My name is Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, and I am half of the design firm Nervous System [http://n-e-r-v-o-u-s.com] (mentioned already in the Ponoko blog) where I work on algorithmic design creating jewelry, furniture, and dappling in architecture. I also work for Gehry Technologies, a company which specializes in parametric and building information modeling for complex architectural projects.
I am obviously interested in algorithmic design and digital manufacturing but with an eye toward empowering people through education and technology. I would like to start a critical discussion of issues such as the democratization of design and manufacturing, sustainability, and the economics of distributed production. We are at a turning point in human history which makes it both important and exciting to talk about these possibilities.
Algorithms as a Medium
I would like to elaborate a bit more a what algorithmic design really is because I believe it can sometimes be a little confused.
A while ago I attended Andrew Witt’s thesis presentation at the Harvard GSD because his work is computational, similar to my own, and there was supposed to be a star jury criticizing him (most notably architects and theorists including Peter Eisenman, Ali Rahim, and Jeff Kipnis).
The project was very well done, detailed and thoroughly explored, using some neat processes. I think everyone was impressed with the work. But some of the critics reactions, especially the older crowd, highlighted the misunderstandings many people hold regarding design and computation. What they said was, “You promised us a building that would have context. I do not see any context in this building. How can a building possibly have context if it is made by the push of a button, and if you push that button anywhere, you get roughly the same building.” Well yes, if you push that button you will get a similar building regardless of the planned surroundings. But the key point they were missing was that Andrew designed that button. And he designed it with a specific context in mind. Almost any building in the city could be plopped somewhere else, but it was designed for the block it is on. This fact does not change just because the process is computational.
They fundamentally misunderstand the nature of algorithms: algorithms are a design medium. Algorithmic design is simply the systematic encoding of a design process, often into a programming language. With my own work, I come with a creative vision in mind and realize that vision through algorithms. It is just as if I were working with pencil and paper, only I’m clumsy when I draw and keen when I code. Both drawing and inventing algorithms are creative processes. It just happens that algorithms exists in a space that is very explicit (and very fast).
Instead, many people view computation as more of a technical skill than a creative one. The consequence is that some people view it as out of their grasp and completely incomprehensible, much in the same way some approach computers. Others have perhaps the opposite reaction. They see it as so technical, it does not count as art. They believe it is somehow outside the designer’s hands. A technical process is perceived as something almost platonic, as though it has an objective existence that the designer is merely employing.
This perspective is highly limiting. Computation is like any other medium. It has its strengths and weaknesses that effect how you approach a particular design problem. One of the primary constraints is that designing algorithmically requires manufacturing digitally, and there is a very limited set of tools currently available for that. This could also be seen (especially in the Ponoko community) as a bonus. There are also certain ideas that computation is good at exploring. While in most designing, a lot of the work goes into the direct effort of creation (painting, sculpting, drawing usually take a lot of physical time and effort), the advantage of a computational approach is that the creation time drops to nearly zero. This makes it a very good way to explore the concept of repetition because it is just as easy to make many things as one thing. It allows the possibility of infinite variability for the same reason. The ability to abstract your process and create a user interface also encourages interactivity and “customization.” Generally I think algorithmic design is a very powerful medium, but working with it requires an understanding where its strengths lay.