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Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers

by Casey Reas and Ben Fry
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 2007
736 pp., illus. 36 col. Trade, $43 USD
ISBN: 0-262-18262-1.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


Why did we have to wait so long for this marvellous gem? It is, indeed, rare to find a technical book of such clarity and insight and especially so in books concerning computer programming. I’ve grappled with many programming books over the years in an effort to teach myself programming and none come close to Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists. Casey Reas and Ben Fry are to be congratulated on two counts. Firstly, for writing this 710 page comprehensive book, and secondly for producing the associated open-source programming language software, also called Processing, which is a companion to the book so to speak.

The reader is directed on page nine to go to the Processing web site (www.processing.org/download) to download the software. After so many frustrating attempts in the past to download so-called, free software, I approached the web with intrepidation and cynicism. I thought at this stage, doesn’t matter how good the book is, if the software is hard to obtain and install it will be pretty much useless. My fears were completely unfounded. Within 15 minutes I had downloaded the 32 megabyte package for Windows (it is available for Mac and Linux as well), and installed it effortlessly. After a further 10 minutes I had my first program, as per instructions in the book, up and running.

The Processing language was written specifically for visual artists and designers whether they be interested in producing still images, animation or interactivity using their own programming efforts, rather than relying on commercially available software applications. For those artists who use computers in their work and like to have control at a fundamental level this book will be a revelation and worth every cent it costs. I was stunned at how few lines of code are required to produce complex images, one such example is a colour wheel. The software comes loaded with numerous examples of what can be achieved with Processing using existing modules of code.

Processing was created in the spirit of the open-source software movement, which not only results in free programs but also encourages social networking and users to play and experiment. For the few who do not know what open-source is (you must have been holidaying on Mars for the past 10 years) do a search on the net and be prepared to be amazed. Artists need to be mindful not to forsake their final artistic creations in the wake of becoming absorbed or obsessed in writing code. This can quite easily happen in the arduous and lengthy task of learning the more complex languages such as C++. Processing gets results fast, seems to be naturally intuitive and due to Reas and Fry’s brilliance, easy to learn.

As the back cover states, "Tutorial units make up the bulk of the book and introduce the syntax and concepts of software (including variables, functions, and object-oriented programming)". "More advanced professional projects from such domains as animation, performance, and typography are discussed in interviews with their creators". For artists interested in creating programs that run devices in an artistic installation there is an introductory section on electronics (Extension 8, pp. 633- 659) which provides enough basic knowledge to get you started in microcontrollers, basic robotics and sensors to control motion, sound and lighting. This section includes examples of code and types of controllers to purchase. There are chapters specifically on mobile software applications, networking, creating 3D applications, printing and of great importance to my own work, high-resolution file exporting.

This book is so well thought out and referenced it is quite astonishing. For example, there is a general Index and a Code Index. Numerous Appendices cover such basic, though important topics as, code comparisons, reserved code words and programming languages. There is even a table of contents, then a Contents by Category and further, an Extended Contents section. These sections enable the reader to quickly find exactly what they are looking for without ploughing through the whole book sequentially. Processing has numerous illustrations both black & white and colour. The smaller images accompany examples of code-text to illustrate what the code produces on the screen, larger images are examples of actual art produced using more extensive modules of code by a variety of artists.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, all I wish is that it was written 10 years ago. I’m sure, like me, many artists who have wanted to experiment with computer control and programming for artistic projects have been frustrated to the limit by poorly written, obscurely referenced and inappropriate programming books and languages. This book remedies all this and is even very reasonably priced. All I can say to Casey Reas and Ben Fry is — Thank you.



Updated 1st December 2007

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