Generative Design

The future of CAD

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 from the early days of computer aided design – for its blinking led lights in the 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 are often presided by the established. Their views are known and  often, they have nothing new to say.

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

What is missing ?

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I just returned from ”Design the Dynamic”  design conference in Melbourne and would like to share what I heard, felt and learned. This conference was based on Design and  Computational Fluid Dynamics, often referred to as CFD. It was preceded by a 4 day workshop in which impressive progress was made by students of RMIT in prototyping rigging up and analyzing an interesting range of design concepts.

The symposium on the last day had the usual cocktail of presentations from practicing architects showcasing their current work and work processes, academics discussing issues that are relevant to the academic world. Also present were those who connected random thoughts to random words illustrated with equally random images. Noticeably absent were the representatives CAD companies. Perhaps because they are aware of the irrelevance of the rest in a game that is now defined, led and played entirely by them.

The symposium however was interesting and here is what I learned from it.      

Winds can shape form

Streamline of wind flow and pressure

Not only are the dunes of deserts shaped by wind; buildings too can be shaped by winds. Wind can be a generative force. An interesting presentation by engineer Peter Felicetti based on collaborative research with Prof. Mike Xie and JIWu Tang showed how twisted shapes can drive wind upwards and provide an aerodynamic lift that works against gravity. In tall buildings, even though wind forces are significant they  are only a fraction of gravitational forces, still they can help shape them.

Rough & inaccurate tools are still very useful

The results of the 4 day projects that preceded the conference were also presented. Results from various CFD tools of two extreme kinds were compared. Whiles the tools like Vasari reduced the complexity, they were discovered to be less accurate than more advanced analytical tools such as ANSYS that are usually operated by experts.  However, tools like Vasari were found to be useful despite their limitations and misuse by the “Jonny English of CFD” as a presenter described himself, because they can be fixed quickly with a bit of timely expert input. It also seemed that the loss of accuracy was mainly due to Johnny English effect . Those with better understanding of CFD could drastically improve the results over Jonny using the very same tools. So this way, Johnny is in the game. He has his role and the experts have theirs too.

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Written by Sivam Krish

November 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Consumer Creativity

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Forget Steve Jobs, forget those product designers out there, forget all those product managers. Consumers are at the heart of new product creation and innovation according to findings of an extensive study made by Prof. Von Hippel.  “The Age of Consumer Innovator ”  in the MIT Sloan management Review is worth a read.

National level studies were carried out in the US,UK & Japan resulting in the  finding that “ estimated amount U.K. consumers as a group spend on consumer product development is actually more (144%) than what all commercial enterprises as a group spend on consumer product R&D in the U.K.” places consumer innovation as something that business cannot afford to ignore. The study however concentrates on developed countries with strong industrial and R&D focus.

What about the rest ?

A passing a comment is made of the rest ” Probably much less money is spent by individual consumer-innovators in lower income countries.” Perhaps so. But necessity is the mother of invention and the quality of invention does not necessary correlate to investment – it appears to correlate to the lack of it.

Hands free set. Who needs blue tooth ?


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Written by Sivam Krish

November 7, 2011 at 12:15 am

Posted in Crowdsourcing

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

Post Parametric Revolution

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Much of architectural design is now about tweaking parameters. While we are yet to master the fine art of parametric design, there is much excitement about it. Perhaps too much of it. Thanks to it, most  architects are now aware of the benefits of parametric design – where modification can be easily made and (parametric) variations  easily explored.

Parametric play is now enjoying its day in the sun.

While parametric approaches to design are being formulated and built into work processes, something even more interesting is beginning to happen. Architectural geometry is now going through a post parametric revolution.

For a long time in architectural history, proportioning played a pivotal role. Proportioning is the precursor to parametric play, where the overall structure of the design is formed and fixed while its proportions are altered to find the most desirable form. It is powerful and useful. But limited in its capacity to create diverse forms in terms of topology. CAD packages could easily implement this, because they are driven by parameters anyway. But there was something else about CAD packages that remain hidden – perhaps for a bit too long. But remember, in the early days  it was difficult to get designer to use CAD, you had to give them the impression that nothing had really changed and that they can now do in a screen what they used to do with pencil and paper.

After CAD, all geometric forms were inevitably authored by programs. But these programs were hidden. CAD companies went out-of-the-way to provide a veneer that kept the designers minds in the era of paper and pen. Perhaps, they did not guess that they will grow out of it. Perhaps this guess was right, particularly in Industrial design. But it is not so in architecture.

No more shame

The new generation of cutting edge designers now seem comfortable with code. Add-ons like grasshopper have made it much more easy to author code. Code has made it easy to create complex and repetitive forms.  These forms can even compete with spaghetti in terms of geometric complexity.


Most cool designs are now authored by scripts.  We are now at the end of simple parametric play. As the programmatic nature behind the construction of the geometry is exposed, it is natural that designers will start re-arranging bits of scripts to create more interesting forms. This is beginning to happen.


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Written by Sivam Krish

October 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm