Unleash your inner artist: Creativity and comp-sci

It took a 19th-century English poet to convince Robin Hunicke that her future lay in computer science.

One summer, as she sat reading the illustrated poems of William Blake, Hunicke, who had been planning to major in fine arts ever since she was in high school, says she had a revelation.

“He really threw me for a loop,” she says of Blake. “Here was someone who had this fantastic ability as a writer, but who was also able to draw these fantastic illustrations. I wanted to be able to do the same thing, and I realized that computers, in a way, are the next form of book – they’re going to take us to that next level. So I was reading these poems and looking at these pictures and I said, ‘I want to do that on a machine.’”

Since then, Hunicke has, among other things: designed an interactive museum installation based on the works and life of Edward Hopper; created an interface for a series of Web-based information retrieval and case-based reasoning systems; lectured at Microsoft about the decline in computer science enrolment; and, right now, is designing the next Sims game for the Ninendo Wii at Electronic Arts.

“If you think about it, games are very narrative, interactive and intensely graphic,” she says. “It’s a way of combining all of these expressive mediums.”

Although Hunicke’s attempt at a hybrid arts and IT career was unusual in her college days, the industry is slowly starting to realize the benefits of a more inter-disciplinary approach to training and developing technology professionals. It’s not that business skills aren’t important. Academics and artists are merely suggesting IT workers use a little bit more of the left side of their brains, too.


Canada already has a number of specialty colleges that offer courses in digital animation and game design, but a few traditional postsecondary schools are taking it a bit further than that. The University of Calgary, for example, has for a few semesters begun offering a joint “Computer Science and the Arts” program which pairs students with their counterparts at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Co-taught by instructors from both institutions, the program involves workshops where students create visualizations of data and digital representations of human interaction. Similar programs have sprung up at the University of Victoria and other Canadian schools.

Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale of the University of Calgary’s computer science department said one pair of students created a table with two microphones attached at either end. A screen embedded in the table would create a picture that tried to show the “shape” of the conversation recorded by the microphones.

“The arts world in general is starting to recognize that art is its own mode of enquiry. In lots of ways it’s quite akin to a type of research,” says Carpendale. “Within the computer science industry, you need the ability to work and communicate with each other. With artists and designers that’s very important too.”

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Don’t play it — create it

Hunicke points out the huge need for technology that allows people to communicate more effectively, not just be more productive at finishing repetitive tasks.

“We under-communicate the creative potential of machines,” she says, adding that artistic ability needn’t be considered a rare quality. “Anyone can learn to program, and anyone can learn how to be creative.”


For some users, the confluence of creativity and computer science is not that new. Jim Andrews is a 50-year-old self-described artist-programmer living in Victoria, B.C. whose works include a software “pen” that draws visual poems. He is currently at work on what he calls a “graphic synthesizer” which will paint pictures according to pre-defined rules. He started out with a degree in English and math before going back to school, where he stopped thinking of computers as something best suited for a lab environment.

“Rather than just using tools for producing normal visual or sonic work, now my stuff is mostly programmed,” he says. “The culture of mathematics and computer science is not really all that oriented towards the arts or creativity. It’s more business-oriented, more engineering-oriented. But it’s all about putting things together, isn’t it, whether it’s a creative work or business work?”

And business works aren’t necessarily all text, Carpendale notes.

“Our culture is moving more and more to visual information presentation and assessment, of thinking through diagrams,” she says. “It’s so important, especially when you realize that most people are working through some kind of interface.”

Future IT professionals might end up much more well-rounded through these changes in curriculum, but Hunicke says there are ways companies can nurture the artistic impulses of existing employees without bringing in a consultant to run a workshop.

“Video games are about positive rewards and positive feedback and creating a sense of accomplishment. People at traditional software companies can give more hugs, more stars, more points,” she says. So can the software itself. “It makes a big difference if your application somehow rewards you for participating in a culture of document creation or photo narration or stock sharing.”

To come up with those rewards, Hunicke suggests brainstorming somewhere outside of the IT department. “Getting away from the machine is often the best way to open yourself up to a creative experience. One of the most compelling things about technology is you have direct control over what the computer does,” she says. “But we get too excited by that amount of control. You have to learn to step away from the control, from the scientific and analytical approach, and get into a mindset that’s much more analogue.”

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