Helping Creative People Create

Creative Code: 14 Ways to Learn From Creative Programmers

how to thin like a programmer and become more creative
Photo by morganglines

If programming is your bag, you might check out my other blog Web Jackalope for creative web development and design articles.

The common stereotype for programmers is this: nerdy, pocket-protector wielding, and very, very boring. One doesn’t typically link a programmer as a creative individual. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Working with code is one of the most creative jobs one can have. Programmers have to balance two very different worlds: a world of structure and a world of imagination. They create abstract concepts using very structured programming languages (like PHP or Java). It’s not an easy task.

I only know this because I’ve recently been brushing up on a bit of my PHP skills building some interesting Web sites (I’ll keep you all posted, don’t worry). I’ve found that programming is actually a great exercise in creativity. Here are a couple reasons why:

  • Programming gives ultimate control. Creating something from nothing is possibly the best example of creativity. The ultimate control over software or web site that a programmer has is perfect for taking the application to any direction that they wish.
  • Many ways to do one thing. Programmers have to essentially build a framework for the web site. They’re laying the foundation for something that, up until that point, is just an idea. The programmer uses a wide palate of tools and methods to find

Programmers have to find creative solutions or else they can’t create.

Programmers are a great example of thinking outside the box because, well… programmers can actually create the box. Here are some of the ways that we can learn from programmers on how to boost our creativity.

1. Learn a new language

Programmers are constantly learning new languages, either for fun or necessity. Don’t limit yourself to what just what you know and are comfortable with. Branch out and learn a new skill.

2. Start from the ground up

If you’re going to write software, you can’t just start halfway through the project. You have to start at square one. Sometimes this is the best way to find a creative solution for a problem is to go back to the beginning and work forward.

3. Question everything

Questioning everything means taking every assumption and making sure it’s correct. All programming starts with making the most basic assumptions, and then building on those basic assumptions. If something is wrong with the code at the base, then the software isn’t going to work well at all.

Sometimes creativity is limited by assumptions. New solutions arrive when we tear down assumptions and start with fresh perspectives.

4. Do it for fun

If you know any programmers, they’re constantly building something. Even when they’re done for the day on work-related projects, they’ll spend hours of time working on fun projects for themselves. Their work is also their hobby.

Continually mulling over new ideas and solutions is something that shouldn’t be a chore. It should be something that you find yourself doing constantly, like a reflex. And it should excite you.

5. Never stop testing ideas

Programmers are constantly benchmarking code to make sure that it’s as efficient as possible. Even the smallest change can bring a program or Web site to it’s knees, so constant testing and improvement is important to any bit of software.

Ideas should be tested rigorously and refined on a consistent basis. Your ideas will change over time, it just depends how much. Constantly evaluating them and just plain thinking them through is a great way to “benchmark” your idea.

6. Find a passion


Photo by Marco Wessel
If you’ve ever spent more than two minutes talking with a programmer about his work, you’ll find out very quickly that programmers have a passion for what they do. They eat, sleep and breathe programming.

Do you have a passion for your ideas and projects?

7. Master your tools

Programmers constantly improve their knowledge and usage of their tools. A great coder keeps tabs on software and is constantly finding ways to improve his usage of them. You’ll seldom find a programmer who doesn’t tweak his toolbox regularly.

No matter what your skill set, you’re limited to your skill with the tools you use to create. The more of an expert you are with your tools, the more you’ll be able to create.

8. Start making abstract associations

The people behind projects like Skype, Google Docs and Twitter all have one thing in common: They fused seemingly abstract concepts together. Taking what-ifs and testing them is a great way to start thinking of things in a different, more creative light.

9. Think of structure as a tool, not a limitation

People associate creativity with taking a giant, blank canvas and letting our ideas flow without any sort of limiting structures. However, there’s a huge problem with this type of thinking: It’s a great big creativity myth.

See, limitations are everywhere. We can’t avoid them, we can only hope to work with them. A programmer embraces the limitations of his programming language or tools and works around them. These limitations help him as they make a foundation to work from. Sometimes discovering a new workaround will lead to an even bigger idea. Necessity is the mother of invention.

10. Don’t rule anything out until you try it.

Your kindergarten teacher was right: There is no such thing as a stupid question. If you’re adhering to #3 and dismissing all assumptions, you can’t be certain it’s not going to work until you’ve tested it. How do you know it won’t work unless you try it? You might be surprised. Even if the proposed solution doesn’t work, it may help you find a solution.

Sometimes it’s just best to start with a prototype and try it out. If your prototype doesn’t work, then trash it. If it does, you’ll have stumbled upon something that just might work.

11. Always look for a simpler and more elegant solution.

A good programmer is one that understands that finding the simplest solution is always going to be better. Complicated solutions lead to… complications. A practical approach to programming always works best in the long run.

Our ideas sometimes become too complicated. We get caught up in the novelty of the idea that we ignore how practical it really is. The simplest way to solve a problem is often the best way to solve a problem.

12. Don’t be afraid to build off the code of others.

The beauty of the Internet is that the solution your looking for has probably already been done by someone else. When building a new site I almost always use pre-existing open source code. Why recreate the wheel?

Putting a great idea into motion doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch to create it. Use existing ideas and turn them in to something better. Sometimes a great idea is only modifying something that’s already been done. Gmail is a great example. They “reinvented” email by adding useful features to traditional email.

13. Don’t be afraid to collaborate.

Some of the best coding — or any creative projects for that matter — are done not just by one coder but by many excellent people inspired to work toward the same goal. Assemble a great team, use the most brilliant ideas no matter who they come from, and let everyone contribute.

14. From the very basic, create the beautiful.

Programmers often use some very basic code over and over, and while those small bits of programming language aren’t necessarily beautiful in and of themselves, they can come together to create a final product that is amazing. No matter what creative project you’re working on, pay attention to the details, but most especially pay attention to the effect those details have on the overall picture.

If you liked this post, check out my new blog on web development, Web Jackalope (feed).

Post helped along by some ideas and brainstorming from Leo Babauta of Zenhabits. Thanks Leo!

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