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A day in the life of a creative technologist | Postcards from a Creative Coder

November 4, 2019

#Community Postcards from a Creative Coder

What does creative code look like in the real world? Or rather, what can creative code look like in the real world? The possibilities are pretty much infinite, but we asked our Chief Tinkerer, GP – a creative technologist by profession – to walk us through a day in his life to demystify what a creative programmer can do with their coding superpowers.

What’s a creative technologist, anyway?

My role at work is listed as “creative technologist” – what does that mean, and what is a typical day at work for me?

A creative technologist is a pretty new position that has emerged in the tech and creative field in recent years. It is an attempt to label a kind of general problem solver, someone who can design, program and build projects with a strong human experience component.

A creative technologist often acts as a bridge between a creative team and software development, helping communicate design intent from creative to dev, and making all teams aware of new possibilities.

For what a sense of what creative technologists could work on, these are a handful of my recent projects:

  • A robot kiosk that pours you a perfect beer while you learn about international payment systems
  • Projection mapping and a huge LED table are used to present a new building project
  • Smart bracelets that guide guests through interactive games and displays
  • A sophisticated multi-touch object detection table that teaches people about surgical robots by letting them try different surgical procedures
How did I get here?

I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University, a programme at the leading edge of creativity and innovation throughout. The program describes itself this way:

We don’t focus on just teaching technical skills — there are other programs for that. Instead, we focus on critical thinking, creative exploration, and the ability to learn how to learn. We embrace failure — as long as you learn from it. ITP is sometimes described as an art school for engineers and at the same time an engineering school for artists. Perhaps the best way to describe us is as a Center for the Recently Possible.

After ITP, I developed exhibits at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco that’s famous for pioneering an interactive, hands-on, style of learning. It is also distinctive for developing its own exhibits in-house, and its very active workshop is very visibly located right in the middle of the museum.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco, USA. Credit: Sunset Magazine

One of the things that is less visible about the Exploratorium is its very capable Visitor Research program, which is constantly assessing the impact and effectiveness of the many, many interactive exhibits. Over time, the Exploratorium has developed deep knowledge of how engage, entertain and educate visitors. This is one of the most important things I learned at my tenure there!

In addition to universities and museums, you can increasingly find creative technologists in large and small companies, usually attached to innovation and future marketing teams.

A Creative Technologist’s Superpowers

GP and his colleague in front of a LED wall they built

Unlike some other jobs, being a creative technologist requires awareness and experience across multiple areas. Here are some of them:

  • Research and innovation

    A key part of my daily work is keeping up with innovations in the field, and understanding how the team might use it. For example, I recently tried out a new feature in Adobe After Effects (a video editing program) that lets you automatically remove vehicles, people or other features from a video. I did some experiments to make sure I understood it, and then communicated the possibilities to the rest of my team.

  • Code

    Software development is often the core skill. In addition to typical programming languages like Javascript or Python, you also work with tools specific to audio, video and interactive development, such as Touch Designer, Max/MSP or Unity. Many of these tools allow you go from idea to prototype very quickly, and then continue to build it into a final system.

  • Electronics

    Building interactive experiences benefits from being able to offer new and different ways for uses to interact, and this means being able to connect different sensors and output mechanisms. Since these are often new and custom, a creative technologist needs to be able to conceptualise, design and build them. This requires a practical level of understanding of electronics. Knowing where to get parts is a key skill!

  • Fabrication

    Since the software and electronics are novel, chances are that physically building a piece will be challenging. There is any number of little clips and adapters that have to be built from scratch! A creative technologist is often familiar with different prototyping and building techniques. 3D printers and laser cutters are usually not far away!

  • Design

    Sometimes the best way to communicate what you are trying to achieve is by building it. It is important to understand that good design is not only about inventing something, but communicating it to others. Prototyping is essential for this!

  • User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI)

    While UX and UI important to all software design, they are key to the kinds of things creative technologists work on, since they refer to the user! In creative technology projects, the types of interaction you will design are often very different from a mouse or keyboard, or even a touchscreen.

  • Human interaction and experience

    At the end of the day, the projects a creative technologist work on are all about creating memorable experiences for people. By going beyond keyboard and screen to experiences that engage people with movement and all the senses, we have to have a good sense of what will work.

  • Teamwork

    Given the wide range of skills involved in creative technology, it’s nearly impossible to be an expert in all of them. Therefore, teamwork is essential. In my daily working life, I work with other creative technologists with complementary skills sets, as well as specialists in other domains.

There’s no typical day.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a typical day in creative technology – challenges and tasks often differ from week to week. So instead, here is a composite of the kinds of things my work might entail in the process of creating a project involving 15 different interactive installations, tied together with the use of a smart bracelet that guests could use to navigate them.

  • Meet with client, understand goals

    Creative technology is a customer-facing role. I listen to customers to understand what they are trying to achieve, and also proactively suggest possible ideas and experiences that might be relevant. Since we are often trying to do things that have never been done before, communicating ideas with renderings, drawings, prototypes and references is key.

  • Break down components

    Creative technology projects are rarely limited to a single domain, eg. web design, software, etc. There will often be multiple interconnected components, and these need to be identified. For example, we might need to identify a supplier for smart bracelets, sensors that could detect them, and simple computers and software.

  • Assess impact vs effort

    Based on the customers’ needs and a sense of what we need to do to address them, you need to establish a baseline of impact vs effort. It is important to focus efforts on those things that will maximum impact.

  • Design user experience

    When building physical experiences, it’s critical to keep in mind the reality of humans and their bodies. For example, designing wearable bracelet sensors and interactions forced us to consider things like the distance at which they would activate, where the sensors would be placed, and how long a user would need to hold their bracelet against a sensor to activate.

  • Make electronics

    As part of the project we wanted to have an LED ring light up to tell users where they could tap their bracelet, and if it had been successfully detected. In order to connect the LEDs to the Pi, we considered building our own interface board, but found a commercial product that fit our needs, so we bought that instead.

  • Design enclosure

    Since wearable detectors would be widely visible and customer facing, we needed to make them look polished. I worked on designing a sensor housing that combined laser-cut acrylic with a 3D printed cabinet, and also managed the process of getting everything made.

  • Program software

    I worked closely with other members of the team on software that would detect the bracelets, trigger LED patterns, and send messages to the software that managed the entire event.

  • Communicate with team

    A typical day involves constant communication with other team members, both in formal meetings and via informal channels such as Slack and coffee breaks.

Advice to young learners

If this sounds interesting, here are some important things to keep in mind.

  1. Focus on people

    At the end of the day, these experiences are being made for people and it’s critical to understand how it works for them. In addition to typical software UI principles, creative technologists need to understand the physical situation of a person, how and where they will approach the experience, who they are with and what they are expecting.

  2. Teamwork and communication

    Since creative technology involves so many different skills, it is very difficult (impossible?) to master all of them. Therefore, being able to work and communicate with a team is key, and a huge part of successful team working is communication. Never underestimate the value of drawing, rendering, prototyping and clear speaking!

  3. Innovation

    Since these are often very new projects, there has to be significant amount of research, innovation and prototyping. Don’t underestimate the value of play and undirected experimentation.

  4. Coding as a tool

    Writing programs is the key to pulling together many of these projects. However, don’t focus on software alone, consider interaction and other ways of connecting with the physical world. Robotics is a great way to explore this!

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This is part of a series Postcards from a Creative Coder – Dispatches from Silicon Valley; read more from GP, or check out our creative coding courses for curious kids.