The Nature of Code: Dan Shiffman

Curator: Fathom Information Design
date: November 27, 2012
Categories: Book & Magazine Design
Photo by Daniel Shiffman
The print version of The Nature of Code is due out in December 2012. (Book cover by David Wilson)

Today, Katy Harris covers a project two years in the making: Dan Shiffman’s The Nature of Code Book Project. It’s more than a well designed and executed book—it’s also a blend of design, self-publishing and teaching we find innovative and exciting.

The project asked the questions: "Can we capture the unpredictable evolutionary and emergent properties of nature in software? Can understanding the mathematical principles behind our physical world world help us to create digital worlds?"

Shiffman’s project began as a Kickstarter campaign, where he introduced an idea that had been slowly evolving in his mind over several years of teaching at ITP, a graduate program housed within the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.

The campaign was a huge success, raising $25K more than originally intended, and Shiffman teamed up with illustrator Zannah Marsh, designer David Wilson and editor Shannon Fry to begin work. From the beginning, however, this was not a typical book project. The intent was to produce a teaching tool that was flexible and built with open source software—one that could be distributed in very customizable ways across a variety of platforms.

When buying, you are invited to specify just how much you want to spend, and if any portion should be donated to Shiffman’s non-profit, the Processing Foundation. (Site design Steve Klise)

Each chapter contains a combination of illustration, written examples and sample code. (Site design by Steve Klise)

Before the content even existed, Shiffman released much of the book’s sample code online under a Creative Commons license. He then posted each chapter online as he wrote it, inviting feedback as he went along.

As more of the book accumulated, readers could choose to buy a PDF of the book in draft form (with updates included) months before it was due to be released, or wait and buy the final print version.

As The Nature of Code nears its print publication date, it is already a powerful teaching tool not only for programming, but for basic math and physics, walking readers patiently through fundamental concepts in the physical world—gravity, friction, forces, collision—and building toward more sophisticated ones like cell growth, fractals and neural networks.

The project is a great starting point for us as designers, as we are always looking for new ways of bringing organic and human qualities into generative design. More importantly, it demonstrates that alternative models of authorship—mixing crowdfunding, open source content and flexible distribution options—can be successful.

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