Creative Freedom & Limitations

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The world has been transformed by computers and robots. They can play music like a rock star, give a table tennis pro a run for his money, and build structures for architects with carbon-fiber skeletons. The physical world is full of stuff that is too complicated to figure out without computers, and too precise (or dangerous, or boring) to produce without robots. My previous post discussed how new applications in technology can help reduce the barriers between imagination and realization. How can we use these tools to make us better designers rather than lazy ones?

With every tool comes a new opportunity. And still, every opportunity comes with limitations. Lego toys have transformed the way kids play and create. But they only work with other lego pieces. But it is that limitation that also creates a comfortable boundary and allows a sort of creative flexibility enhanced by focus. 

...designers more often suffer creative block not because there are too few potential solutions, but because there are too many.

Paradoxically, constraints create freedom for designers. Few things are more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper. The possibilities are endless, which makes it really hard to get started. Imagine designing a web page. What is the style the client is hoping for? It could be minimal or photo centric, bold in color or grayscale. Each choice excludes other potential future choices, but there is still an overwhelming number of decisions to be made. Which of the 120 standard fonts to choose? How big should the text be? Where does the text go? How large should the images be? Anyone can make these decisions, but a skilled designer’s web page will be more inviting, useful and engaging than one in which decisions are made arbitrarily. Understanding a tool’s function and user is essential to guiding the design process.

It’s the same with product design. Defining the problem and product requirements open up worlds of ideas. Every project needs boundaries, requirements, goals & aspirations. I suspect that designers more often suffer creative block not because there are too few potential solutions, but because there are too many.

Branch technology is challenging perceptions about architectural structures. They are using robots and software to create both standalone structures and decorative elements. Their fabricated works have a distinct aesthetic. The gusseted, woven forms are driven by load distribution, but the overall forms vary widely in style and substance. There are obviously new limitations in the algorithm driven framework, but those limitations are no more burdensome than having to account for gravity, water and light. And the resulting structures allow for geometry and applications unattainable by traditional construction methods. 

Stuttgart University created a pavilion with a base structure and woven filament, constructed with robots and drones. This project illustrates solutions to significant design challenges, but embedded in the solutions are new constraints. Overall size of of the structure, limited materials, the need to build indoors and transport large fabrications. These are not insurmountable challenges, but they represent decisions that needed to be made throughout the development process.

These establishments are creating spaces at a human scale at the confluence of technology and creativity. They represent tremendous progress as the machines to build catch up with the technology to design. The tools developed along the way allow our ideas to find new freedom, sometimes by imposing limitations of their own. By embracing constraints and understanding requirements, we can temper our fear of that blank sheet of paper.

Are We Using the Right Tools to Build What We Create?

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For a while all of us in the design world were enamored with 3D printing technology. The machines were expensive but exotic, and the forms they created were eye opening. I remember watching in a darkened room as a blue laser traced the contours of a geometric shape in a tank of amber resin. The near immediate gratification of seeing CAD geometry replicated in the physical world was breathtaking. 

For a while. Once the novelty wore off, it was easy to take the machines for granted. One began to reason that the process is relatively simple, why hadn’t we been doing this all along? It’s just a matter of dividing a 3D shape into layers and printing each successive layer over the previous one. This is true enough, and a myriad of affordable machines appeared on the market. Some with dubious results. In the effort to democratize 3D printing, resolution and quality are often compromised. There is no fault in this, it’s a terrific thing (for example) for elementary school kids to realize the shapes they create in CAD and take them home the same day. The technology still has the power to fuel imagination. 

An unfortunate reality is that imagination often stops there at the printer. The limitations of a nozzle on a gantry system laying down layers of filament tends to make every object feel a little sterile and unyielding. Yes, there are many different technologies that can infuse color or some flexibility of materials, but it’s challenging to create artistry with machines that were meant for such narrow purposes.

Linking Design Technology & Process

I am captivated by Biomimicry and Generative Design. The forms created by algorithms and iterative variables can be sublime when guided by the right inputs. The resulting shapes are sometimes beautiful, occasionally even a little creepy because of the way they tend to anthropomorphize previously rational geometric forms. It is not unusual to see gold and silver jewelry inspired by algae or vasculature. Imagine the chassis of a supercar that appears as if it had grown like tree roots to seize the steering column. The applications of these tools in product design and engineering create a striking contrast of organic shapes in highly constrained and toleranced environments. 

At small scale, manufacturers can afford to print these shapes in steel and titanium at very fine resolution, thus printing in layers seems appropriate. Especially if secondary process are used for finishing. But when producing at a large scale, organic shapes with fine features do not lend themselves to be stacked. It seems that the technology that creates the form is outpacing the technology used to fabricate the geometry. That’s why I was fascinated with Patrik Schumacher’s installation for Milan Design Week.

“Named after the Greek word for flora that has no differentiation between stem and leaf, Thallus is an experimental structure investigating form and pattern generated by advanced manufacturing and computational methods.”

Zaha Hadid Architects

The use of sophisticated robotics not only for final form generation but also for the initial support structure is indicative of a sophisticated methodology. The shapes derived from a hot-string cut are fascinating. Is it really derived from a straight line? It must be but it flows in such a way that feels both concave and convex simultaneously. 

The application of a continuous strip upon the string-cut surface is gratifying to watch. It’s as if both artist and pallet are moving in concert. The balance of form, density, curve and line create a form that is both organic and geometric.

Thallus is a compelling example of a craftsman appropriating technology to execute his vision. The video documenting the design and fabrication process is as engaging as the final form itself. Is this art? Is it design? architecture? engineering? Aspirational design confronts the limitations and boundaries of our expectations. Installations for Design Week are a great way to showcase emerging applications of technology, but what are the practical applications of these methods at a human scale for products, spaces and structures? 

To learn more about these methodologies, check out Patrik Schumacher’s lecture on Tectonism here.