Reasons to be Creative: exploring through code

"When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but awaken within the heart of man the desire for the vast and endless sea."

*Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A few of us recently visited the Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton. Our mission: to reenergise creative receptors, welcome a bolt of inspiration, and immerse ourselves in boundary-pushing ideas from the best in digital industry.

The theme of discovery and self-learning ran through this showcase of fantastic work from an expertly curated line-up. A focal discussion point was how our innate desire to explore can bring about the very best ideas -- although this desire can often become stifled by society, education and even self-perception.

James Victore spearheaded this idea with an inspiring talk on embracing discovery and building confidence through our inner perceptions. He encouraged us not to think too hard about inspiration and creativity, because wonder does not come from smashing together disparate ideas. Instead, he encouraged us to look closer to home and build upon our own personal and seemingly unique (but often universal) experiences. In summary: "The things that made you weird as a kid make you great today."

James' argument was approached from a design perspective -- but this theme was also explored by coders Karsten Schmidt, Frederik Vanhoutte and Joa Ebert. Here's a breakdown of what I took away from their talks.

Karsten Schmidt

Karsten Schmidt (a.k.a. toxi) is a programmer and artist whose work is centered around generative coding, manifesting in both visual and physical media. His work is built upon an exploration of nature and an obsession for looking at an environment through the lens of a programmer.

He often works outdoors and in public spaces to draw inspiration and raise questions about what makes things the way they are. Much of Karsten's work has been built upon a self-discovery of natural processes and algorithms to create pieces that encompass interaction design, creative technologies and 3D printing.

This philosophical approach to coding has led him on a journey of exploration that has culminated in the most exciting programming/design works to date: the piece Co(de)factory (see pic below). Showcased as part of the London Barbican Google DevArt installation, it explores a human interaction with generative design and our own inborn skill for creativity and exploration.

Frederik Vanhoutte

Frederik Vanhoutte (a.k.a. W:Blut) is a medical radiation physicist who spends his spare time creatively exploring the world through experiments in generative graphics. Along with a showcase of excellent work, Frederik also discussed the role of creativity in our lives and how this is socially perceived.

He talked about how society welcomes creativity and exploration when we are young but is less encouraging as we grow to be professional adults; people don't always like the idea of a creative surgeon, mechanic or accountant. The very nature of formal education ending can mean we forget what it is to explore and learn for ourselves.

Frederik encouraged us to question standard methods of teaching and whether what we are taught is really the full picture. This was beautifully illustrated through dissecting our understanding of rainbows. We are taught in school that rainbows are refracted light, but this is not the complete story, because it raises too many questions, like 'Why is the whole sky not coloured?' and 'Why are they shaped like an arc?'.

This is an example of a puzzle that has led Frederick to explore physics through investigations in code; he used the programming language Processing to recreate a virtual rainbow, exploring physical properties and discovering answers for himself.

Joa Ebert

Joa Ebert encouraged us to explore our profession in greater detail and highlighted the importance of craft and mastery in coding. As an example he drew inspiration from Jiro Ono, a three-times Michelin starred sushi chef and star of the documentary 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'. Jiro's life has been dedicated to bettering his craft through embracing the Japanese concept of 'Shokunin' (becoming an artisan or craftsman).

Joa highlighted that we should look at our own work and strive towards 'Shokunin'; not necessarily to 'become the best', but to grow an understanding and connection with our trade. We should seek and learn from those around us who are experienced and wise. For this, there is no quick fix. To truly understand a field takes time, perseverance and many mistakes along the way.

But, in a world of online tutorials promising overnight mastery, this can be a hard truth to accept...

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