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The Creative Process and Software Development

Creative Processes Make a Difference

I am a scientist/developer supporting a biomedical group at a major research institute. I make web pages, client server systems, database back-end systems, and generally do a number of geeky things. I also enjoy many creative activities such as woodworking, drawing, and other arty or crafty things. I love music and dance as an admirer more than a doer. This usually surprises people who only see the geek side. Surprising even more is the idea that the creative activities greatly enhance the geekly pursuits.

When I was a single man, many moons ago, I would attend week long classes at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for my main vacations. I really didn’t enjoy going to the beach or mountains alone so those classes were my down time from my job. Those that have experienced Arrowmont in those years will understand the intense creativity that seemed to flow throughout all the classes. (I haven’t been for years after they reorganized, but I understand it remains a good experience.) I took a number of woodturning classes from some of the most fabulous craftsmen from around the world.

A Workshop in Creativity Exercises

After a number of woodturning classes, I was getting to a time in my development that I needed creativity more than I needed another woodworking workshop. I could make pretty much anything I wanted on the lathe. I was a leader in the local woodturning group and eventually a board member and officer of the national American Association of Woodturners. I wrote articles for the local newsletter and was published in a number of national journals. With all that, I felt that something was missing. I need more creative activities.

I talked with a number of people I respected in the arts and crafts field about this feeling. Rodger Jacobs of Newland, NC described an upcoming two week class in creativity with Steve Loar. It sounded like a great idea to me and I was willing to give it a try. Acceptance into the class was by invitation and Rodger was gracious in giving me a chance by recommending me. I was happy to get a chance since I felt I was getting stagnant in my development. Thankfully, I was able to attend.

The main reason for having it be by invitation was that it required an open mind; a very open mind. You couldn’t go into the class with preconceived ideas about art, craft, or creativity. You had to be able to accept that whatever got thrown out as exercises would be worth it in the end. There were a lot of exercises. Many didn’t make a lot of sense at first. There were exercises in abstraction from song lyrics, photographs of scenery, instrumental music, and a number of others that I forget after all the years. It was laborious at times without the feeling of progress.

The Abstraction Process

Many of the exercises were in abstraction. Abstraction is a process of taking a complex image or object and removing all non essential items until you get to the essence. For example, a song lyric can be dissected into phrases and words until you get to the fundamental meaning with only a word or two. An instrumental can be abstracted by covering the walls with a large roll of paper and drawing the wave forms manically while the song plays at high volume. (The quilting class across the hall was about to rebel during this exercise.) There were other exercises that would be difficult to describe even if I remembered them all.

The abstraction can then be reformed or rebuilt into something that contains a narrative to represent the essence of the original instance. We took our final abstraction and drew plans for a 3-D sculpture and finally building a maquette in foam insulation board material and found objects. It boils down to a method for priming the creative juice in your mind. It can be used to develop ideas for representing in a creative piece.

As you might imagine, these two weeks were not a relaxing time in the mountains. It was a very intense experience and frankly a bit much for this geek to chew on. I have to admit to some cynicism at times during the time, but I have a high threshold for creative pursuits so I wanted for it to work. The time was exhausting, but I look back on it very fondly.

Relating Creativity Exercises to Software Development

The curious thing about the experience of this workshop is how it made me a much better software developer. It may be hard for many non-geeks to believe, but software development is a highly creative experience. Yes, it involves machines and very strict code and tedious protocols, but overall, you create something from almost nothing if you are lucky enough to go through the entire development process. I do the entire process since I work by myself without a lot of other developers or designers involved in my projects.

When you look at the software development process, it follows a lot of the same abstraction to final product themes as I described in the exercises above. We collect requirements from end users and managers (if you are lucky) and develop something from them. In many cases, there is a lot of mind reading going on and people don’t really know what they want until you describe it in detail or show them a mock up (similar to a maquette.)

My software systems must work technically, but more importantly, they need to be a positive enhancement to the end users work life. The processes I go through to develop the systems is very similar to the abstraction model used in reducing a creative thought to an abstraction and then reassembling it into a narrative piece. I think of this often when looking at some of the more complex systems I have built over the years. I also look back with fondness to what I learned from Steve Loar and the rest of the very talented attendees during those intense two weeks. In addition to Steve, there was another woodworking class going on at the same time with Michael Hosaluk and Mark Sffiri who are internationally known for their work.

Lasting Impressions

Lastly, I gave Steve a hard time about how he puts hair on many of his pieces. Ever since that class, I think of his work every time I see sculpture with any hint of hair or feathers. It is a fond memory. Steve Loar is now the director of The Center for Turning and Furniture Design at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania. I don’t know if this workshop was ever repeated, but I am sure he uses the experiment at Arrowmont in creating other curricula.

Software developers are usually not one dimensional. They tend to be curious about many things and the best have many talents. We do have a tendency to get overwhelmed with code and zone out for periods of time. I hope that any young developer will pause and look at the whole of their life. Take time out to enjoy beauty and creativity. It actually will make you a better developer.

Categories: Career, Woodturning, Workshop
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