1. Machine intelligence Signals the next wave of creative tools

The history of digital creative tools is aligned closely to the history of consumer tech innovation. Key developments in graphics processing, high-speed internet, and portable devices have shaped “waves” in creative tooling. A growing adoption of machine intelligence technologies suggest the next wave in digital creative tools is arriving.

Art, life, tools

What drives creative change? Fuels creative movements, and inspires creative action?

Art history documents civilization as a sequence of creative periods, framed against matters of the social and the cultural. As a study, it examines the deep relationship of influence between creative works and their historic contexts, and triggers a long-debated question over which influences the other. As early as Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks, creation is cited as an act of copy, an imitation of nature, and a response to the culture around you.1 But “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” declares Oscar Wilde in 1889, and the question continues in its cycle.2 The feedback loop is easy to get caught in.

However, there’s a third participant alongside creative work and historical context: creative tools. Regardless of the causes and affects of creative works, acts of creativity are enabled by and through the tools used by the creator. Tools support the driving of creative change, the fueling of creative movements, and the inspiration of creative action.

Origin and evolution

But where do tools come from and how do they evolve? It’s fairly argued that anything could be used as a creative tool (from the human body to a tennis ball). It’s also true that one tool can hold many functions: a paint brush may be best known as a tool for controlling the application of paint to a surface, but it can also be a tool for mixing; for sculpting; for cleaning…

With these factors in mind, perhaps we might broadly state:

  1. Tools manifest from a human intent to manipulate or control a creative material.
  2. Tools evolve as a way of either optimizing or expanding their uses.

The role of technology in creative tool history

In 1985, the advent of digital creativity on computers delivered new materials of bitmaps and vectors to a consumer population, bringing too the possibility for new creative tools. In the decades following, this digital landscape has seen significant expansion; Not only in the number of available tools and their increasing utility, but also in the invention of materials exclusive to digital hardware and displays.

If a key driver of creative change is our tools, then consumer tech has played an influential and establishing role. But how true is this as a statement?

Presented below, is a concise timeline for digital creative tools released between 1985 and 2020, listed in chronological order by software category. Also shown, is a timeline of key tech innovations from personal computing history that were occurring in the same period.

Timeline information graphic, showing creative software releases between the years 1985-2020
Figure 1. Timeline of digital creative tools, 1985–20203

When these timelines are viewed on-top of each other, three clear waves emerge, where core themes in tech innovation are correlated with the development of creative tools.

Here's a closer look at each wave in more detail:

1985–1995 | First Wave: Graphic Tools

Supported by the graphical user interface and monitor resolution increases

Timeline information graphic of the 'First Creative Wave', highlighting creative software releases between the years 1985-1995
Figure 1.1 Timeline of “First Wave” digital creative tools, 1985–20203

1995–2005 | Second Wave: Multimedia Tools

Supported by faster computer processors, and high-speed internet adoption.

Timeline information graphic of the 'Second Creative Wave', highlighting creative software releases between the years 1995-2005
Figure 1.2 Timeline of “Second Wave” digital creative tools, 1985–20203

2005–2020 | Third Wave: Digital Experience Tools

Supported by internet connected portable devices, and apps.

Timeline information graphic of the 'Third Creative Wave', highlighting creative software releases between the years 2005-2020
Figure 1.3 Timeline of “Third Wave” digital creative tools, 1985–20203

A summary with enough signals

As an account of history, this timeline is a broad summary that’s not without some hand-waving. The true number of creative tools developed for our digital platforms is vast and immeasurable, and the quality of detail available from different developers (even in the selection shown) is varied. But summary can be enough to portray a narrative of tech innovation’s significance and influence on digital creativity.

It’s also enough to look for signals of the next creative wave…

Machine intelligence as a signal

In 2018, auction house Christie’s made the first sale of an artwork entirely generated by an AI. The work was created by a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), a type of machine learning model capable of generating visuals based on a large dataset of sample images it was trained on. The piece sold for $432,500.4

Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy. Generative Adversarial Network print, on canvas, 2018
Figure 2. Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy. Generative Adversarial Network print, on canvas, 2018

Further thinking

Ask yourself or discuss with others

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2. Machine intelligence Narrows the language gap between tools and intent

The tool-driven nature of digital creative products has perpetuated a “language gap” between a user’s creative intent and their creative execution. The content and context-aware nature of machine intelligence is making it possible to narrow this language gap and offer new forms of creative tools and experiences.


  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Mimesis.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Nov. 2011, britannica.com/art/mimesis. Accessed 30 June 2021.
  2. Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying: a Dialogue.” The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Edited by James Knowles, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., Vol. XXV. January-June, 1889. pp. 35-56. victorianprose.blogspot.com/ via writersinspire.org/content/decay-lying-dialogue. Accessed 30 June 2021.
    This is the first published version of Wilde’s essay, which was further worked on and later republished in 1891 essay collection “Intentions”.
  3. Bagnall, Archie “Sources: Timeline of digital creative tools, 1985–2020”, Next Creative Wave, 2021.
  4. “Is Artificial Intelligence Set to Become Art's next Medium?” Christie’s, 12 Dec. 2018, christies.com/features/A-collaboration-between-two-artists-one-human-one-a-machine-9332-1.aspx. Accessed 30 June 2021.