Journal of Computer-Aided Environmental Design and Education

Editor: Joan McLain-Kark  jmkark@vt.edu

Volume 1, Number 1
Fall 1995

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Computer Applications in Design

Dennis Jones
The College of Architecture and Urban Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

In design we teach computing and in computing we find new insights and images of perfection in design.

There are two interwoven themes that form the basis for the integration of computing into a design curriculum, the application of computing to the design process and the modification of computing to accommodate the design process. The degree to which these two issues are addressed is not as significant as the discovery of the possibilities and limitations of the medium. As in all aspects of design it is in the extremes of the medium where the real questions which need to be addressed reside.

The computer offers the possibility of creating and visualizing, geometry, space, form and light as never before. The computer can also foster a climate for
proposing, examining, and analyzing alternatives. There are of course limitations where ambiguity, vagueness and conflict of purpose exist, all of which are essential to the discovery of the meaning of a design as a vignette that allows one to experience what cannot be seen. The computer in contemporary design education is much more an extension of the hand of the designer and much less a servant to his mind. Quality in design remains the offspring of the designer's vision, intellect, and imagination. It is in facilitation of these human processes that the power of the man-computer symbiosis should be understood. The true potential of computing to effect design has yet to be realized, testing of limits, questioning of methods and searching for meaning.

Machines and software are changing at exponential rates.
Every eighteen months the speed and capacity of computing machines doubles. There is the natural tendency to marvel at the individual technologies of this electronic revolution and to make each new 'gizmo' the panacea for what ails the world of architecture and the design professions. The evolutionary nature of computing makes it necessary to take care in divising an educational strategy for the incorporation of computing into an architectural/design curriculum. Fixing on a particular hardware platform or a specific software package or even a specific approach to instruction is questionable and maybe even unwise. In teaching design, it is common practice to use exemplary art and architecture and designed objects as the means to understanding both design quality and design process. Similarly focusing on exemplary artifacts of computer applications with respect to design, leads naturally to an appreciation of quality and an
examination of the methods and processes required to create comparable products. Our objective is to instill a zeal for visual quality, capable of standing up against quality artifacts from any other medium. Most importantly this attitude keeps us focused on the question rather than the answer. How does computing support design?

Only by means of a full understanding of the tasks may we find the means relevant to their solution. It is more important for the results to put correct questions than to get correct answers to wrong questions.
Christian Norburg-Schulz

Today, there are still no computer programs that are design
tools. Computer programs that claim to be computer aided
design tools are like the "Emperor's new clothes," a figment of our imagination. It is important to differentiate between design tools and drafting and rendering tools, drafting and rendering are deterministic procedures which may be computerized with relative ease; while design requires a flexible and ever changing set of tools to identify and manipulate the abstract relationships between object and meaning. Architecture by nature is a duality. It is art and science. It is at once subjective and objective. In thinking about the role of computers in creative design, it is important to realize a basic difference between human thinking and computer modeling representation, designers and visual communicators deal with imagination, which does not have to confine its self to the real world. Most computer graphics systems, on the other hand, have been designed to model physical objects, their geometry, and natural laws.

The graphics programs and analytical tools which architects and designers currently use, have for the most part been created by non-designers who have only a marginal understanding and interest in the nature of the design
process. As a result, the software is often cumbersome and even counter productive to the facilitation of the design. As one does not have to a mechanic to drive a car, neither does one have to be a programer to use a computer. However, the frustration designers have with the current state of affairs in computer systems and software can only be altered by the direct involvement of designers in the conceptualization and development of the tools for design and visualization. For this to happen some of us must be educated as mechanics.

The following is an example of a typical project given to students in the course:

Topics in Design Methods
- Computer Modeling and Visualization.

Project Assignment #2 Chair Study The purpose of this exercise is to understand and control the various factors involved in creating a photo-realistic image. So that we may focus on the quality of the product and come to terms with the making of a refined image, we will use a designed chair as the vehicle for this investigation.

Select a chair or table to render. The piece should minimally be composed of two materials, (a transparent of reflective material, and an opaque material). The piece selected should be of a high design quality and complex enough to warrant spending the time to model and render it. To assure this, please bring a drawing or picture of the chair or table that you have selected to the next class session. The chair should be drawn in context (minimally with floor and walls and lights). The floor and wall materials are your choice. Make three renditions of this object using the same 3D model:

  1. A three dimensional hot wire surface model
  2. A phong shaded model with shadows
  3. A ray traced model with all materials and lights defined

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