Hacking away at San Francisco's Freespace, a pop-up space for artists, designers, developers and other creatives.
I've been spending a lot of time at hackathons lately. It's not a surprise; here in the Bay Area, hackathons and coding sessions are a way of life, a social scene as common as a cocktail party in New York. The idea is what it sounds like: a bunch of people come together and "hack" on a project. It can be a group project or an individual project, something you've been working on for a while or something you're starting. And it's an idea I've seen come to life in creative communities across the globe, in places like Shanghai, Kampala and Manila.
The "-athon" suffix is appropriate: As in a marathon, simply doing an activity with others is a lot more fun than coding alone, even when you're aiming for your personal best. And having people with different skill sets and energy levels around you provides an additional motivating force. Don't know much about the Natural Language Toolkit? Someone probably knows. And in return, you can share your experience with Wordpress libraries.
One of the many rooms for hacking at the California Academy of Sciences.
I recently spoke with Ariel Waldman, who organized the most recent Science Hack Day at the California Academy of Sciences. Waldman, a designer herself, felt it was important to encourage more people to engage with science. This year's event included skills workshops, a planetarium show, star gazing, access to lots and lots of tools like 3D printers and LEAP detectors, and a chance to sleep over at the museum next to the shark tanks.
"With hackathons in general, the thrill of knowing you can make in such a short amount of time is exciting," noted Waldman when I spoke with her the phone. "I think with Science Hack Day, it's a place where people can play w things they don't normally play with. It adds to the excitement of what you can prototype."Indeed, Waldman broke down attendance to about 33% developers, 20% scientists, 20% designers/artists and a remainder from other professions. Unlike many hackathons in San Francisco, which (for better or for worse) tend to draw a repeat crowd, a larger number of attendees at Science Hack Day were new to the process. And that couldn't have been better news.
"The importance of hacking science is twofold," she noted. "It's not only about getting people who don't normally do anything in science. Scientists realize that theres a lot that comes from collaborating with different types of people who might not know anything about your area of expertise."
This sentiment was echoed by Kyle Stewart, one of the co-founders of freespace, an open art and hacking space in San Francisco's SOMA district. Freespace began as precisely that: a free space for anyone in the city to use, especially for creative projects and uses of technology.
"One of the principles we work with is the idea of 'do-ocracy' or adhocracy," noted Stewart. "The way that people become involved in the space is by becoming involved in the space. Doing something, volunteering, bringing in some art, anything's possible so you just come in and make something, open social. There's a lot of ways to plug into the community."
This collective spirit was in full effect during last month's Super Happy Dev House, a chaotic, busy day of development and hacking. Freespace was buzzing with energy when I stopped by to visit. Laptop cords were strewn around tables as ad hoc teams worked on different projects and individuals brought their own to work on in the communal environment. It was less structured than Science Hack Day but it had the same esprit de corps of collaboration and hacking.
Do designers need to code? It's almost a given now that most designers are at least comfortable with front-end development. But learning to work with data and create functional scripts for sophisticated back-end work doesn't seem totally necessary. Some have argued that this is a waste of time, and it's a point well-taken: Why spend all of your time and energy learning complex code when you could collaborate more effectively with an engineer?
Working in the field—or anywhere, really—requires ingenuity and an ability to develop quick prototypes and ideas. Hackathons like Science Hack Day and Super Happy Dev House provide designers with an opportunity to flex their development skills and pick up new ones on the fly. During Science Hack Day, I learned a lot about facial recognition technology and the open computer vision libraries available for Python. I don't have any immediate need for this library, but having worked with it now, I can feel comfortable working with it again in the future. And more importantly, I know I can figure out foreign libraries again in the future.
The point of this article is not to export a Bay Area phenomenon (as I mentioned earlier, I've seen hackathons happening with just as much excitement in New York, Shanghai and Kampala). Rather, I want to offer a case for coding that has less to do with the practical realities of day to day design and more to do with learning new ways to engage with the objects and interfaces we design for—software, 3D printing, mobile apps, etc.—through play and fun.
An Xiao Mina is an American designer strategist and researcher who recently worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale's Un-Named Design exhibition. She focuses on the role of social media and communications technologies in building communities and empowering individuals. Find her on Twitter here.