What is Generative Design ?

sivam krish
Jan 14, 2018 · 8 min read
Hydro Thermal Vents that are said to have generated life

Generative Design has now moved from a subject of ridicule (where designers felt encroached on their very human abilities)to a fad promoted by CAD companies. This is good news.

But for many years, I was curious to find out what “Generative Design” was all about. I wrote to all the academics who talked about it but got no reply. I guess I was not in the publication game. But I managed to patent some aspects of it and successfully developed generative design software in 2005. But still, I had not very sure what was meant by “Generative Design” that was then talked about by a few academics. It was soon clear that they not know what it was either.

In my quest to find out, I started a LinkedIn group on Generative Design ten years ago — primarily to connect with others who may have similar dilemmas. To my utter surprise this group grew, and continued to grow with now over 6000 members. So I realized this quest was shared by many. During this period, my interest in Generative Design has waned — as I found the field full of the same game, false claims, shinny shapes and not much progress. I could go to sleep for a few years and come back — to be treated with the same kind of nonsense.

Designers are not creative

I learnt this the hard way. “ Most creative people are both rebellious and conservative “. They are often creative in one domain in which we admire their creative leaps. But gymnastics and trampoline artists need to jump from firm ground. They do not use creative stools — that’s too dangerous. To be creative, to devote ones’ complete energies to creative pursuits, to make those creative leaps , one needs to be less creative and take fewer risks in all aspects of life and work. Designers know this. Designers don’t like to shake the way they work — they have invested a lifetime in honing their skills. That is what I discovered when I introduced Generative Design to industrial designers. There was nothing but scorn, as you can see from the follow-on forum discussions that I started in the year 2000 in the most popular Industrial Design Forum Core77. Designers are conservative and they need to be. CAD for industrial designers is something they can go “Zoom Zoom” with, but they had to be in the driving seat.

Designers know little about design technology

Despite the early lead that architectural schools like MIT had in playing around and further develop early CAD systems, the culture of academia within architectural academic institutions seems to have chosen people who’re promotions depended on convincing the rest that “CAD is good”. Those who connect CAD to Greco- Roman thinking did well by re-inventing pseudo forms of design technologies like shape grammar. But let us not judge them unkindly, because at that time most of the profession and most schools did not want CAD. Attempts by academics like Prof. John Frazer to forge a nature-inspired route to design proved unpopular.

While the newly invented self-referential architectural academia was busy establishing the academic field of computational design, CAD capabilities grew by leap and bounds. Method of engineering optimizations became easier and easier to implement. A version of it called genetic algorithms (originating between the 50~60’s) caught the fancy of some architectural computational specialists— mainly because of its association with nature, despite it being just another optimization technique. Other optimization techniques based on bone re-modelling (removing elements that do not see stress, starting in the 70’s) well known within engineering optimization communities for some time. 3D printing started around ‘86 and advanced manufacturing developed over the last few decades is now making it possible to create optimized form. All based on technologies that we have had for decades. And viola! when you mix them all, you now get — “Generative Design” as seen on TV.

What then is Generative Design?

For me, the real, coolest invention of all inventions is — life itself. It is said to have originated in the hydro-thermal vents deep in our oceans. It is within the warm fury of these vents where the coolest form of design first happened. We now have a much clearer picture of how it all happened. I am therefore led to believe that it is this energy — that gave birth to chemical design exploration, that developed the ability to self-replicate creating cells and then organisms, to eventuality create us — all essentially using fundamentally the same design process. So I define generative design as the conversion of computational energy into design exploration.

But the generative design we talk about happens in CAD systems driven by humans, so a complete different definition, to quote WikipediaGenerative Design is the transformation of computational energy into creative exploration energy empowering human designers to explore greater number of design possibilities within modifiable constraints

Growing up in the parametric playground

Most young architects are learning and using CAD that has a parametric engine that they do not know about. Only recently did Patrik Shumacher along with some academic friends try to elevate parametric into a deeply meaningful architectural style, even creating a manifesto for it. The ability to tweak the geometry of design through a change of parameters was the very essence of CAD, at its very inception in the 40s. Its recent re-discovery by the architectural educational community with the support from CAD companies seems to have had the same trace that Shape Grammar had left in architecture — excitement and nothing after that. Despite the millions of $ worth of research funds invested and with the misdirection of large numbers of graduate students, it seems to have left little to show except for a ton of research papers.

Meanwhile, excellent progress is being made in genetics and bio-manufacturing. They are in the business of creating organs synthetically using the same processes used by nature. Generative design is now being used in the search for new battery designs and for chemical combinations for the creation of new drugs and a wide range of non-architectural applications. So generative design is finally happening — but not in fields where it all started.

What is missing in computational design

My guess is the following:

Credible academia — While the peer reviewed process forms the very backbone of the development of science , it has not worked very well in architectural computational design dominated by a few locked into a self referential game for too long

Disbelief in natural design process — architects should exchange their interests in creating natural looking curvy forms to natural design processes that have been in operation for millions of years

Trail of discontinuation — the vast majority of the MSc and PhD students that I have known leave the field of computational design — for they discover its futility during their study. But they are gainfully employed as CAD jockeys often calling themselves as Computational Specialist.

CAD Companies — CAD involves legacy favoring older companies with older frameworks and formats that are difficult to shift from. There is an insufficient number of new and nimble CAD companies, but this is beginning to change.

What is there now

These are the positive trends that I see:

HTML5 — A globally shared open global design platform. We now see good quality CAD platforms built directly on it.

Open Source and Creative Commons — Sharing of genes is a prerequisite for biological design and necessary for the development of genetic models.

Computational Capacities — are a lot more freely available now bringing simulation and exploration seamlessly into the design process.

New Means of realization — 3D printing and advanced manufacturing is opening up new possibilities in optimization and form creation, increasing the demand for it

Secret Sauce — some big firms have developed some level of computational capacity within closed doors. This has become one of their competitive advantages in pitching to new clients. While little is known and little is shared it is indeed a good sign. Let us not forget that Alchemy was the early form of science.

Retiring Academics — Good to see the captains of the make-believe world of computational design having published couple of hundred papers -giving way to a more hopeful generation of academics

New bandwagon in town — AR, VR, RoboPlay, 3D Printing Play now create a lot of room for those who are keen without much effort seen on the edge of new possibilities. It’s an easy jump and easy play opportunity with a lot of news and publication-worthy opportunities. For those who are in a hurry there is a new hot air balloon showed up recently. The rides are cheap and in it you can elevate yourself fairly quickly above all others. You may have heard about AI. Thankfully, this will lighten the load on the slower wagon that is on the path of generative design — less load, less noise bringing the greater possibility for progress.

The hydrothermal vents of Generative Design

HTML5 is the ocean in which generative design will arise. Based on open source, shared, replicable and extendable genetic formulation of design elements allowing for re-combinations that go well beyond what we see today. The games engines that HTML5 support provide the abilities to simulate reality. We can now bring in Physics Engines and constraint management engines into play — creating the possibility of blending simulation and design. New forms of genetic design will be based a new form of geometry (yet to be invited) that is cellular in conception and not locked on a Euclidean frameworks.

Design elements will communicate with each other and self-organize within constraints set by designers. Most certainly, they will be based on embryonic design representation that grow into matured design representations -in contrast to the current practice of fiddling of final form. All this will not rely on brute force of computation (that we see in cloud-powered optimization) but will rely on the elegance of conception and openness to play. It would, as nature does, use computation efficiently. Because we will not be re-inventing the design problem every single time as we do today. Design knowledge will be created and conserved as in the genes that we carry.

Design academics will not be driving its development. CAD companies are unlikely to be part of it too. It will be driven by the vast demand of those who do not wish to engage designers. By the needs of those who wish to design themselves. They would need design models that they can explore with. It is consumer design that will fuel the development of advanced design technologies — that will have intelligence, constrains and analysis built into its very representation.

The collective constructional energies of all those who participate in building such a framework will most certainly create CAD capacities infinitely superior to what we have today.

Of course, it will be known as generative design.

sivam krish

Written by

Researcher Educator Entrepreneur : Founder PhoneLabs

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