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.
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.