It is a magical thing to start from nothing and bring something new into the world. For some, the primal act of creation is a moment of self-doubt and fear. What if what you make isn’t good? What if people don’t like it? What if it causes you to lose face, or money, or to waste a bunch of time and energy on a useless folly? To people who think this way, the best strategy is to follow some pattern, some standard, or some best practice that worked out last time. Adopting a vetted standard reduces your personal responsibility if something goes wrong. And, anyhow, if there is a single right way to do it, why would anyone choose a different way?
If you are reading this, I hope you are already thinking differently. Real acts of creation must acknowledge the norms and standards of practice as an important historical precedent. But they must also look beyond them to imagine something the world hasn’t seen before. I am optimistic that the best designs for the future are those that question acknowledged norms, critique the ideology of their inception, and look past them to imagine something different. Design is a progressive act. You must believe that the future you propose is better than where the project started. Embrace that and treasure any opportunity to take part.
There are people in the world who know how to design. As a society, we know how to train them, and we generally recognize that the work they do is uniquely valuable. They can put themselves into a unique mental state, fusing reflection and action into a laminar flow state, which takes input from the world and produces as output proposals for how things should change for the better. In architecture, the most effective designs are those that are buildable, which perform well against all objective design criteria, and yet at the same time add a mysterious quality to the final product which cannot be rationalized easily but is evident to all. But this isn't just about architecture. It is a universal quality of design and the designers who practice it. And if you are one of the people who know how to do it, you already know what I mean.
Technologists like me tend to solve the problems we know how to settle before the harder challenges that we know might be more important. Since the 1960s, people like me have been building tools designed to remove the drudgery of professional design work. First, we made 2D CAD systems to help architects draft more efficiently. Then we built rendering engines to help architects present their work more beautifully. Most recently, we have been developing full building simulation tools (Building Information Modeling, or “BIM”) that help to describe the proposed building to fully constructible levels of detail before the first shovelful of dirt is moved on the construction site. We have built tools to help estimate cost, to manage the flow of resources on a project, and widen the bandwidth of communication between all members of the team.
There is visible, measurable, and repeatable value in all such tools. Most architecture firms are already using some variation on these tools somewhere in their practice. They may well have trouble imagining doing professional work without them. Can you imagine, for example, leaving your email behind for a return to the fax machine? This is not the full story, however.
It seems to me there is a harder problem that we have forgotten in our industry’s heady rush of technological enthusiasm. Simply defined, it is the primary and essential work of basic design. Our technological toolbox helps us to drive a design through production and construction with greater and greater efficiency. All of that improvement is irrelevant if you haven’t got a good design at the beginning.
Since 2002, I have been a member of the product management team responsible for the design and development of a digital sketching tool called “SketchUp,” which we designed to speak to the problems of designers (particularly architects) doing conceptual design. At its invention, few other tools existed to satisfy this need. That is still mostly true today. To this day, we have users who can’t understand why we haven’t developed more tools for CAD drafting, for rendering, or BIM. The answer is simple, often repeated, but widely misunderstood. We haven’t built those tools because that isn’t really what SketchUp is. It is for doing design, which is an inherently messy, abstract, and iterative process. SketchUp is where you do the design work that you will later document, render, and otherwise simulate to obsessive detail. Design work which may, if you’re lucky, translate through to construction. But the long journey to that result always starts with a simple sketch.
A sketch is often little more than a collection of lines and ideas, often captured on paper, that together suggest the future only in the most abstract way possible. A sketch captures the essence of an idea and exposes it for reflection.
And at the beginning of every sketch, there is a line. In 1974, shortly after graduating from the Cooper Union School of Architecture, George Chaikin invented a quietly elegant technique for drafting curved lines of remarkable complexity using only a compass and straightedge. “Chaikin’s Algorithm(fn),” as it is now known, approximates smoothly curved lines by progressively cutting corners off a series of connected straight line segments. If more smoothness is needed, the draftsman simply knocks off another set of corners. And so on and so on until the curve looks smooth enough.
To someone who has drafted by hand, this algorithm is intuitively apparent. The explanation probably sounds a bit silly. However, it happens that this algorithm also makes it possible for computers to represent smooth curves. Mathematically, Chaikin’s Algorithm produces quadratic Bezier curves. In other words, Chaikin’s algorithm creates the same kind of curves that Adobe Illustrator does.
I had the good fortune to study with George at Cooper Union when I was a student there in the early ’90s. George’s computer class (the only one taught at the time in the School of Architecture) was unusual. Perhaps more like a design studio than a programming class. I learned, based on things like George’s curve drawing algorithm, that a pencil is a pretty powerful piece of design technology, and there are not many forms that you cannot precisely describe using one.
Of course, computers can draw 3D form on-screen many orders of magnitude faster than I can with a pencil on paper. Graphics pipelines running on specialized hardware can transform and draw 3D models to the screen at 30+ frames per second. With a pencil, my (personal) frame rate is probably less than one frame per minute for a straightforward model. Computers are always faster, and faster is always better. Right? To members of the first fully digital generation, this probably sounds pretty obvious. But if all I want is a single 2D view of a 3D object, paper, and pencil are probably about as fast as modeling the entire object and letting the computer draw that 2D composition for me.
The transformative moment for me, when drawing on a computer changed the way I thought about design came when I wanted to have a look at what I was designing from some point of view that I didn’t know I was going to want when I started. I picked up the model and spun it around. As I moved my point of view, I got a smooth transition. I could watch the model move by in front of my eyes. I didn’t get lost. I could have a cinematic sort of experience as I zipped from place to place in the model, experiencing multiple points of view as quickly as I could move my mouse. The computer transformed the experience of space by merely drawing fast enough that I could see past the individual frames and fall into the immersive spatial experience we call “3D”.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, right when I was completing my education as an architect, practices around the world were being sold computer-aided design systems that were affordable and (relatively) easy to learn. Architects were told that conversion from hand drafting to drawing on-screen would allow them to complete projects faster, and with considerable cost efficiency. In the end, architects switched industry-wide to using CAD systems like AutoCAD. And the promise was fulfilled. Projects did become more comfortable to document, and changes did become easier to manage. The future, it seems, had brightened for the profession.
My first real professional experience with CAD was in Berlin, during the construction boom that followed Germany’s reunification. Working together with young colleagues from around the world, I got my introduction to production drafting work. Working against a madcap weekly review schedule for Hochtief Construction, I helped document a million square meters of space for the Messe Berlin, working in the offices of O.M. Ungers, Walter A. Noebel, and (later, on other projects) Müller + Reimann, Architekten. We used a tool that was at the time the absolute apex of design technology, the “virtual building” simulation tool ArchiCAD(fn), from Hungarian software developers Graphisoft, running on state-of-the-art Power Macintosh computers.
When I returned from Berlin to the United States, I took a job with Boulder, Colorado-based Communication Arts, Inc., where I worked for over six years as a designer on a wide range of large retail and other commercial projects. Still working on Macintosh computers, I traded ArchiCAD for FormZ(fn); traded the drudgery of construction documentation for the drudgery of rendering. But at Communication Arts, I had an opportunity to learn under some of our industry’s most talented design communicators. Guys like Mike Doyle, whose book “Color Drawing”(fn) is now in its third printing— a bible for architectural rendering that is as relevant today as it ever has been.
From Communication Arts, I made a change. I knew that technology had an opportunity to change the way design work was done, but I wasn’t satisfied that it was doing so in the right ways. Technologists usually automate the things they know how to automate, not always the things that are the most important to the users they are serving. The designers of those early AEC CAD systems rightly assumed that architects would know how to apply these new tools effectively and would protect the work they were doing that couldn’t be automated. But I’m not sure this is exactly how it played out.
Technology, though automation of that which was judged to be manual drudgery, may have also reduced (inadvertently) the quality of design. Because if you can jump straight to the conclusion, to get a set of drawings produced that looks consistent and complete, then you can get paid quicker and move on to the next job. Admittedly, however, this isn’t the fault of the tool. Magical buildings have been built that could only have been completed with computational help.
Leaving the traditional path to professional licensure and a full career in architecture at Communication Arts, I joined a snappy tech startup in Boulder with a dream that 3D modeling should be as easy as sketching by hand, and as powerful. Our company was called @Last Software, and in 2000, we released the first version of a product called “SketchUp.”
If the success of SketchUp has been any indication, the design tools of the future will not only work primarily in 3D, but they will be much simpler than what we’re using today – simple like a pencil and paper is simple. As designers, we’ve got about all the “powerful” we need for a while. If you’re like me (and like most software users), you use less than 10% of the features available to you more than 90% of the time. The word processor I’m using to write this book has about a dozen buttons in the toolbar, of which I’ve used a total of three. I downloaded it for free from the web, and this book is the first time I have ever used it. This is an excellent tool for writing. Not particularly “powerful” from a feature perspective, but it does every single thing I need a word processor to do. Simple, complete, and powerful.
Simple tools are not just easier to use. They are also easier to share. When we released the first free version of SketchUp back in 2006, we found that both architects and their clients started building and editing 3D models together. Some architects were threatened by this, fearing that it undermined their design authority. But I think it led to much better design work all around. If your client has an idea about where the front window should go, allowing them to show you that idea in a 3D model is just so much more useful than listening to them try to describe it verbally. To be historically fair, clients also know how to use pencils to communicate their design ideas.
The great thing about sharing tools isn’t really that projects move faster (although that tempts business-minded folks), but instead, that streamlined communication gives everyone is more time to iterate. More time to think and to try things that don’t work out. More time to improve the design and work the bugs out of it. More time to make the design a great design. The real democratization of design is happening right now, right under our noses.
The rising tide of information technology has brought some improvement to the construction industry. The now-ubiquitous tools for communication and collaboration afforded by the internet (email, the world wide web, search engines, and live videoconferencing) have forever changed the way we work. Designers are also learning that their design proposals can be fully simulated in the computer to constructible levels of detail before construction begins. BIM promises to encode into a designer’s model not only the fully realized properties of a design but also a non-graphical encoding of every attribute, property, or even the chain of decisions that have gone into them throughout the lifecycle of the project.
But with this technology has come a breathless temptation to leap to constructibility too fast, glossing over the core design research and the traditional reflection-in-action that defines an architect’s design process. As a profession, it has become all too easy to simply skip the careful thought and considered thesis/antithesis/synthesis that separates a competent design from a great one.
Stewart Brand, in the Whole Earth Catalog, observed that the affordances of our rapidly advancing technologies had changed our essential being as a species. "We are as gods," he observed, "...and we might as well get good at it." Contemporary designers are afforded power to conceptualize and implement their design ideas with a speed and capability almost unimaginable even a generation ago. With this great power must come as well a strong sense of responsibility. If we can build anything we imagine, what is the best thing to build next?