On Art and Development

I played the recorder. And xylophone. And violin, flute and trumpet. And TV and computer, especially imaginative roleplaying and adventure games. I made crystals and castles, bombs and swords, sandboards and robots and model planes, folded paper and cards and balloons, and designed, sketched, modelled, and animated. I wrote and read stories and poems, preferring the older, and made and did many other such things, and still do. I have noticed that being interested like this in diverse means of creation or expression — languages, music, drawing, painting, photography, origami, architecture, martial arts, writing and more — seems to be very typical of those who enjoy a specific career, though I’m sure it’s true for a wider range of people as well. Thinking of those people I know who pursue this career, I’d also be able to describe them as passionate, emotional creatures, full of play, intensely curious, night owls who love imagining and exploring fantastical worlds, yet perfectionists who care about detail, who delight in skill and discipline, finesse and style (though they often look like idealists struggling to scrape a living!). Though I seem to be describing all artists, I am thinking of programmers specifically. Programming seems to be pursued by most as one more means of expression.

Think about people who enjoy programming, if you know any. What makes them come alive, fills their minds, what else do they spend their time on? I’ve found that they’re often people who care deeply about creativity, imagination, beauty and exploration, who delight in the pleasures of finding things out. Like other artists they value the cross-pollination of ideas across hemispheres and disciplines, incorporating ideas from other fields, in their pursuit of the quality without a name.

There are other sides to programming which make it seem like less of an art and even quite boring, especially to the outsider, but which are important as well. The study of the theory behind any art, the underlying rules, allows one to be able to consistently produce better compositions. Just as in other art forms, there are accepted ways, rules and limitations which aid both the learner and the master in the creation of what is beautiful — a limited dictionary of words, arrays of notes and concepts, palettes of colours and chords, techniques for creating what is harmonious, compiled progressions, katas of movements composed over time.

But programming and software development in general, being a very young field, is still undergoing a lot of change, and is quite susceptible to influence, good and bad. Though those technical aspects mentioned above are very important, we should consider whether we aren’t placing too little focus on the art and too much focus on the ‘boring’, technical parts, more than is healthy for the growth of the field, and the perception of it, by others and by ourselves. It surely is true, as Donald Knuth has said, that “a programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better“, but why only subconsciously? This is something we as programmers should actively consider, deciding what we do and do not want to nurture as the field develops.

If this is something you care about, which I believe you should, here are some of my favourite related articles and books that I recommend you read, that might spark some interesting ideas which I hope you’ll share with us:

  • Cheerful software, above all, honors the truth about humanity: Humans are not rational beings. A human is a walking sack of squishy meat and liquids, awash in chemicals.” - Don’t listen to Le Corbusier—or Jakob Nielsen
  • We need a language that lets us scribble and smudge and smear, not a language where you have to sit with a teacup of types balanced on your knee and make polite conversation with a strict old aunt of a compiler.” -Hackers and Painters
  • resuming the quest for an understanding of objective quality that science and philosophy abandoned in the modern era…” - Patterns of Software
  • a deeply creative space where inspiration is built. Anything which you perceive as beautiful, useful, or fun comes from someone stumbling through The Zone.” - A Nerd in a Cave
  • Bret Victor, purveyor of impossible dreams. –

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