Generative Design

The future of CAD

Why cotton whoolers missed the bus

with one comment

Academics are a rare breed. They are often accused of being wrapped up in cotton wool – oblivious to the world around them – a condition was once thought to be necessary for achieving academic excellence. This may have been once true, but the business of academia has changed drastically in our life time. The most successful academics now put seasoned CEO’s to shame in terms of the conferences they attend and the publications (some times in the hundreds) that they are able to churn out. The many intelligent people who I know struggle with generating a single orignal idea in their entire life time.

Generative design has its origins clearly in the pre rat-race academic world, nurtured by  academics who had the capacity to dream up new possibilities well before they were possible. I like to divide them for discussion  into three important groups.

The first group formed in the early days of CAD, mainly from faculties of architecture; named here as – Digital Vitruvians – because they fashioned themselves as Vitruvius re-born  to  re-establish Euclidian grammatical order. Such disposition  gave them much credibility within schools of architecture, leading to large amount of publications  (from 80’s to 2000) under the umbrella of “shape grammar”. Its decline in the last five years is dramatic, as seen in the google citations in books (ngram)

The academics who led this, probably snored through their  biology lessons. The marriage between biology and computation was yet to be announced. They seem to have been un-inspired or ignorant of the marvels of biological design processes.  Their attempt to translate visual order based on ancient aesthetic theories into computational design theories was fundamentally flawed. They seemed to have led many creative minds into the mental trenches of the past.

The second group – the Design Theorist were a different lot. They made significant progress in yanking design theory from the hands of engineers who had developed by then “Rational ” design process – with the clear implication that non-engineers follow irrational design processes. This was not easy task. At that time, rationality was – engineering. Those who searched for the holy grail of design theory had no clear direction. We cannot blame them for it. They were the pioneers. Some of them were prolific academics who chased every single wiff in design theory. In doing so, they transformed design theory into to a serious academic activity worthy of voluminous publications,  giving it much-needed credibility that was required for its growth. Significant amount of knowledge was produced, not by those who ran the mills, but by the design researchers whom they brought into being.

Yet, all this progress in design theory seem to have had little or no effect in the practice of design. CAD progressed without their help. It was based on  the tremendous progresses made in computation and engineering . Design researchers had missed the bus. But perhaps that was not the bus they wanted to get in any way. They had by then made design research so credible that it could stand by itself . The travails of the lesser beings who practice design was a separate issue. The time-honoured practice of peer approved publications seem to have made it unnecessary to connect to the practice of design. The bus they are on is on a secure route as the ever-increasing pressure on academic institutions to bolster their publication record is there to stay. The effect of this is visible within the research centers of major universities, where tenured professors are busy reinterpreting their frame works that have long lost their relevance. Whereas, from the peripheries of the academic world we are seeing very interesting works.

The third group that is now emerging are the Bio Theorist, who have strong foundations in the philosophies of biological and computational design – both of which also now happen to be  fashionable. The marriage of biology and computation  has already borne fruits in improving single criteria design problems and in generating novel designs. This group is of recent origin and its links to design practice are yet to be forged.

The fourth  and the biggest group not mentioned in the diagram is the Name-less Group ; made of thousands of programmers and engineers who have collectively created CAD systems and capabilities that are transforming the practice of design without the involvement participation or contribution of design academia. It is this nameless group that has changed the game of design – without theory or frame works. They are tool makers.

On the other hand design research is a very successful business, by the virtue of the ever increasing volumes of cotton wool ?


This is the last post of a series on why Generative Design means different things to different folk.


Written by Sivam Krish

January 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

One Response

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  1. This is a most interesting analysis of design, academic change, and the creative process in overlapping fields and pursuits. I like your use of the ngram as well. When I first came across it, I did something similar, testing out when various words started showing up, which ones dropped off. It’s a potentially useful way of getting a quick sense of trending around terms and definitions.

    One of the big challenges is that while time is spent digging deep in one area, other adjacent developments are occurring that go unnoticed. We are clearly in need of different knowledge systems and approaches that keep the deep dives connected to the broad explorations – a platform that connects these diverse dynamics. You’ve sketched out one potentially useful analysis of that need. Now we need to keep evolving synthetic platforms that connect vertically and laterally, leading to deep innovations.

    Milton Friesen

    May 13, 2011 at 5:35 am

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