Autumn 2007

Grow your own

At last, an easy-to-use tool that lets designers generate unique images and animations. And it’s free

Designers, artists, musicians and other imaginative individuals, who once thought programming was only for nerds, are discovering new creative possibilities thanks to Processing, an open-source tool that allows them to write software to create images, animation and interactive visual work with little or no experience.

Download a copy from and you could be writing your own simple programs in hours, thanks to the many example scripts. Those already familiar with Flash Actionscript will find logical if not syntactic parallels in the Java-based language; and ‘Macromedia minds’ will appreciate the tutorial by Motion Theory’s Josh Nimoy.

Unlike such proprietary software, however, Processing is standalone and entirely free to use, a big bonus for designers hesitant about dipping a toe in unfamiliar water. It also offers possibilities that typical ‘creative suites’ do not. Here, you have the ability to make your own highly specific, data-driven tools, instead of making do with the limitations of pre-packaged ones. Until recently, many digital designers have been obliged to replicate analogue methods with the tools of digital, with inevitable restrictions in visualising more abstract ideas. Processing, like Scriptographer (Eye no. 60 vol. 15), aims to break this cycle, bridging an engineering process with an art-based one, exemplified by the ingenious work of artist-programmers such as Jim Soliven.

The beta version of the Processing visual programming language was released in April 2005 by Ben Fry and Casey Reas, though they have been working on it since Autumn 2001. Processing originated, in part, as an educational introduction to the concepts of visual programming, and the libraries of code and reference material created for it to date are for the most part centred around visual reproduction.

Playing with code
Processing’s simple interface represents the simplicity it strives for, and which development tools often over-complicate. While it has developed such advanced functionality as 3d cameras / lights and hardware integration, more basic work – such as filling the canvas, or drawing shapes – can be achieved with relative ease. To paint a background RGB red, for example, I simply input the code background (255,0,0); to draw an ellipse at certain x/y co-ordinates, height and width, ellipse (30,30,100,20). A play-styled button sitting above the text editor allows you to ‘run’ the program and see the results. The methodology is easily understood by novices, while not alienating those familiar with programming structures.

In their time studying under John Maeda within his Aesthetic and Computation Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Fry and Reas worked towards ‘the design of advanced system architectures and thought processes to enable the creation of (as yet) unimaginable forms and spaces.’ Processing follows this lead in offering an accessible platform in which data may be spun through the wheel of creative code. Raw data can be used as input information that defines the creative output, in much the way that weather balloons feed their results to a central hub that processes a visual weather map. A DJ’s turntable movements can be fed to screen as reactive graphics, and complex information structures can be moulded like clay. All without the aid of a programmer: Processing puts powerful tools back in the hands of designers.

Los Angeles production company Motion Theory shows how Processing can be used to achieve a sense of surprise and playfulness. In its recent Hewlett Packard campaign, coloured shapes float and zip from Pharrell Williams’s motion-tracked arms. In another spot, a hand moves over a photograph dragging the image like a brush dipped in photographic paint. The practice’s stylish commercials for Nike Golf make use of a Processing ‘data cloud’. Processing’s creators welcome such commercial uptake: ‘It’s necessary for the health and growth of open-source projects,’ says Reas.

When Lisa Strausfeld and James Nick Sears of Pentagram New York had to represent the complexity of terrorists’ online relationships in a cover story for The New York Times Magazine, they turned to Processing. Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller’s Similar Diversity visualises words in the scriptures of five world religions.

The London design collective rAndom International has been exploiting Processing’s ability to work with custom-built hardware to develop a paint-roller that applies digital images in continuous strokes, just like using a decorator’s roller. They see PixelRoller as an antidote to ‘the technological boundaries [that] have removed the user from the creativity of the printing process, a separation [that] diminishes the possibility of creative and live input during output’; users might also see it as a means of painting images on awkward surfaces such as ceilings. Fly posting for the 21st century? Phil Worthington used Processing to create Shadow Monsters, his digital puppet show at London’s Design Museum.

Variation is the future
Programming gives great power to variation, making use of the power of the computer to produce a multitude of customised results. If designers struggle with the concept, it is because the process is very different to traditional methodology, although at a base level there is still a problem to solve. The idea that ‘control is lost’ is not true, though the control you have is of a different kind. When creating a ‘generative’ graphic you make the rules in which the code operates. You know what the result should look like, but you submit it in greater and lesser degree to input data and to the pseudo-randomness of computer chaos. A good example is Universal Everything’s Lovebytes campaign, where Processing was used to create a 20,000-strong population of unique ‘furry faces’ for a digital arts festival.

As well as a burgeoning online reference, a vibrant discussion board and libraries of existing code, a couple of hefty handbooks have been published. Tens of thousands of users across five continents are evidence that Processing is no longer an underground phenomenon. By allowing endless variation, the programming-based processes of Processing can also be seen as part of the backlash against the homogenisation of Modernism. We must however be wary, lest we accelerate ourselves towards a point where nothing is new, a landscape of super-variety, even more bland than the eclectic postmodernism of today’s commercial culture.


Casey Reas and Ben Fry, Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, The mit Press, October 2007.

Ira Greenberg, Processing: Creative Coding and Computational Art, Berkeley: friends of ed, May 2007.

First published in Eye no. 65 vol. 17 2007

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.