Making and Designing Art with Digital Technology


by Erin Riley -

Learning through making

Learning by doing, has been a cornerstone of progressive education with roots dating to the 18th century. In the United States, the Progressive Education movement, through the work of John Dewey, as well as other education philosophers like Jean Piaget, have advocated for learning through experience. Seymour Papert expanded this idea through his learning theory of Constructionism. People learn best through creating and sharing the things they make. Every time we make art, our material, whether it is clay, cardboard, or computer code, is used to form ideas and bring them into the world.

Art is the verb, the action, the making. Our materials are physical, digital, or both.


Hands making using physical and digital materials

Digital materials and possibilities for art

So what does a contemporary art studio look like today? How would progressive education advocates view the melding the digital tools with more traditional ones for making? With the enthusiasm around the maker movement, and its growing influence in education, an exciting opportunity awaits us to push through the increasingly porous boundaries around traditionally siloed disciplines. Building on the principles of progressive education, let’s equip our students with a tool set that brings minds together and offers them access to all forms of creative making. Digital fabrication machines developed for engineering and commercial design have direct applications in art and design in a studio setting. Let the making that happens in the art room employ the newest technology available, and fold the knowledge of tools and materials for art, into the discourse and advancement of ideas in making.

I recently came across a graphic timeline from artist Rama Hoetzlein charting a lineage from Fine Arts to contemporary forms in New Media Art. What is clear in this graphic is that with digital technology comes new tools for expressing ideas. If we were to expand this timeline to include engineering, computer science, and in general, STEM disciplines, we would see how cross-pollination has blurred the lines between discrete areas of study.

What is New Media Art

True to art

We are in a very exciting time where advances in technology have created a framework for interdisciplinary collaboration. More schools and organizations are in support of the idea of STEAM, and art has a voice in the larger discourse surrounding maker education. While we expand the materials available for making art, it’s important that we keep firm roots in what makes art a rich place for material exploration, idea generation, divergent thinking, and innovation.

Our role as teachers within STEAM initiatives, maker programs, and as interdisciplinary practitioners is not to decorate other’s projects. Instead, we should continue to bring what is essential and powerful about art into the work students do. Student voice is amplified when you expand the choices to include digital fabrication and creative technologies. Artists, with an intuitive understanding of how to use materials and aesthetic choices to communicate, have so much to contribute around conversations in making.

Materials are beautiful. An art studio is a rich source of colors and textures and raw materials for projects. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, brought fab labs to the mainstream and Stanford’s Transformative Learning Technologies Laboratory, headed by Paulo Blikstein, supports schools around the world as they build digital fabrication labs. In addition to the learning that happens from design to object creation, I see a rich opportunity in art programs to wed the knowledge of art materials with digital process, and I encourage all art teachers who have access to technology to consider how they might bring it to their studios.

Art students who haven’t been exposed to possibilities with technical tools can be introduced to artists, working in new forms, that challenge and inspire them to think differently about artmaking. We can equip our students with a new language for speaking about technologies in relation to their work that is true to our fundamental methods of how we teach art.                      

Digital to form                

Digital design mirrors physical design in many ways. Pixel painting in Photoshop can replicate many of the processes we use in the studio addressing brush style, paint opacity, layering. We can even take away digital information offering the push/pull responsiveness of physical material. Pixels are the painterly application of digital information and on screens, and in print, artists are liberated to color outside the lines.

Designing for digital fabrication, however, is a different process altogether which requires giving directions to machines and generating viable tool paths. Students have the opportunity to test their designs in the physical world through fabrication. Mistakes in measuring, scale, and transformations show up in the model that is output from the machine. Mistakes in set up translate to failed prints, machines cutting in the wrong place, or machines not working at all.

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Once artists learn the rules, and how to design for and control the machines, they can start looking for opportunities to use the machines and materials in new and inventive ways. Artists can carry on the same research and exploration that is central to artist practice with a new set of tools.

Drawing with an out-of-focus laser and melting 3D printed scraps

Design at the center

Enginartist? Creative Computationalist? Digifab Crafter? Regardless of how one identifies themselves as a creative maker, design is at the center of all forms in making. As students make, how are they to make sense of what they are discovering?

The Principles and Elements of Design, a structure outlined by Maitland Graves in his 1941 book, The Art of Color and Design, has provided a framework for formal design decisions that art programs employ today. These design rules branch into science and math. Color theory and optics guide decisions as to which colors to juxtapose for a given effect. Our eyes can be persuaded to see something new when our visual world is intentionally manipulated. In his geometric abstractions, Joseph Albers, showed us how color is relative. Henri Matisse, in his bold replacement of color for value, demonstrated that color itself isn’t the underlying fundamental, instead, light and shade are the most important visual cues for form. Today, game designers, using the science of color can use procedural design to program color palettes in their virtual worlds.

Design rules dictate how we use space in compositions. Entire worlds can be built using cartesian coordinates, bringing a representation of 3-dimensions onto a flat plane. M.C. Escher used isometric projection to create illusions and spaces that appear to fold in on each other using this mathematical gridding system. Impossible objects can be found in the digital world through puzzle games like Monument Valley.

Michel-Eugène Chevreul color wheel

Josef Albers

M.C. Escher Ascending and Descending

Monument Valley Game

It’s no surprise that art has been cross-pollinating with STEM disciplines throughout time. Much has been written about a Renaissance approach in support of STEAM initiatives and as the field of art continues to expand, it seems fitting that artists look to the design processes used in engineering, architecture, and commercial design to inform their process.  

However, sometimes artists want less control in their process, choosing instead to see what unfolds, free from the pressure of finding a solution. Serendipity plays a role as the designer engages in “misthetics,” pulling beauty out of mistakes or random actions. Artists have found ways to use technology as active partners in random designing through programming algorithms with a set of parameters while letting the machine generate the art. The artist pulls out the best solution from what is generated. Similarly, data bending by modifying image text creates corrupted information within digital files, giving rise to glitch art. Even high-tech approaches to making can introduce an element of chance much like automatism did for Surrealist artists in the early 20th century.

Surrealist automatism drawing André Masson

Kinematics dress

Rosa Menkman Glitch Art

Computer as an expressive tool

Since computers have come into existence, artists have been finding creative applications for their use. We can be inspired by exciting work in digital technology and build upon the pedagogies that put children at the center of their learning.

Logo, a programming language developed by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Soloman, brought design ideas to digital graphics or into the physical world through pen marks using the LogoTurtle drawing robot. Papert, in his vision for computers to unlock the curiosity and creative potential in our youth, paved the way for educators in art to adopt digital tools for creation.

Papert Logo Turtle

Logo Turtle from Josh Burker, Brian Silverman, and Erik Nauman

There are many artists we can look to for inspiration. We can collect examples of artists working in a digital frontier like Artist Vera Molnár, who brings digital to form through algorithmic design and plotter drawing, to artists, who like Papert, create tools for creative making. Casey Reas, is an example of this, whose installations, prints and software have inspired a new wave of creative technologists. Through the development of Processing, with co-creator Ben Fry, artists have a user-friendly environment for exploring new media art and visual design.

Vera Molnár squares

Database for Casey REAS


Let’s give our creative youth technical skills in design, programming, and digital fabrication to open up whole worlds of knowledge that they can apply to their art practice and scholarship. While we look for ways to engage students, we can shine a spotlight on the power art has to spark interest within us. Students are motivated to learn anything that comes their way, if it is towards making something they love.    






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