OCEAN Design Research Association

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Developing Digital Design Techniques (doctoral thesis)


Developing Digital Design Techniques

Doctoral Thesis 2005


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Industrial designers, architects, graphical designers and others have slowly adapted to the new digital design tools. Most of this process of adaptation is about modifying traditional techniques to benefit from digital technology. But digital technology offers the possibility to rethink the design process even to a degree where our conception of visual creativity is questioned. The intention of this thesis is to investigate the preconditions for an expansion of the traditional design techniques, and to invent, explore, develop and systematise new techniques that are specially developed to draw advantage from design computing.

This thesis documents and develops a long-term exploration of a special type of design, the digital design that appeared during the nineties and that possibly started with the animation techniques introduced by Greg Lynn and the experimental use of diagrams introduced by Peter Eisenman.

This thesis, focuses on the early stages of the design process; the explorative phases before the constrains of realisation start to narrow down the options. It presents several approaches spanning from simple techniques such as "direct modelling" to complex design processes where the computer's potential as a creative design tool is exploited. The latter approach implies reaching beyond direct representation of the artefact and operates in stages of abstraction. This could imply an intuitive and tentative-heuristic process where the translation, transformation and interpretation of visual material are central. On the other hand, a process reaching beyond figurative representation of the artefact could implement a meticulous diagrammatic rendering of forces, agents and features that are not directly perceivable but nonetheless crucial for the design process, especially when dealing with complex contexts. These mappings of dynamic relations are treated as arenas for creative design innovation.

A central aspect of creative design computing is the generative potential in digital technology. This means that the computer is able to process data and produce results from the input. The digits are generic and open to manipulation and processing. The computer introduces a certain loss of control where the end result of processes is not entirely predictable. It is predictable within a certain range; one process cannot produce the entirely different but within the range of the possible output of a process we cannot predict the output in detail. We can exploit this in our creative work. Computational modelling that takes advantage of the computer's generative power is used to produce a more-or-less abstract source material for design. While some designers work with generative processes in a less abstract way, this thesis explores a path where abstraction and alteration of the meaning and coding of data is central. There are many different approaches to creative work with the computer. These span from a perspective of artificial intelligence to parametric approaches where the result from a computational process is derived from the processing of certain input parameters. My perspective is the perspective of the design process were the designer remains the driving force despite extensive use of emergent design techniques based on digital technology. I regard this process to be based on two main driving forces:

- Human creativity of all kinds and in all variations: individual, social, cultural. (participatory, adaptive, evolutionary,)

- The design media: the design concepts, tools and technologies that are available (from pencil to computational photorealism, complex simulations and emergence).

From the particular perspective of the design process brought forward here, generative techniques are meant to produce an unanticipated output that would fertilise the design process. This process would still be monitored and controlled by the human designer. The thesis intends to develop, explore, map and describe some of these possible approaches.

The thesis propagates a view of the design process as non-conclusive open-ended and continuously under construction. Digital technology does not replace any existing design methodology, strategy, medium or technique. on the contrary, the new ideas stemming from the introduction of digital technology inspire us to develop richer and more varied approaches where the traditional ways of working are part of a whole.

This new and richer design process ambulates between rationality and intuition, between research and exploration, between the casual and the heuristic, the linear and the networked. When this manifold design process is strategised in a way that takes advantage of the synergies that surface in the process, I call this the Hybrid Process. The Hybrid Process is a richer multi-layered and heuristic design process that has much larger potential and openings to develop it in different directions. The new digital design technologies demand and create a flexible and conceptual state where the design process alters between non-rational probing and rationalisation.

The thesis is divided into five parts including an introduction (part 1). The remaining parts represent four different perspectives shedding light on the field of digital design. Part 2 describes the current state of the art of digital design practice and design discourse and debate regarding digital tools and design media. Part 3 introduces a general discussion of the new design techniques. Part 4 presents empirical studies where my own practice and samples from my teaching and co-operations are categorised and analysed. In Part 5, the techniques are set into a broader context where intentions in the use of the techniques are discussed and finally treated as elements in a larger context of the hybrid process.

The thesis presents many results and conclusions, but if I should emphasise one main achievement, it is the clarification of the Hybrid Process offered as the primary conclusion of the thesis.

The thesis builds on a first-person insider perspective, which seeks to develop the possibilities and repertoires in design research further and to open a path for the practitioner researcher to deploy her own works as bases of an investigation.

The thesis argues that the value of this approach is based on the first-hand knowledge of design processes that is often not systematised and communicated but for which the only reliable source of knowledge is the practitioner.