How an MIT research group turned computer code into a modern design medium

"I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not graphic design." —Michael Bierut

By Liz Stinson

Code is a tool—a string of numbers, glyphs, and letters that when arranged in a particular order can be wielded like a screwdriver. But code is a visual medium, too, like illustration or sculpting, that in the right hands can create something optically evocative. Poetic, even.

Since the 1960s, artistically inclined computer scientists and scientifically inclined artists and designers have programmed computers to make work that’s impossible to craft by human hand alone. For these so-called “creative coders,” the computer is an interpreter, responsible for translating impossible ideas into visual form; code is a material that can be bent and broken to that vision.

The history of computer-generated art and design begins in research laboratories equipped with high-powered machines, where computer scientists such as Bell Labs’ A. Michael Noll and visual artists including Vera Molnár created experimental forms that hover somewhere between art and scientific inquiry. In time, as computers became cheaper and their programming languages less esoteric, even more artists and designers started using the machines to push their respective fields in wildly new directions.

An inflection point for this new medium occurred in the mid-1980s, at MIT, where a group of likeminded designers were at work in Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop (VLW). Cooper, who left The MIT Press to start the workshop in 1974, was an early believer in the power of programming to transform the field of graphic design. Through the research conducted in her workshop, she inspired a generation of designers to explore the intersection of design and technology, and in the process built a lineage of creative programmers who, to this day, are shaping the fields of interaction design, graphic design, and new media art. This is their story, in their own words.

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