Digital design tools are now undergoing a transition of application scope, expanding beyond their initial technical domains and leveraging the flexibility of the digital medium.
Digital means of communication are enabling the self-organisation of new cultures as well as decision-making structures revolving around the possibilities inherent to the digital realm. Design tools are slowly catching up - to a certain extent – by building upon the flexibility of parametric design in order to improve the communication channels of the design process, thus signalling the achievement of a certain “digital maturity” of the architectural design community. Unfortunately, the current state of collaborative design software is catering exclusively to the needs of the technical stakeholders involved in the design and building process, namely architects, engineers and builders. In our contemporary world, where social change and action is not only supported but triggered by digital communication tools, the design disciplines stand to lose credibility if they will not take initiative and tap into the existing expectations of collaboration that today’s society now harbours.
The following paper puts forward a new research direction for the design of digital tools that aims to investigate ways in which to make the design process more open and approachable by non-technical stakeholders. A design never exists independently from the tools that are used in its creation and vice versa. As such, it is important to note that this entails both a technological development effort as well as the elaboration of a methodological package that supports the meaningful usage of said tools - essentially an active tectonic study that manifests as an accelerated feedback loop between both tool and process development.
In the first section we put forward the concept of mass creativity as an extension of mass collaboration. Within this context we introspectively define the role of an architect as a translator between the various interests of the stakeholders involved in the design process. The second section subsequently looks at the tools that a designer has at hand to accomplish this role. We critically analyse the notational paradigm upon which contemporary digital tools are based on and outline both their disadvantages and strengths that can be speculated. Following this, the third section concerns itself with outlining a case study which reveals how a different approach to using digital design tools – one that renounces the classical notational paradigms – can be applied. Two more similar examples are outlined in the fourth section in support of “de-aesthetised” digital design. We subsequently conclude by acknowledging the importance of creating digital tools and methodologies that support the designer in fostering the emergence of mass creativity, thus responding to one of the main challenges of today.
A Case for Mass Creativity
Collaboration has become embedded within today’s design environment as projects are no longer the result of an isolated creation process, but an emergence of a myriad of interactions between various human and non-human actors. Architects, engineers, banks, communities, politicians and various other animate and quasi-inanimate agents contribute towards the final embodiment of a specific design and its subsequent evolution.
As such, we can justly state that the built environment is, at a global level, an emergent feature that results from countless interactions of material and social flows. Extrapolating further, there is no fundamental difference to speak of between the laws that govern the processes that give birth to Cultural artefacts, and those of Natural artefacts: they both share the same generative principles loosely aggregated under the umbrella term of “emergence”.
The contemporary new materialist school of thought, spearheaded by science and technology studies and anthropology, have gone further and argued for the dissolution of the Modern dichotomy between Nature and Culture (Latour, 1993), (Descola, 2013). Furthermore, the concept of a static, finite, encapsulated object is no longer valid. In its place we now observe the emergence of large-scale patterns from the interactions of various flows of matter-energy. Bruno Latour calls them quasi-objects: objects that are only defined by their web of interactions - a conglomeration of threads representing process flows that give birth to recognisable features (DeLanda, 2000). These ideas lend themselves well to aspects of computational design that we shall elaborate on in the following section.
One of the most powerful implications of this “non-modern” context is that we, as designers, are part of the swarm of decision makers whose actions lead to the crystallisation of the built environment. Our creativity and contribution to the development of a project is equally valuable as that of all the other stakeholders involved in the process, both animate and inanimate.
What seems initially to be a harmless statement of the status quo becomes a game changer if properly embedded into the rationale of design methodologies: it entails a redefinition of the architect’s scope of action and role. To a certain extent this has always been the case - nevertheless by centring the above statement as the core of the designer’s position we do raise the need to adapt both the methodologies that we apply when designing as well as the tools we are using to communicate and enact that respective design. The role of the architect as “master builder” is no longer feasible due to its scope which, within the contemporary practice, expands to unsustainable dimensions.
Nevertheless, one can argue that the designer - within the group of stakeholders associated with a project - has a polarising position because he needs to process information flows coming from a wide array of sources: architectural, economical, social, etc. This does not translate to a position of control, as “classical” architectural education would teach us - it is a position of greater responsibility. If we define a design project as an emergent feature from the interactions of various agents, then the architect’s main role is thus revealed as being the facilitator of meaningful interactions between all the relevant stakeholders.
Consequently, the designer is a conduit of communication, constantly translating between the languages of expression of the various stakeholders involved in the project, including his own. Among the many languages spoken we find, for example, financial analysts talking in future values and internal rate of returns, engineers articulating finite element analyses that evaluate a design for its structural consistency, local communities voicing their ideas in social terms that do not lend themselves easily to quantification, and so on.
Essentially, an important point to acknowledge is that all stakeholders are creative. For example, the financial design that enables the project to be built embodies the same qualities as the innovative concept that the designer brought to the table. The expression of this creativity takes various forms and is not universally translatable across different groups without active effort. Ideally, the design process is not one of just mass collaboration, but one of mass creativity that results from a harmonious negotiation process.
Design Tools & Architectural Notation
The means of communication and tools an architect has access to need to enable the expression of creativity from all involved stakeholders. In such a diverse environment, as usually is coagulated around contemporary design projects, the lack of good communication channels and/or the inability to translate between disciplines and interest groups usually leads to friction, dissatisfaction and compromised results.
Classical architectural notation, developed by Alberti in the 15th century, has focused on developing identical copies between the design of the building (virtual) and its embodiment in reality (construction) (Carpo, 2011). Plans, sections, elevations, and so on, are essentially schematic notations that encode architectural information into a language that is controlled by a certain set of standards. As such, one can design, communicate and build within a single system.
Digital design tools have evolved as analogues of the same paradigm as classical architectural notation, their main goal being that of making identical copies of the information that they encode. For example, Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad program, considered the precursor to all CAD software, was essentially a digital drafting tool: it replaces the draftsman’s traditional pen with a “light-pen” and paper with “digital” paper. As such, we can argue that the notational mechanisms of today are identical to that of classical architectural script, which has remained unchanged since the Renaissance. To this day, all architectural drafting software is essentially a direct transpose of albertian notational principles into the digital medium.
Another notable evolutionary step in the design of digital tools is that of the increased linkage with fabrication techniques and construction site management. By weaving together building and material constraints, digital tools have greatly expanded the geometrical vocabulary that is now accessible to the designer. This movement, which began in the early 1990’s, has been appraised as “The Digital Revolution”. In its first stage it negated the principles of mass production and standardisation by introducing a new formal agenda based upon the new found expression liberties offered by the “isolated” digital medium (Carpo, 2013).
This leads us to the second stage of the digital revolution in architectural design; going beyond mass customisation, by speculating the qualities of the “connected” digital medium. In this way, we would argue for the transition to mass collaboration and, subsequently, to mass creativity, thus empowering the contemporary design process – one in which every stakeholder is creative and is able to define value.
In the past, exploration of variation was limited due to the friction of the analogue medium (pen and paper) in which architecture was expressing itself. The virtual realm has effectively eliminated this barrier and thus paved the way for a comprehensive exploration of the “objectile” (or quasi-object) (Latour, 1993). Software like Grasshopper or Dynamo enable the architect to no longer be author objects, but processes whose result is not a single finite object, but, as mentioned above, quasi-objects, or families of objects. Various performance measures – feasibility, material constraints, etc. – usually act as selection criteria which collapse the objectile into a single object that is subsequently built.
We here have to make a technical distinction between the “isolated” digital and the “connected” digital. Current digital design tools rely mostly on the qualities of the “isolated” digital medium, i.e. embodied in a single technological unit: the designer’s computer. Collaboration is achieved by packaging finite designs and exchanging them via emails or other surrogate management systems. The connected digital medium - i.e., the internet - offers a wildly different set of qualities that are yet to be integrated and repurposed for the use within design process.
Generalising, the current albertian notational paradigm does not address the need for a flexible and interchangeable language that would allow the designer to enact his negotiator role. While being extremely efficient for aesthetic and technical exploration, digital tools still structure communication in a non-agile way that is focused on describing the “final” object. The vocabulary it uses is not always flexible enough in order to be articulated in an accessible way for all stakeholders, both technical and non-technical.
Case study: Problem & Context
When we are faced with a set of tools for a linear process, for instance, packaging a finished design to email to a client, the space for unexpected encounters (emergent possibilities) is narrowed, forcing a design environment that lacks in dialog. Non-technical stakeholders (communities, financial analysts, government authorities, etc.) are not yet integrated in the (digital) design chain - on the contrary, current practice usually positions them in an adversarial role and does not allow them to exceed their pre-assigned conflictual position due to the limitations of existing design tools and methodologies.
This problem manifested itself during the development of a feasibility study for a future large-scale urban development in the heart of Brussels, the “traditional” design approach failed and a new, flexible design process had to be developed and communicated in order to meaningfully respond to the questions posed by the assignment. This study was undertaken by the author while employed at Bogdan & Van Broeck, an architectural consultancy and design office based in Brussels.
Specifically, the assignment called for an exploration of the possible directions in which a large site owned by the Flemish Government could evolve within the context of a PPP (public-private partnership) development. Initially the brief required an investigation into the functions that would meaningfully fit on the given site coupled with volumetric explorations on various organisational principles that would accommodate the given proposed functional programmes.
The main stakeholder groups involved in the project consisted of The Flemish Government (VO), The Developers and Private Investors and, finally, The Policy Makers. Bogdan & Van Broeck, as the office in charge of elaborating the study, was situated as a mediator between all three parties. When the initial outline of the study was being formulated, the traditional approach was failing due to the fact that the representational means were not adapted to the the interests of the stakeholders that had vested interests in the project. “Classical” architectural notation and drawings, while being seductive and incorporating a great amount of information in an efficiently small package, were not embodying the right message and were forcing a specific approach that was destabilising the design process.
With hindsight, we can say that the main problem was the language used to communicate and synthesize the decisions being taken. Urban and architectural plans, coupled with textual descriptions, were not versatile enough to translate between the interests of all the involved parties. For example, variations of the masterplan were proposed in a traditional form, with schematic drawings. These were coupled with textual descriptions that presented social implications and financial outlooks that emerged from the design process. While initially an unassuming presentation mode, this was triggering The Flemish Government’s representatives to request more detailed and eye-catchy designs, while the policy makers were increasingly sceptical due to the apparent lack of “substance” that the increasingly realistic presentation drawings were making. At the same time, the developers were becoming convinced of the fact that the proposals were not actually financially feasible due either to their too “glossy” nature or due to their too high “socially-aware” functions. This led to the development of mistrust between the involved parties, subsequently halting the design process.
While the proposed solutions were, essentially, the embodiment of the negotiations between all stakeholders involved, they were not revealing the inner mechanics of the synthesizing process that we were undertaking. The negotiation process required to develop the proposed scenarios was not visible – even if value was defined taking into account the priorities of all stakeholders, it was not collaboratively defined. As such, consensus was impossible to reach: the three parties involved did not understand each other’s priorities and what impact they have on the other’s set of parameters.
To sum up, the stakeholders did not speak the same language. Classical architectural notation, based on the representational paradigm, was not enough to enable communication between the project’s actors – on the contrary, we can argue that, because it was forcing the designers to present “finite” objects/geometry, it was detrimental to the design process.
Case study: Resolution
We realised that the value of the feasibility study we were elaborating lied not in the actual finite designs that we were delivering, but in the communication and translation actions that we were undertaking. As such, we decided to package the negotiation process itself into a deliverable tool by creating a simulacrum of a “dj mixer” that will allow intuitive control of relevant parameters, provide users with direct feedback regarding choices and be relevant to all stakeholder groups, regardless of their background. This was achieved by developing together with a financial consultancy firm a parametric model that took into account architectural, urban and, most importantly, financial parameters. Subsequently, this model was transformed into an interactive negotiation application that was made accessible to the extended group of stakeholders as a base for negotiation.
During the development and (brief) testing of the application, several important aspects were revealed as being critical. First, the categorisation and selection of parameters played a crucial role in alleviating the “paradox of choice”: when confronted with a wealth of modifiable inputs, the users were unable to reach a satisfactory solution. As such, reducing the parameters to the minimum – without sacrificing any critical ones – was instrumental to reach the increased accessibility levels desired. Second, the inner logic of the model was hidden from the end-users. Parametric models can be daunting to the non-expert, and, subsequently, discourage them from their usage. This resulted, in isolated cases, in a diminishing of trust in the calculations being performed. Nevertheless, this negative aspect was outweighed by the fact that previously non-technical stakeholders, previously shy but expressing a strong passive discontent, were now willing to approach and join the conversation due their new-found empowerment. Their inclusion was instrumental into unblocking the design process.
Third, and most importantly, we emphasised the flow of information by graphically displaying the links between all relevant parameters and their implications (fig. 4). This allowed the stakeholders to understand and grasp the implications of their preferences in regards with the other’s definitions of value (and profit). A global understanding of the system resulted: all actors involved in the design process were finally aware of each other’s priorities and ways of thinking. It was through this distributed global understanding of quality and value that the proceedings were unblocked. Essentially, the study’s main value revealed itself in the creation of the aforementioned sense of understanding between the stakeholders.
Up to now, the flexibility of the digital medium has been leveraged purely for the aesthetic exploration and technical optimisation of designs which, ultimately, are collapsed into one “single” or “final” solution. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that, to a certain extent, digital tools can now go beyond aesthetics.
How can digital tools go beyond aesthetics and help the designer in his role as a conduit of communication? We have presented above one example of how a parametric model can act as a translation tool between the various languages employed by a specific set of stakeholders, both technical and non-technical. Another recent example can be found in the work of Dominik Holzer and Steven Downing, DesignLink (Dominik Holzer, 2010). The authors propose “optioneering” as a design methodology that encourages “a form of discourse where design partners negotiate the criteria space for a design problem at the outset of their collaboration” (Dominik Holzer, 2010). Coupled with DesignLink, a software specifically developed to enable this kind of high-frequency collaboration, albeit amongst technical stakeholders only.
An outstanding example of using digital tools as a communication instrument that leverages collaborative design principles can be found in the work of R. Aish and J. Fleming from 1977 (Robert Aish, 1977). The authors devised a parametric computer aided design system (PARTIAL) geared towards defining a context in which both professional designers (architects) and end-users can collaboratively design and evaluate a particular building type. The authors’ intention was to “provide a context where the designers/participants could combine their own subjective design ideas with the necessary technical requirements” (Robert Aish, 1977).The research presented by the authors is from a time when the “connected” digital medium (the internet) didn’t exist yet in a form that was accessible to all, or, for that matter, had a name. Nevertheless, it shows great foresight by aiming to enable all participants to “operate directly on […] a complex, multivariate, but nevertheless, extremely real decision making process” through the use of digital design tools.
Figure 5 – PARTIAL interface & design evaluation, based on participant’s own subjective criteria of evaluation.
© Robert Aish, Jan Fleming
Figure 6 – PARTIAL performance profile of the participant’s design, compared within a self-referential frameset. © Robert Aish, Jan Fleming
Enabling participation and, as such allowing for the emergence of mass creativity, should be a key driver in the development of future design tools. Non-technical stakeholders must be included in order for one to be able to properly define value in a collaborative manner. “Quality” can mean one thing for the developer and a completely different thing for the designer, and hold yet another meaning for the surrounding community. As such, digital design tools must start to respond to the need of communication and translation between various stakeholders.
Today’s society is expected to be digitally involved: from Facebook and Twitter enabling social change to platforms such as Github (which allows anyone with the right skills to creatively contribute to the development of a software project), Peer-to-Peer networks and Bitcoin (a digital currency which exists as decentralised entity on all its users’ connected computers), and so on and so forth – the examples are endless.
Bringing together the non-modern context in which the design disciplines currently stand with the realities of the business environment reveals a complex interaction web that requires careful articulation and negotiation. Creativity is not an isolated phenomenon under the exclusive rights of the designer, but a distributed quality that emerges from numerous interactions. As such, the role of the designer is transcending its simplistic understanding of “master builder” towards a “master negotiator” and an enabler of meaningful interactions.
It is in this context that, in order for a project to go forward, value needs to be defined collaboratively and as a shared sense amongst all the involved stakeholders. Current communication methods that are available to the architect rely on a notation that does not fully cater to these needs, and, as explained in the case study, sometimes can hinder it. Designers need to be able to orchestrate “a positive and spontaneous co-creative and emergent process” (Wood, 2007).
Digital tools have inherent qualities that have yet to be purposed towards these applications. We are already no longer designing finite objects, but rather processes that give birth to a set of objects. These “objectiles” are only defined by their network of interactions – of which, we, as designers, are in control.
Digital parametric models can go beyond aesthetic and technical exploration: they can embody a narrative and subsequently be the base of collaborative decision making. The flexibility of computational design can and should be used outside the architectural office and its technical collaborators. Nevertheless, we would like to end on a note of caution: “the choice of representation affects the process of design and should be understood prior to the creation and use of intelligent computational systems” (Sean Hanna, 2011). Tools can be used for good or for bad: a hammer can be used to build a house or to destroy an ancient statue, social media can be used to organise a legitimate protest or manipulate people towards dubious causes. The responsibility of articulating a meaningful design is still in the hands of the agents enabling it to happen.