AEC

Doin' the DEED (AEC Insight Column)

1 Jan, 2008 By: Jerry Laiserin

Creating digital environments for early design.


Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) redefined thinking about science by casting scientific theories as falsifiable hypotheses. Theories that survive the experimentation and falsification process of the scientific method gain greater acceptance and usefulness. By analogy, design ideas are falsifiable hypotheses about possible solutions to design problems. Instead of scientific experimentation, design ideas are tested in the design process. Architectural design ideas or schemes can be tested against the building program or brief, massing models against the zoning envelope, and enclosure designs against desired building energy performance. Design ideas that survive — those that are not falsified by the building requirements against which they are tested — gain acceptance and usefulness for subsequent phases of design.

Since the 1980s, digital tools have emerged to help designers formulate, visualize, and test design ideas. In early stages of design, digital tools complement rather than displace analog tools such as paper sketches or hand-built physical models. The coexistence of electronic and paper-based tools alters designers' perceptions of both. The resulting blend of media when applied to concept design, preliminaries, or schematics can be labeled digital environments for early design (DEED).

 Figure 1. Modeling and visualization software, such as form•Z from auto•des•sys, permits designers to explore and test ideas in ways that are impossible in paper-based or 2D digital media. Image created by Aaron Mark, University of Florida; courtesy auto•des•sys.
Figure 1. Modeling and visualization software, such as form•Z from auto•des•sys, permits designers to explore and test ideas in ways that are impossible in paper-based or 2D digital media. Image created by Aaron Mark, University of Florida; courtesy auto•des•sys.

Representative Democracy

Today's designers are free to use diverse media and interfaces to represent their ideas. In their 1991 book, Digital Design Media, William Mitchell and Malcolm McCullough, then both at Harvard, grouped design media according to what I call axes of representation — from 2D to 3D and from analog to digital. Thus, paper drawings are 2D analog, and conventional CAD (or CADD) is 2D digital, and so on. Furthermore, each mode of representation can be converted to the others. For example, paper drawings can be scanned to CAD, CAD can be plotted to paper, physical models can be 3D-scanned to digital 3D, and 3D digital files can be printed via rapid prototyping. Yet these media represent and express the same underlying design ideas.

However, perceptual psychologists identify other differences among tools and media as affordances. The term was introduced by J.J. Gibson (1904–1979) in a 1977 paper that defined affordances as the "perceived possibilities for action" inherent in an object or tool. This definition is a rigorous expression of the commonsense notion "to someone with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail" — a fundamental property of hammers is that they afford nail driving.

My friend Pierluigi Serraino, a Berkeley-based architect and theorist, has written that "form follows software." To me, Pierluigi's point is that different software tools enable different ways of design expression and thinking. These differences can be as significant as the comparative affordances of 2D paper sketching versus 3D digital modeling (during the mid-to-late 1990s, Bill Mitchell often livened up his already lively talks with the wry observation that "if computers had been invented first, pencil and paper would be hailed as a radical breakthrough in interface technology").

Mixing It Up

The bottom line for practicing designers and design students is that no single tool provides the best solution for representing any design idea. In fact, exploring design ideas through multiple tools helps insulate designers from the subtle influences (and/or limitations) provided (and/or imposed) by the affordances of any single medium or tool. Proficient designers instinctively recognize this situation and consciously exploit it as part of their process for testing design ideas.

In this article
In this article

In his 2005 doctoral dissertation at Harvard, Athens-based architect Panagiotis "Panos" Parthenios examined these issues. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served on the dissertation committee for Panos' thesis, published as Conceptual Design Tools for Architects.) Panos' research included elegant case studies of both skilled designers and design students at work. In one study, an experienced project architect deliberately rotated her focus among sketches, CAD, study models, and digital 3D as various design issues emerged and evolved.

This case is confirmed by results of a survey included as an appendix to Panos' thesis. Regardless of age, years of experience, size of firm, or types of projects, 60% of respondents identified pencil and paper as their favorite tools, with 80% starting their design process on paper. The runners up included SketchUp, 3D physical models, 3DStudio Viz/Max, AutoCAD, ArchiCAD, form•Z (figure 1), Revit, and Photoshop. Other favored tools ranged from the expected such as Maya, Rhino, and VectorWorks to surprises such as Microsoft Excel and Word (for conceptual design!). Adobe InDesign and Illustrator were not mentioned (perhaps because the Adobe Creative Suite was being revamped at the time of the survey), and Autodesk Impression had not yet been introduced to the market.

By a two-to-one margin, respondents used multiple software packages (rather than just one), despite frustration with data exchange between tools. Sixty-three percent believed computer tools allow them to design "better," whereas 22% said faster but not better; 10% saw no change, and only 3% rated the effect of software on conceptual design as negative. Aspects of their work that respondents rated improved by digital tools included visualization, communication, exploration of more alternatives, exploration of more complex geometry, improved perception, more organized thinking, and "getting inspired."

Figure 2. 3D printing, typically by a process called stereolithography, closes a loop between digital representation and physical models and is especially useful for studying design relationships at the conceptual phase. Theater design created by H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture; concept model by LGM; model photo by Jon Grinney.
Figure 2. 3D printing, typically by a process called stereolithography, closes a loop between digital representation and physical models and is especially useful for studying design relationships at the conceptual phase. Theater design created by H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture; concept model by LGM; model photo by Jon Grinney.

Putting It Together

Renée Cheng, head of the School of Architecture, College of Design, University of Minnesota, is among the most thoughtful and insightful observers and teachers of processes through which design ideas are mediated by technology. Cheng says students today "come in with great fluency in digital tools, so that schools of architecture no longer need to teach computer skills or specific software." However, she notes that "students don't choose tools well and often stick with them too long — they get stuck but don't always know enough to know that they're stuck." The teacher's job, then, is "to push students to use different tools and media . . . to ask different questions about the design." In Professor Cheng's view, "any tool is more powerful if it is part of a cycle of digital and analog, going back and forth, rather than a linear progression from sketching first, then digital modeling, with no return." She encourages her students to do the same with 3D models and digital tools, "3D printing the model, sectioning it on the band saw, modifying, and gluing it back together before remodeling it in the computer."

Although prices from vendors such as Z Corp., 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Roland continue to decline for 3D printers and cutting machines that generate physical models from software, the hardware still strains the budgets of design schools and design firms alike. This area is where service bureaus such as LGM (figure 2) step in with services to prepare digital design models for printing (CADspan) as well as Web-based services for getting relatively simple models done quickly from 2D or 3D files (rapidArch). Some design software vendors such as auto•des•sys (form•Z) also offer 3D printing services to their customers as another means of closing the representational loop and doing the DEED.

Acknowledgments

I'd like to thank Panos Parthenios for his permission to excerpt his research and Renée Cheng for generously sharing her expertise.


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