Friday, July 4, 2008

Understanding and Writing Code

Design students today need to learn more about the language of computers and understand the code used to write computer programs. Programming code today is the counterpart to the traditional tools and materials used in art and design in the past. Computer Programming is a second language more valuable for today's designers than French probably was for traditional artists in the past.

Seymour Papert (above) was famous for introducing computer programming to elementary students through his Logo programming language. People ridiculed Papert in the sixties when he talked about children using computers as instruments for learning and for enhancing creativity. The idea of an inexpensive personal computer was then science fiction. But Papert was conducting serious research in his capacity as a professor at MIT. This research led to many firsts. It was in his laboratory that children first had the chance to use the computer to write and to make graphics. The Logo programming language was created there, as were the first children's toys with built-in computation.

Most art and technology projects pair designers with engineers or scientists: the designer has the conception, and the technical person provides the know-how. This is often the case in design fields like architecture, game design, and product design.

John Maeda (currently President of the Rhode Island School of Design) is an artist and a computer scientist, and he views the computer not as a substitute for brush and paint but as an artistic medium in its own right. Design By Numbers (above right) is a reader-friendly tutorial on both the philosophy and nuts-and-bolts techniques of programming for artists. Maeda composed Design By Numbers using a computational process he developed specifically for the book. He introduces a programming language and development environment, available on the Web, which can be freely downloaded or run directly within any JAVA-enabled Web browser. Appropriately, the new language is called DBN (for "design by numbers").

Designed for "visual" people -- artists, designers, anyone who likes to pick up a pencil and doodle -- DBN has very few commands and consists of elements resembling those of many other languages, such as LISP, LOGO, C/JAVA, and BASIC. Throughout the book, Maeda emphasizes the importance -- and delights -- of understanding the motivation behind computer programming, as well as the many wonders that emerge from well-written programs. Sympathetic to the "mathematically challenged," he places minimal emphasis on mathematics in the first half of the book.

Because computation is inherently mathematical, the books second half uses intermediate mathematical concepts that generally do not go beyond high-school algebra. The reader who masters the skills so clearly set out by Maeda will be ready to exploit the true character of digital media design.

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