TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Oct 01 Book Review

Volume Number: 17 (2001)
Issue Number: 10
Column Tag: Book Review

Design By Numbers

Author: John Maeda

Introduction

Design by Numbers is a unique book which takes a visual approach to teaching programming. It is written by John Maeda who is director of the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT (http://acg.media.mit.edu). The book uses a freely downloadable, purpose designed programming language by the same name, DBN for short, downloadable from http://dbn.media.mit.edu. Maeda aims to introduce the concepts of computer programming in a language designed to engage the reader visually. In the first chapter, Maeda states that many people using graphic design tools confuse knowledge and skills. As using the mouse does not require refined motor skills of the traditional arts, using digital design tools has become a matter of memorizing the capabilities and sequences of interaction of these tools. Maeda argues that this use of digital design tools relies on knowledge and is not skill. He then claims that true skill in digital design is in the art of computer programming. Throughout the book this idea surfaces in many forms. Maeda clearly is critical of the unquestioning use of pre-packaged digital tools and the use of the computer to imitate traditional media rather than to explore the computer’s own strengths in visual expression. By contrast, Maeda explores a computational aesthetic in which visual expression and code are tightly coupled. An aesthetic that is appropriate to the digital medium, that fully exploits its true character, and that could not be realized in other media.

Computing & The Arts

Apart from the explanation in the preface and the first chapter by the author himself, there is an interesting foreword by Paola Antonelli, associate curator of the Museum of Modern Art. in which a historical overview of the computer as a creative medium is given. Antonelli tells about how the computer received criticism for changing not only the end result but also the process in art and graphic design. Opponents of the computer in this area criticized the cut and paste habits afforded by the computer and claimed these would lead to trial and error approaches to design at the cost of self-discipline, rigour and strong leading ideas. Antonelli’s comparisons with industrial design and the Arts & Crafts movement are fascinating, but probably a bit too dense to be understandable to those without a design background or interest.

Presentation

The book is beautifully presented in a minimal way using grey tones only. Each chapter starts with interesting illustration, obviously the result of taking the ideas behind DBN to a less restricted programming environment. Using a minimal amount of theory and a great many examples, Mr Maeda takes the reader by the hand and guides him along in a crystal-clear explanation. It is amazing to see how Maeda takes his time and space to explain the advantages of programming concepts such as variables and loops by first showing what the code would look like without these concepts. Maeda takes great care to use small steps so as not to lose his audience. Each example he gives is a fully working program, the use of code snippets is avoided.

Application

There are two versions of the DBN program: an online version which runs within a browser and a standalone local version. Both versions are Java-based. Apart from its suitability for teaching web-based courses, the online version should offer network interactivity. However, I could not get the network features to work, at least not with Mac OS 9.1 and MRJ 2.2.4. Since the online version lacks easy saving, opening and printing of code, the rest of this discussion applies to the standalone version (Figure 1). The left hand side of the DBN window is reserved for a 101x101 pixels grid for visual output called the paper, the right hand side is formed by a text pane for entering and editing code. Six clear buttons — play. stop, open, save, print and beautify — are positioned above the paper. Pushing the beautify button gives the code the proper indentation à la Macromedia Director, making it easier to read. A status bar above the program editing area displays compilation errors and button functionality on roll over. It is a joy to see a program which only offers the bare essentials, yet so much fun.


Figure 1.

On a more critical note, the interface proved to be a bit quirky. The menu structure won’t win any prizes for adhering to Apple’s human interface guidelines. There are two Quit items: one in the Apple menu and one in the DBN menu. The About item in the Apple menu does not activate an about box. There is no File menu as all file related functionality is accessed through the buttons in the window. Though keyboard cut and paste is available, there is no Edit menu. The text editor sometimes goes haywire with the shift key making the cursor jump to the first line of code. Quitting and relaunching corrected the problem.

Another little annoyance is that I could not tell you which version I have worked with. A Get Info in the Finder gives Version n/a. As previously mentioned the About command does not do anything. What makes things worse is that there appear to be two different self extracting archives of DBN for Macintosh floating around the DBN website: a dbn-000114.sea (Fri, Jan 14 2000, 2:58PM) and a dbn.sea (Fri, Nov 17 2000, 12.06AM). While these should just differ in compression (BinHex vs. MacBinary) they in fact result in different executables. The latter has an extra DBN menu with a Save as QuickTime movie menu command. More importantly, it does not run DBN code properly, at least not with MacOS 9.1 and MRJ 2.2.4. Strangely enough, the creation dates of the executables within these archives are the same: Tue, Jan 11, 2000, 10.44 PM. I would recommend that you stay with the dbn-000114.sea archive.

The DBN Language

One of the first things you notice when working with DBN code is the importance of the number 100. The horizontal and vertical dimensions of the paper run from 0 to 100, not from 0 to 99 or from 1 to 100. The greyscales do not run from 0 to 255 but from 0 (white) to 100 (black). For the keyboard and the mouse button 0 stands for up and 100 for down.

In the first four chapters Maeda introduces paper (background grey tone), pen (foreground grey tone) and line. In chapter five and six he uses these building blocks to illustrate the use of variables (more flexible line drawing) and repeats (filled and shaded geometric shapes). Chapter seven is dedicated to the operators addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. These operators too are explained in terms of greater flexibility in moving and shading graphical elements. Chapters 8 and 9 introduce the dot: setting a single pixel. The visual possibilities increase again. Single pixels give the user ‘photographic’ bitmaps, curve drawing, shading along the length of a line etc.

With all the graphical building blocks explained, Maeda uses the second half of the book to introduce more advanced topics. Chapter 10 to 12 tackle nested repeats, questions (conditionals) and commands (subroutines). In visual terms this functionality makes possible things such as shapes that are repeated yet variated, dividing the paper into separate areas, and graphic stamps which can be drawn anywhere on the paper. Chapter 13 to 16 introduce animation, mouse interaction and keyboard interaction. Maeda emphasizes that though you can use the mouse to paint and the keyboard to type letters, other unexpectedly aesthetic couplings are possible. The previously mentioned net memory functionality which I could not get to work on the Mac is discussed in Chapter 17. Chapter 18 ‘Time’ is a bit of a hodge-podge of geometrical transformations, filtering, graphical clocks, and life simulations. Finally, chapter 20 ‘Numbers’ ends with some maths such as distances, functions and random numbers. Unfortunately this last chapter does not have — at least for me — the feel of visual discovery of its predecessors.

Once I had worked my way through the book I realized that though the DBN language may be a bit primitive it contains everything that is needed to experiment with interactive graphics (To give you a flavour of what the language is like Listing 1 and Figure 2 show two of my personal favourites). Things that normally take a while to set up are directly accessible here: animation, mouse and keyboard interactivity. Since the mouse co-ordinate system and the graphics co-ordinate system coincide there is no conversion hassle. The code and your output are visible at the same time: you can inspect your code while looking at the visual result. The DBN ‘environment’ itself is so basic that there is no setting up to do. No multi-layered preference box here. In fact there are no preference settings. You have no choice but to get to work.

Listing 1: Leaving a trail

This program shows a trail of your mouse movements. It uses the bottom line of the paper as an array to store a history of mouse locations. Note the syntax for mouse locations.

Page 182, second column

Paper 100
Pen 50

// Draw a line in 50% grey at the bottom of the paper
Line 0 0 100 0

forever
{
   // Store the current mouse co-ordinates
   Set H <Mouse 1>
   Set V <Mouse 2>

   // Fill the paper - apart from the bottom line -
   // with black. The bottom line is used as an array.
   Field 0 1 100 100 100

   // Shift history over
   // P, P1, P2, P3 are variables

   // Repeat 5 times
   Repeat N 0 4
   {
      Set P (N*2)
      Set P1 (P+1)
      Set P2 (P+2)
      Set P3 (P+3)

      Set [P 0] [P2 0]
      Set [P1 0] [P3 0]
   }

   // A stroke of 20 pixels at the bottom
   // cannot be drawn to.
   Smaller? V 20
   {
      Set V 20
   }

   // [10 0] holds the new horizontal mouse co-ordinate,
   // [11 0] holds the new vertical mouse co-ordinate.
   Set [10 0] H
   Set [11 0] V

   // [0 0] holds the previous horizontal mouse co-ordinate,
   // [1 0] holds the previous vertical mouse co-ordinate.
   Set H [0 0]
   Set V [1 0]

   // Repeat 5 times
   // We walk the bottom row of pixels,
   // drawing lines from one co-ordinate pair to another.

   Repeat N 1 5
   {
      Set P (N*2)
      Set P1 (P+1)

      // The further in the repeat loop
      // the lighter the shade of grey.
      Pen (100/N)

      // Draw a line from one co-ordinate pair to another.
      Line H V [P 0] [P1 0]

      Set H [P 0]
      Set V [P1 0]
   }
}


Figure 2. Keyboard Flares (page 192, second column). Pressing the keys of the alphabet draws increasingly bright lines. Note the syntax for reading the keyboard.

What’s in it for You?

According to Maeda’s preface, he intends to address those people ‘who were too late for the computer design boom, those who hated the computer when it began to take control, or those who have just begun to take on the computer’. Maeda also says he wrote it for the mathematically challenged and that the language was ‘specifically designed for visual people — artists, designers or anyone who can pick up a pencil and doodle’. However, I feel that here Maeda is either too modest, or afraid to offend programming professionals. This book could indeed serve as a different approach to learning programming for complete newbies, or as an interesting ‘look behind the scene’ for graphic designers. But I think DBN’s use extends beyond programming newbies into the world of programming professionals. For those unfamiliar with interactive graphics programming it may form an interesting introduction to the subject. And even for experienced graphics programmers there may be something in DBN: DBN’s simplicity allows one to concentrate and explore a basic idea without being hampered by stubborn tools. It does not take clairvoyance to see that truly interactive graphics — witness OS X’s dock — will become increasingly important.

I found Mr Maeda’s book challenges the way I think about interactive graphics. I do get excited about trying to port some of these idea to a different language. And if nothing else, if so far you’ve failed to explain to your mum and dad what work you do, this book may be your only hope to give them a glimpse of what programming is about.

Bibliography and References

  • Maeda, John (1999). Design by numbers. The MIT Press, MA: Cambridge. ISBN 0-262-13354-7.
  • Aesthetics & Computation Group website:
    acg.media.mit.edu
  • DBN website:
    dbn.media.mit.edu.


    Tom Djajadiningrat does interaction design research and teaching at the ID-StudioLab of Delft University of Technology. You can reach him at J.P.Djajadiningrat@io.tudelft.nl.
 
AAPL
$100.96
Apple Inc.
-0.83
MSFT
$47.52
Microsoft Corpora
+0.84
GOOG
$596.08
Google Inc.
+6.81

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Airfoil 4.8.9 - Send audio from any app...
Airfoil allows you to send any audio to AirPort Express units, Apple TVs, and even other Macs and PCs, all in sync! It's your audio - everywhere. With Airfoil you can take audio from any... Read more
WhatRoute 1.13.0 - Geographically trace...
WhatRoute is designed to find the names of all the routers an IP packet passes through on its way from your Mac to a destination host. It also measures the round-trip time from your Mac to the... Read more
Chromium 37.0.2062.122 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. FreeSMUG-Free OpenSource Mac User Group build is... Read more
Attachment Tamer 3.1.14b9 - Take control...
Attachment Tamer gives you control over attachment handling in Apple Mail. It fixes the most annoying Apple Mail flaws, ensures compatibility with other email software, and allows you to set up how... Read more
Duplicate Annihilator 5.0 - Find and del...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator detects... Read more
jAlbum Pro 12.2 - Organize your digital...
jAlbum Pro has all the features you love in jAlbum, but comes with a commercial license. With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code!... Read more
jAlbum 12.2 - Create custom photo galler...
With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code! Beginner-friendly, with pro results Simply drag and drop photos into groups, choose a design... Read more
Quicken 2015 2.0.4 - Complete personal f...
Quicken 2015 helps you manage all your personal finances in one place, so you can see where you're spending and where you can save. Quicken automatically categorizes your financial transactions,... Read more
iMazing 1.0 - Complete iOS device manage...
iMazing (formerly DiskAid) is the ultimate iOS device manager with capabilities far beyond what iTunes offers. With iMazing and your iOS device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod), you can: Copy music to and... Read more
Xcode 6.0.1 - Integrated development env...
Apple Xcode is Apple Computer's integrated development environment (IDE) for OS X. The full Xcode package is free to ADC members and includes all the tools you need to create, debug, and optimize... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

View Source – HTML, JavaScript and CSS...
View Source – HTML, JavaScript and CSS 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Utilities Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: View Source is an app plus an iOS 8 Safari extension that makes it easy to do one key web developer... | Read more »
Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King: De...
Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King: Deathbat is Coming to iOS on October 16th Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Just in time for Halloween, on October 16 Avenged Sevenfold will be launching | Read more »
Talisman Has Gone Universal – Can Now be...
Talisman Has Gone Universal – Can Now be Played on the iPhone Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Tap Army Review
Tap Army Review By Jennifer Allen on September 19th, 2014 Our Rating: :: SHOOT EM ALLUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mindless but fun, Tap Army is a lane-based shooter that should help you relieve some stress.   | Read more »
Monsters! Volcanoes! Loot! Epic Island f...
Monsters! Volcanoes! Loot! | Read more »
Plunder Pirates: Tips, Tricks, Strategie...
Ahoy There, Seadogs: Interested in knowing our thoughts on all this plundering and pirating? Check out our Plunder Pirates Review! Have you just downloaded the rather enjoyable pirate-em-up Plunder Pirates and are in need of some assistance? Never... | Read more »
Goat Simulator Review
Goat Simulator Review By Lee Hamlet on September 19th, 2014 Our Rating: :: THE GRUFFEST OF BILLY GOATSUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Unleash chaos as a grumpy goat in this humorous but short-lived casual game.   | Read more »
A New and Improved Wunderlist is Here fo...
A New and Improved Wunderlist is Here for iOS 8 Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Evernote Update for iOS 8 Adds Web Clipp...
Evernote Update for iOS 8 Adds Web Clipping, Quick Notes, and More Posted by Ellis Spice on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Apple Names Ultimate Productivity Bundl...
Apple Names Ultimate Productivity Bundle by Readdle as the Essential Bundle on the App Store Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Updated Price Trackers
We’ve updated our Mac Price Trackers with the latest information on prices, bundles, and availability on systems from Apple’s authorized internet/catalog resellers: - 15″ MacBook Pros - 13″ MacBook... Read more
Mac Pros available for up to $260 off MSRP
Adorama has Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ only: - 4-core Mac Pro: $2839.99, $160 off MSRP - 6-core Mac Pro: $3739.99, $260... Read more
13-inch 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pros avai...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1379 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP. Read more
Previous-generation 15-inch 2.0GHz Retina Mac...
B&H Photo has leftover previous-generation 15″ 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pros now available for $1599 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $400 off original MSRP. B&H... Read more
21″ 2.7GHz iMac available for $1179, save $12...
Adorama has 21″ 2.7GHz Hawell iMacs on sale for $1179.99 including free shipping. Their price is $120 off MSRP. NY and NJ sales tax only. Read more
iOS 8 Adoption Rate Slower than iOS 7, 6, Hit...
Apple began pushing out iOS 8 updates to eligible devices around 1pm ET on September 17, 2014. However, unlike with iOS 7, which boasted a wide variety of differences from its predecessor iOS 6, in... Read more
LIkely Final Definitive OS X 10.9.5 Mavericks...
Apple has released what will almost certainly be the last incremental version number update of OS X 10.9 Mavericks (save for futire security updates) before OS X 10.10 Yosemite is released next month... Read more
Fingerprints, Apple Pay and Identity Theft Wa...
On Sep 9th, CEO Tim Cook unveiled Apple Pay, along with the new iPhone 6 and iWatch. Apple Pay is a newly developed technology that utilizes a near field communication (NFC) to enable customer... Read more
Amazon Introduces Two All-New Kindles
Amazon on Thursday introduced the 7th generation of its Kindle dedicated e-reader device: Kindle Voyage, its top-of-the-line e-reader, and the new $79 Kindle, with a 20% faster processor, twice the... Read more
Save up to $300 on the price of a new Mac wit...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad at The Apple Store for Education and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free,... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Project Manager, *Apple* Financial Services...
**Job Summary** Apple Financial Services (AFS) offers consumers, businesses and educational institutions ways to finance Apple purchases. We work with national and Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.