Generative Design

The future of CAD

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End of CAD : Part II

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This is the second and final part of End of CAD.

What is genetic representation?

While we have clear representations of design in the biological world, this is not so in the design world. We have geometry and after many decades, material properties tagged on to it rebranded as BIM to which many aspects are now being added. This is certainly a very positive development and should have been the way design should have been the moment we started using computers for design. It was not; due to the enormous conservatism of designers who were only open to tools that allowed them to do better what they did on paper.

The big difference in genetic representations over current parametric BIM representations is that they contain within themselves greater design possibilities in other words; they cover a larger design space as they operate on build instructions instead of the final geometric form. The representation would be cellular and relativistic. It will not be based on Euclidian frameworks that lock geometries to planet earth. Cellular geometry would refer to each other in a very different way. Cells may be added and deleted and the rest of the geometry will readjust with ease in this relativistic frame work. Such a frame work would allow designers to add and delete rooms with ease at a schematic stage as the rooms will form themselves with walls, doors and windows in relationship with other rooms. Genetic representations will also be able to tie into other important pattern based schemes such as circulation schemes, very different to the way they are currently developed. The fundamental difference is that genetic representations will not be just sketchy variable geometries but information structures that are vital for the designs self formation, fulfilling requirements that are essential for its viability.

At the same time, a good part of CAD will revert back to what it was originally created for – CAM controlling machines for manufacture.   Those who make things know most about what they make and will play a vital role in structuring that information. They will be tasked to set limits on what can be made and what is feasible. In other words, they will seek to control design space. They will do this with filters – for manufacturability, cost, performance and for a wide variety of engineering aspects. The genetic models will be accompanied by filters that control the bounds of their expression,  to help keep their expression within desirable and feasible limits.

This is not a futuristic proposition. The current unstated trend in fabrication is to open up the capacity of factories to consumers with minimal friction through “configuration systems” and Genetic models will be their natural extensions, allowing designers and non-designers to explore beyond pre-configured offerings.  And by enabling this in the best possible way, they will seek to keep their machines busy. Thus genetic models will become the most efficient medium through which they would seek out orders for their services. Thus they and not designers are likely to be their promoters.

What will CAD be?

It took nearly a decade for the CAM program, written to control CNC machines to become what is known as CAD.  It took another few decades for it to move from paper based 2D representations to 3D and a decade more to marry it with data to form Building Information Models (BIM).  Genetic representation of design would be about extending BIM with abilities of:

  • Genetic representation (capable of representing larger design space)
  • Cellular Geometry (components will manage their own geometry)
  • Self-design abilities (through embedding knowledge)
  • Constrain management (through use of constraint filters)

Future CAD systems will be web based and most of them will run web browsers calling web hosted API’s to support more complex operations. While late stage design will deal with large amounts of data requiring massive amounts of computational capacity,  early stage design will not. Current HTML5 capabilities are ample for design exploration. There are now browser based CAD systems that are able to handle designs of medium complexity.  CAD companies will offer cloud based API services – which will operate on genetically structured models (in other words software as a service model).  APIs will help keep design interactions light and easy on the browser, relieving them of the computational burden that current PC based systems struggle with, giving them instead the ability to call upon significant computational capacity as and when needed.

What will the designer be?

To answer this, we need to ask a bigger question “What would design be?” in a richly connected computational medium,  design is likely to be very different.  It would be more about search.   Genetic frameworks will allow designers to search for prospective generic solutions that may be modified into feasible and desirable designs. It will be about enabling the client to experience different possibilities and understand the various limitation and their effects. Computationally, it will be about enlarging the creative exploration space.

When the burden of design is carried by computation, the designer role will be mostly about intent management.   Designers are likely to extend and modify genetic structures as biologists do with living cells, to achieve objects that are different from what they were initially evolved for. Like biologists, they would come to accept genetic frame works and be willing to tweak individual aspects instead of re-design every aspect of it as architects do now with buildings.  Their role will increasingly be in defining “purpose” – that is beyond the reach of computation. Not that we know how to do this. But we may imagine how this may happen. Avoiding the details of implementation, let us see how this may work on a simple house building project.

When Joe wants to design his house

If Joe is part of 95% percentile of new house creators, he will not be going first to an architect. He will explore within the constraints of this site, the budget and building regulations of various web deployed house forms. He will be able to walk through and around them and be able to explore possible designs and make changes. He will be using a free browser based system for this that makes use of socially authored genetic models. Unknown to him, contractors and suppliers will be involved in an online bidding war to give Joe the best deals as he continues to explore possibilities. All contractual, logistics and fabrication aspects will be computed in real time. He will be informed of the cost of the building and the changes he is making as he is making them.

In fact, Joe will not be “designing”. He will be building his dream house in a virtual environment.  Of course; his design will be made from a kit of parts – as most houses are – but a highly variable kit.  APIs will provide advanced computational services required for design on a pay per use basis. For example, he may use an API to modify his design to recover energy bills. Professionals too will provide outsourced services for prospective clients, monetizing their time, skills and reputation using the same hosted framework. This is not entirely a futuristic scenario; this is simply an extension of what is currently happening.

Beyond CAD

CAD in its current form is struggling to adopt itself to early stage design. The increasing use of slider bars is a sign of designers coming to terms with the need for variability. CAD in its current from   lacks genetic structures that are capable of capturing commonalties (though BIM is a good start). It is only able to represent design information in geometric and material form. It operates at a very low level because in essence,  it is a mash up between a drawing board, data table and a pocket calculator. But then,  it does all the low end work very well. That accounts for its current popularity.

But at the highest level, design is about design intent. Currently and for the foreseeable future, it is likely to remain the domain of the human designer. CAD will,  in good time develop the capacity to support human designers in managing design intent. It is a long way from it now and in doing so, it will transform itself to connect the two extreme ends; the design intent with design representations.

The greatest disadvantage of the lack of genetic structures is the lack of compiled knowledge on design. Every designer starts off with a clean sheet of paper as though no piece of architecture existed in the world before. The commitment to make a design statement or to create differentiation is seen by many designers (especially star architects) as their primary role. In this there seems to be a clear commitment not to learn from or be influenced by previous design works of others, except for differentiating their work from others. Knowledge consolidation requires common data structures.

For example, if we knew of desirable configuration of rooms within a house for optimal thermal comfort,  (at a higher level, above CAD presentation of the design),  analysed from various house forms in a particular region, we can apply this knowledge during the design process at a very high level. While CAD representations allow us to analyse the performative aspects of designs, they do not facilitate the embedding of knowledge within the design process in generic ways that could be made use of. Design knowledge as a result is housed in the designer’s head and it is not shared with other designers.


CAD will evolve to facilitate end user play – enabling end users to design what they wish. Genetically structured light-weight representations will populate the web, seeking engagement with potential users.  They would behave intelligently and show respect to constraints set by manufacturing companies that seek to sell their services through them. They would have the ability to alter their own designs and interact with other virtual design representations that share their platform of creation.  They would allow APIs to act upon them to refine their representations as desired by the end user. They would allow designers and creators to connect to each other seamlessly, extending the promise of what is possible and desirable beyond what we can now imagine.


Like to thanks to members of the LinkedIn Group on Generative Design for their interaction and in helping to evolve my thoughts on this.

Written by Sivam Krish

February 21, 2014 at 10:44 pm

What is Algorithmic Design ?

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Cells contain massive amounts of information. If we stretch the total DNA in our bodies it will be about 16 to 32 billion kilometers. Now, that is a lot of code.

We cannot pack in more information than that. If we were to include the exact location and dimensions and geometric details of the circulatory system for example, as we would do in a CAD file, it would require more than trillion kilometers of code. Hence, nature constructs such designs with code. This is beautifully explained by Prof.Robert Sapolsky’s in his Stanford lecture.

Why use Algorithms ?

Algorithmic code is good for creating very complex geometries with small amounts of data. It works very well with the way nature constructs using cellular components. The fractal (or self similar) nature that you see in trees and leaf veins and arteries is due to this. But the code here is embedded in the cell itself and cells organize themselves to create complex forms based on of relatively simple code.

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Written by Sivam Krish

March 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Nature does not design

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Despite the significant interest we have in nature as a source of design inspiration, we do not adopt  her design methods, except for  genetic algorithm, developed by John Holland in 1975. This however is  an  optimization method and not a design method. Her design solutions however, have begun to inspire the design of new products through the emerging field of bio-mimicry. But these are based her vast repertoire of design solutions and not based her design methods.

Even though nature’s design processes are now known –  they remain purely as a source of inspiration. Why then are her methods of no practical use to designers? I am beginning to suspect some fundamental problems.  Here are some of them :

Natures has no intentions

Design seems to be by definition a human driven process. Humans have intentions. Nature does not. God on the other hand may have intentions, but if he cared about nature he would not have created us.  The book the “Selfish Gene” (published 30 years ago) illustrates the claim that it is not life forms but bits of code that compete for self replication – which could then be seen to be the only intention  if there was any. So nature is into code play.  Disturbingly, nature’s design processes seem autonomous and direction less, and worse it is driven entirely by the selfish propagational interest of bits of code – that hitch hike on living forms.

This model of autonomous and mutually dependent conglomerate of code competing with each other to propagate seems to be an impractical and uninspiring model for designers to adopt. More depressing is the fact that the resulting biomass that we so admire is only a packaging for the all important the bits of code to  propagate itself. Once the packaging is gone past its usefulness and makes errors in replicating the code, it is dully discarded (suffering death) while the code moves on to younger packages that can do a better job at replication and propagation.  The deviousness of this strategy is nauseating. Our body bags are nothing but code replication devises. Whats even more annoying is the fact that the intentions of these bits of code seem to be independent of the bodies that carry it. A good part of design history remains in great awe of this package and it is hard to think that the very brain with which we understand this i,s just a small part of this package. I am not sure if we will every come to terms with this.

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Written by Sivam Krish

February 20, 2012 at 6:40 am

Conversation with : Prof. John Frazer

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I vaguely remember reading his book which you may remember for its blinking led lights in its cover, which was fairly weird then for a book on architecture.  It was a pleasure to hear him speak in the design conference in Nov. In such conferences there are often the established and known – their views are known and most often, they have nothing new to say; not that they said much earlier.

Then you have the cutting edge folks – whose presentations sound like teenagers discussing sex, “I did that this and that, and then…..”  listened intensively by an equality excitable audience ready to applaud the finale of  resulting in orgasmic geometric forms. Generative design, has sadly become the means through which such  geometric entertainment is now effortlessly created, leaving little room for restfulness or reflection, or any form of serious thinking for that matter. I wonder sometimes if the refusal to be easily aroused, is an “age thing”, being no longer a teenager and having to deal with them instead.

As thoughtless forms take over the screen and as I hear freshly spun design philosophies blurted out with the accompaniment of architectonic lullabies, it provided for me – the perfect time for a conference catnap, only to be woken up by Prof.Frazer. His lecture was delivered with the thumping energy of a British steam engine. You can see him live in an AA lecture. The things he had to say were of interest to me and perhaps I thought, to the readers of this blog. So I approached him after his lecture and kindly, he agreed to be interviewed.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

The long standing layout problem

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It is refreshing to see promising  research and useful methods emerging from lesser known quarters. Despite decades of  academic research the “layout problem” as it is called, is till today solved by intelligent guess work.

Christian Derix, director of Aedas R&D Computation Design Research (CDR) group seem to be close to cracking a rather long standing problem. A problem that obsessed early design researchers from the end of world war 2. Architects returning from the war seem to have been keen to shake out the “irrational: image of their professions. Their engineering colleagues got back to peaceful production and were focusing their efforts on improving production and making it efficient. 50~30% of production costs are attributed to what is called transport cost, or the cost of moving material from one place to the other.

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Written by Sivam Krish

December 12, 2011 at 12:00 am

Whatz the clouds got to do with it ?

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The cloud brings together the possibility of massive computational resources and connectivity in an unprecedented scale across a wide range of business, educational and entertainment activities.

Are the Architects ready for the cloud?

The answer is ” No”.  But, will they get there? ” Yes”. Most likely, in the  same wrong way they adopted CAD – to replicate the drawing board with CRT screens  – without consideration to the true potential of computers. This was a big jump for many architects. It happened  only because they were assured that the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) was better than the drawing board. Companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Autodesk are all now busy building the rail roads in the kingdom in heaven – in which platforms of great promise will dominate the next era of human dependence on computation. So, everyone will get there for sure.

But what will design be in the cloud ?

I believe that the cloud will  initially be used in the same way that computers were used to replace existing PC based practices. PC bound CAD systems will soon be operating on cloud platforms. Speed and connectivity bonuses are good enough to lure most CAD dependent designers. But once they are all there, it is likely to transform the practice of design in way that it was transformed by the PC/CAD revolution. But then, without them realizing it, the clocks will be turned back on them. Design processes will go back a few billion years – to where design began.

Design will be – as in nature

Nature in itself  is a massive computational environment that has evolved over billions of years. Its key virtues of building complexity based on shared code and ability to explore possibilities through random exploration using highly evolved strategies and methods will come to dominate the art of design – orchestrated by human designers, the way humans have harvested the potential of natures design capability to turn grass in to wheat and rice and wolf into dog; primarily by manipulating a highly evolved refined and structured design processes.

Design as it is now

Before we consider the lofty heights that clouds can take us to, let’s review where we are with CAD now. The turbocharged drafting machines now connected to data-bases powered graphically by games technologies have got us quite far. A diverse set of capabilities and professional work practices – are now slowly coming together; but mostly at the back-end of the design process. But here it is too late, as all the important designs are already made and opportunities to make significant improvements are limited. It is known that more than 80% of decisions and commitments are made in the early stages of the design process (shaded in green) where now computers play a very limited role.

The codification and comodification of CAD

Most CAD packages now handle the drudgery of 3D manipulation fairly well. The dark regions shown – is dominated by code that reduce design labor ( most CAD companies have similar capabilities in this area). The push now, is into early stage design, where significant improvements can be made. Software like Grasshopper and platforms like Vasari are now extending the reach of CAD into early stage design. Further up stream is generative design.

What the clouds mean for generative design?

It is like asking what gasoline means for your car? Generative design can drink it all – all the computational capabilities that the cloud can provide. It will soon be possible to roll apparently dumb, random and computationally intensive approaches that nature has chosen in its great wisdom. Hopefully, it will be based on an open and shared genetic infrastructure – so that knowledge generated will not be lost but be shared and built upon.

The fundamental change will be the ability to consider multiple possibilities in virtual environments. In sharp contrast to the singular and somewhat perturbed linear approach mastered by designers on account of their limited mental processing capabilities. The design processes now used by designers are based on the limits of the processing capability of the human mind and its ability to consider only a large but limited number of possibilities. Kasparov is no longer the champion of chess.

The maturing of many CAD technologies has already greatly reduced the human labor in taking early stage concepts to reality that is close to real, making it possible to consider multiple possibilities of great maturity – instead of dumping them at the end of a doodling process as part of an ancient design ritual.

Written by Sivam Krish

October 25, 2011 at 12:45 am

Why co-creation and mass customisation will rely on genetic modelling

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Customisation is often an afterthought necessitated after the product is launched, bringing with it  the pains of late adjustments.

This is now changing.  Due to market saturation products and services are being designed for customisation. Generative Design has a defining role to play in this.

CAD was first developed to replace paper based design. A piece of paper can hold only one design at a time. But nuts, bolts and many mechanical parts shared similar geometry and were only differentiated by dimensions. So engineers got efficient. They created table driven configurations. Then, marketeers found going back and forth between engineers accountants and production managers a drag. Online configurations were stitched together based on existing work process to help customers wants to what companies can offer. But underneath it all, an even greater, more powerful phenomenon  was simmering.

Consumer Creation

In its ideal form, it would eliminate altogether the human involvement in mitigating between what consumers want and what companies can produce. The growing collection of web-based configuration technologies can now ensure that Joe, the customer, can create something that is both useful for him and viable for the company to produce and support – all by himself. But it is possible mainly due to a series of hidden rules that prevents Joe from doing the wrong thing; so that Joe does not configure a laptop  that he cannot carry home. Most customisation solutions today are based on rules.

Why rules are bad

It is known that even simple combinatorial design problems can lead to not millions but trillions of possibilities. Currently, this nightmare of choice is narrowed down by writing rules. Often, hundreds or thousands of rules will be required to produce a decent set of viable designs.

Rules are there to avoid confusion. They need to be simple and straight forward. Hence they are crude. They are good when the context of its application is simple. If it is complex (as in design)  you need to make exceptions (or clauses). Therefore, rules tend to  multiply rules. Worse still, difficult to judge the effect of one rule on another or on the design itself. Rules written in one domain will affect another. Worse still, only experts know how to write rules. Even if you mange to write them – you are left with another big problem.  You need to generate the designs out of these rules. But despite their limitations, rule based configurators are very much in use – because that is currently the only way to trim solution into a viable range.

Setting limits is easier than setting rules

What is now achieved though patchwork methodologies may be achieved much more elegantly – if the problem of configuration is resolved at conception – directly on the representation of the product. Genetic modelling can do that. It will allow designers to conceive designs that are fundamentally configurable. Genetic modelling will allow them to represent 100o’s of design possibilities based on a single CAD model. Instead of waiting for customer requirement (that now force companies to create variations) it is now possible to create ‘variable models’ as part of the design development process.

The walled garden

The holy grail of consumer creation is for companies to provide the greatest choice to consumers, allowing them to design/configure products according to their own individual requirements. The danger here is that consumers may come up with designs that are dysfunctional, un-manufacturable or beyond their means. Hence, companies provide not only choices but methods by which consumers can make intelligent choices. A combination of genetic modelling, filtering and performance measurements working jointly can crack this problem elegantly – keeping Joe within a walled garden of constrains.

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Written by Sivam Krish

May 31, 2011 at 11:18 am

Nature of Order

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Generative Design has an unfortunate start. Its early promoters developed their thinking based on the medieval concepts on the nature of order. Architects have been long obsessed with the aesthetic rationality of order, which formed the central tenets of architectural  philosophy. A tenet that is now being shaken at its very foundation, bringing down with it the validity of centuries worth of interpretation of the nature of order that once formed the core of Western science and civilisation.

An Iraq born Professor Prof. Jim Al Kahaili traces the story of its dismantling.

What struck me most was this  profound statement :

Design does not need active interfering designers. It is an active part of the universe

We need to think deeply about this. It prods us to think through a monumental question : What it is to design ?  It is the  very same question that obsessed ancient architects as they developed a rationality that suited them and their monarchic sponsors. They built their design philosophy on the platform of geometric logic that was then prevalent.

The new understanding of the nature of order has profound implications in every field of human endeavour. In architecture, I hope the implications are clear. It disconnects rationality from the aesthetic fundamentals that we have grown up with – assumed to be universal and on which the modern architecture was built. We now discover its logical foundations to be flawed.

This leads architecture into a catastrophic intellectual vacuum.

Is the orderless form langauge that we see in architecture today an expression of this  ?  Or is it a juvenile reaction to it ?



Written by Sivam Krish

February 27, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Code against Code – a Darwinian theory of software development ?

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The mechanical era produced many marvelous characters, Charles Darwin being my favourite.  Admired by me for his  great contribution to the theory of design and also for his marvelous beard. Always wondered how he found the time to groom it ? amidst his all-absorbing work. I guess, it must have helped him preserve his dignified composure as he reeked havoc amidst the  Christian community,  the biologists, zoologist and geologists of his time.

His then controversial theory is now used by scientist of all hues to understand and interpret how things evolve. We have discussed in this blog how his theories of evolution applies to design. But  since software plays a defining role in generating designs, should we not stop to think how this  theory may apply to the tools of design ?

a community of code ?

Code  now plays a critical activity in the determination of architectural form. Its effect on architectural form is now apparent. Its evolution and its use within the younger architectural community is beginning to play a defining role in architecture; mainly because designers have now started to play with code in a way they have never done before.

Now does this require us to assume that this code needs to be open sourced ?  cranked out mainly by hippie types? argues not ; an, an  interesting article –  A Darwinian theory of open source development strategies. It argues for a healthy co-existence of proprietary and open source software each building on the strength of the other each having particular advantages that is necessary and healthy for the development of software.

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Written by Sivam Krish

February 12, 2011 at 7:24 am

What is generative design ?

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I have been asking this question my self, for quite some time.

My attempt to find out has led me through hundreds of published papers, books, blogs and endless discussion that opened even more questions.

What is generative Design?

I have come across many attempts of defining what it is. Many of them are absurd – especially those published in journals that seek to define generative design within tiny niches of  reserch interests. Outside their confines, I have found some good ones that capture the spirit of generative design – I list them here :

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm


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