaningless.

So I extrapolated to creative coding. When we talk about ‘creative coding’ I feel it creates a false dichotomy between regular coding — something that’s done with a specific, business-oriented purpose — and artistic coding — the type of coding used to develop and/or express an idea.

When I think about creative coding, the first things that pops into my mind is ‘visual results through code’, then generative art, then the demoscene.

I went to Google trends because I wanted to see how popular was the term in the last 7 years, based on worldwide searches. It had its ups and downs, but last month — November — it was its most popular since 2010. I don’t have the full picture, but I could guess that the rising popularity of this search terms is due to the fact that creative coding is becoming more prevalent in a lot of fields, especially in arts-related areas.

So I ask: what’s the difference between creative coding and regular coding?

Creative coding is used in fields like design or digital arts to create tools that allow the user to have a larger working area, without being limited to commercially available tools.

Regular coding is used everywhere else. And I find it interesting that it also permeates creative coding, as it is the basis on which languages, libraries and frameworks used in art coding are being built. Processing is built on Java. P5.js is built with Javascript. openFrameworks is a C++ framework, and Cinder is a C++ library.

One of the main differences between regular coding and artistic coding is that the latter is targeted to a different audience. An audience that has its roots in design, visual arts and advertising — a field that came up with the “creative technologist” job. This is a job that would mix one or more of the traditional jobs in advertising — copywriter and/or art director — with the developer job. Sometimes I want to put things more bluntly and I feel that it could just have a more elitist ring to its name thanks to the ‘creative’ part in it. So people will just start using it.

Is building a smartphone app or creating a website less creative than creative coding? It isn’t. But I think we can follow the process of tagging something as creative coding by asking questions of the following form.

In the end, the creative part from creative coding is just something that was added to differentiate the end results. I don’t think it was a conscious addition to “coding”, but some sort of a result of the hive mind. It was probably used once and the association with the visual arts made this expression stick and get more popular over the years.

Now where do we go from here? Is the term “creative coding” going to be around for a few more years or it will turn into something else? Can “artistic coding” be a valid replacement?

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