Keith Butters, chief experience officer and co-founder of The Barbarian Group, examines the future for professional creative coding and comes up with five things we can do to move it forward
There's a lot of movement in the creative technology space these days. Many agencies and clients are (finally) going for some very ambitious executions, on a technical level as well as a creative one. These may be mobile applications, large scale digital installations – or just about anything in between. Processing, Three.js , Cinder and other development tools are making projects that were extremely difficult (or nearly impossible) a few years ago, much easier to bootstrap and much better in final quality. And good, stable pieces of creative technology are making it into the market.
There are several obstacles we need to overcome in order to bring creative coding to where many of us would like to see it go. To many clients, these kinds of projects can seem too risky, or the returns aren’t as measurable as more traditional media. We also have some biases to overcome in order to be able to deliver the best possible work (and great work begets more great work, right?).
The following are five things I think we can do as an industry to shepherd the practice of creative coding and creative technology toward becoming an integral part of the marketing and branding landscape.
1. Get your clients excited about the possibilities – without selling to them
Your clients may be already excited about technology, but we need to show them how it can work for them. I think it’s incredibly valuable to have an open dialogue with clients about new opportunities in app design and digital installation potential outside of a sales context.
This stuff takes time. Not all clients are ready to do a giant interactive billboard this quarter. But, if you can use your spare cycles to prototype something, and show it off when you aren’t armed with sales people, a timeline and a price tag, I think there’s a much better likelihood of turning out a real, paying project in the future.
Or, get in the habit of keeping your clients up to date with the great work that is making it into the marketplace as well as the inspirational art projects you see. This is not to say that you should bombard people with emails every day, but maybe once a month, send out a little digest of what’s going on in the space.
2. Stop with the 'lone gunman' approach
The future of this stuff needs well rounded teams to be successful. I’m as guilty as anyone at trying to sketch, design, and code my personal projects – and it works to a degree. But if we want to move to being a professional-grade arm of the industry, we need specialists. Going it alone doesn’t scale. Hire real computer programmers (I think Igor Clark explained it best).
Get interaction designers and user experience people who know their craft well, and are open to doing things in different ways. Find visual designers who know how to iterate with the team over detailed style frames. Make sure they are all specialists who understand enough of each others disciplines to communicate effectively.
3. Stop choosing the wrong tools for the job
Obvious, right? But lately a tool such as Cinder, which is overkill for many projects, is often brought up by clients and creatives even before concepts are. It happens more than you would think. It’s the equivalent of saying, “We don’t know what we’re building yet, but we need a sheet metal worker”. And then you have a sheet metal worker building you a birdhouse.
I have helped companies find Cinder developers when, quite honestly, Flash would do the job faster, less expensively, and with zero loss of quality.
4. Stop co-opting the new and shiny
Your concept should come first. And it shouldn’t be to make for a client a version of something you saw at Eyeo. In my mind we need to broaden people’s understanding of what’s possible, and repeating ourselves makes that really difficult. So let’s use things like fluid simulations and physics engines when we need them to support the overall concept. Let’s not do the 'Minority Report Thing' again.
5. Ship your experiments
Many people have a tendency to experiment but not deliver. We tinker. We do lots of sketches but not much makes it into the market, even just for art. I think the more interesting stuff we get out there (no matter the scale), the better chance we have of maturing the industry.
At my company, we have a program called Project Popcorn (no idea where the name came from), where we pair a designer and a developer up to build an experiment. The only stipulation is that the project must ship. That can mean anything from putting a web-based experiment online, through to getting an iOS app in the app store.
So, ship as much as you can. It proves your expertise not only to your own team but to your clients as well.
There are certainly many more things we could do to move creative coding and creative technology forward (supporting open source probably should have made this list). But, I think it’s really important for us all to have a view of the future, where doing these kinds of projects can be a career or a company with legs. And take it to where we can do amazing work that isn’t just the tiny experimental budget of someone’s marketing campaign, but a more central part of the digital mix.