How Processing And P5 Got Newbies Into Coding

What the creators of Processing — now 20 years old — did right

Clive Thompson
7 min readNov 21, 2021

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Two weeks ago I posted a little web toy I’d made —a machine for doodling using a line that only turns in right angles. I made it using P5, which is one of my favorite coding languages, because it’s created explicitly for the purpose of making creative, artsy stuff.

I’m a hobbyist coder. Half the time when I write software it’s for a “productive” purpose — like creating web scrapers for my journalism.

But the other half of the time? I’m just … screwing around. I make odd creative projects, like poetry-generation bots or little procedural animations (like that one above), or tools for visualizing the world in curious ways (like my punctuation-remover app). I’m not being “productive”; I’m having fun, using code to create art that employs the alien qualities of the machine: Its ability to be utterly precise, and to repeat things over and over to an extent that humans would find numbing. Honestly, this weirdo creative coding brings me as much joy — maybe even more — than when I write scripts to do something practical and work-based.

To “create artsy stuff with code”, though, it really helps to have a language that was designed specifically for the purpose of “creating artsy stuff with code”.

And that is why Processing and P5 — the version of Processing made for Javascript and the web — rock. They’re languages created specifically for doing “creative coding”, and making stuff with art.

Because Processing was first created 20 years ago, eye on design recently did a very cool oral history of how it, and P5, came to be. (Part one is here; part two is here.)

It’s worth reading the whole thing, but it’s a great example of a successful big-tent approach to computer programming — one that invites in as many people as possible.

There are a number of things the folks behind Processing and P5 did right, such as …

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net