The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City recently announced its first acquisition of an iPad app and its accompanying source code as part of its collection.

Smithsonian design collection acquires first piece of software code

on Sep 26, 13 • by Chris Bubinas • with No Comments

The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City recently announced its first acquisition of an iPad app and its accompanying source code as part of its collection...

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Software developers are constantly thinking about design when building applications, but they are no longer the only ones to consider code as an important arm of the design world. The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City recently announced its first acquisition of an iPad app and its accompanying source code as part of its collection. The app Planetary, which visualizes the music in a user’s library as celestial bodies, was recently added to the museum’s holdings, and its source code was openly released on August 27.

The app, built by San Francisco startup Bloom, was first released in 2011, and it has been downloaded more than 3.5 million times. Written in C++ using the Cinder framework, the app offers an alternative music player for the iPad.

“We have acquired Planetary both as an example of interaction design and interactive data visualization, but by acquiring its source code – including its changes between versions – we are also able to reveal the underlying design decisions made through its creation and evolution from its first public release in 2011 to the last public version of 2012,” Sebastian Chan, Cooper-Hewitt’s director of digital and emerging media, and Cooper-Hewitt senior engineer Aaron Cope wrote in a blog post.

Although code is a digital construction, design is still fundamental to the way it works, and navigating the reality of a world in which many important design artifacts are intangible, Cope told Smithsonian Magazine. When the renovated museum opens in 2014, visitors will be able to interact with the app on an iPad. But exploring the app’s design won’t just be confined to those who actually visit the museum: It will be made available online as open source code that anyone can download and modify.

Preserving code
The curators compared the model to a zoo helping with panda preservation, noting that the rapidly changing nature of technology hardware also introduces important implications for the longevity of code design. As tools such as iPads become obsolete, the question of how applications evolve is open-ended.

“Open sourcing the code is akin to a panda breeding program,” Cope and Chan wrote. “If there is enough interest then we believe that Planetary’s DNA will live on in other skin on other platforms. Of course we will preserve the original, but it will be ‘experienced’ through its offspring.”

With the precedent set for code as a design object, developers will certainly have reason to think of the design of their own work in new ways. While there is an artistic component to it, code design is often essential from a practical standpoint, and approaches such as peer code review can be valuable in building more elegant code. Developers can find inspiration in the institutionalization of the principles they are employing in their own projects as an iPad app’s code joins a national museum collection.

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