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Mindful Algorithms: the new role of the designer in generative design

Note from the Editor, Tricia Wang: Next up in our Co-designing with machines edition is Che-Wei Wang, (@sayway), is a designer and architect who co-runs CW&T, a design study with Taylor Levy. In this post, he contemplates why engineers and architects will need to become more like ethnographers with generative design. He asks if it is possible to convert ethnographic data into quantitative data as algorithmic input. I’ve long admired Che-Wei’s ability to bring a poetic quality to the deeply mathematical nature of his work whether it’s in architecture or designing beloved products such as Pentype A and Pentype B. He’s currently an artist in residence Autodesk. Most recently, the Collective Design Fair featured CW&T‘s designs, followed by an article written about their work in Coolhunting.

giphy7The traditional design workflow is getting a turbo boost from algorithms (don’t worry. The robots aren’t taking over…yet). With new types of generative design processes like genetic algorithms, the designer’s role is changing from the traditional, top down approach of drawing ideas on paper, into a systems approach.  Designers traditionally sketch and develop ideas intuitively. With a genetic algorithm, instead of imagining a design solution, the designer develops a fitness criteria and coaxes the algorithm towards a final design.

As algorithms and data become crucial tools to a design workflow, ethnography will need to become part of the process. Engineers, designers, scientists will all need to become ethnographers. The best cab drivers know how to work with GPS navigation. You sometimes have to ‘trick’ the algorithm to get the best result.

I’m an artist and designer with a background in architecture.  I’m currently teaching a studio at Pratt Institute School of Architecture that’s attempting to integrate genetic algorithms into the design process in a meaningful way.  I started teaching this class primarily as a reaction to all the highly ornate generative design work that I’ve seen over the last decade. These algorithms are fetishized and have been used to generate highly articulated forms like swoopy skyscrapers with windows that vary in shape and size throughout the facade.  The question that always comes to my mind is…to what end?

Recent developments in software have started to shift generative design processes to incorporate environmental factors like sun radiation and structural forces to create more functional geometry. But, the question remains…What other forces and factors should be tied into the generative design process to create designs that respond to a site or a condition in a meaningful way?

Designers have been traditionally trained to conduct research, sketch ideas, refine ideas by moving between sketch, computer modeling, and prototypes. The designer in this traditional workflow does all the data processing in their head.  As algorithms increasingly become part of our workflow, the data will have a more direct effect on the outcome of designs.

How will algorithms change the design process? How do designers need to change their mindset to take advantage of algorithms? How does design need to change?… First I want to tell you what generative design is, and then give you an example, and tell you some thoughts I’m having about it and ethnographic data.

What is generative design? And the genetic algorithms?

Generative design is wide term encompassing any design process that involves algorithms in the design process. It’s often used to design complex shapes and optimized forms in relationship to forces, sun radiation, and various data that may influence the design.Read More… Mindful Algorithms: the new role of the designer in generative design