Play + Learn + Design

The importance of “Play” in the design studio relies heavily on its ability to bring forth creativity. In fact it is impossible not to be creative while in a state of play. 

Conference Presentation on Restructuring Design Education

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Shape Grammars promote creativity through embedding and recursion. Embedding is generous; it allows you to see whatever you want to see. While schemas give suggestions on ways to see a particular design they do not lock you into seeing things in any fixed way. This makes calculating a natural form of visual play.

What is Design?

With every action of the design process we are calculating. In fact shape grammarian George Stiny writes that design is calculating. There is calculating for firmness, calculating for commodity, even calculating for delight. The ways in which we go about calculating defines the process of design and should be the very focus of instruction within design education. However, teaching with a pedagogical stance that gives formal explanation to what has previously been considered unquantifiable comes with much criticism. Those who identify themselves with the business of traditional calculation (mathematicians, logicians, computer scientist) perceive design and the arts as subjective, and irrational. Designers, architects, and artist perceive design methods that embody calculation methods as limiting, lacking emotion, automatic, and a hindrance to “creative expression.”

My research in Design Computation is seeking to help bridge the gap between these two ways of thinking about design. Shape grammars, a form of visual calculation, provide the unifying arrangement that situates design between being an intuitive artistic expression and being a formal system of calculation. Shape grammars with its schemas and rules provide both algebraic and graphic blueprints that can be descriptive and/or generative in use. When applied, shape grammars are not fixed, but flexible, allowing for emergence as new shapes and rules can be introduced at any time effortlessly. Embedding and recursion provides a fluid, intuitive way of designing that is invigorating and illuminates the “play element” in the design process.

In a 2010 paper titled “What Rules Should I Use?” George Stiny addresses the title question with a short but precise answer, “Use any rule(s) you want, whenever you want to.” An answer that demands personal human input is far from the assumptions many presume about computational methods of design. While some researchers are looking for “rhino scripts” and one click solutions to produce artificial creativity, shape grammars relies on the human eye to guide the design process. Shape grammars do not tell you why you should use any particular rule, what rules to use, or even what sequence to use them. It does however, present a way to calculate, a way to design and talk about design, and a way to think reflectively about what you are doing for inspiration to move forward. Through recursion and embedding, shape grammars are the gateway to creativity.

The Future of Design Education

For long the design studio has struggled with teaching individuals how to be creative. Over the years creativity has been defined as being purely intuitive and somewhat mystical; yet, creativity is clearly expected from every student in showing mastery of design skills. This presents a problem for the design student, for they are tirelessly pursuing something that no one defines for them or tells them how to learn it.  Donald Schön in The Reflective Practitioner contest to this struggle in what he calls the paradox of learning new competencies.

"The paradox of learning a really new competence is this: that a student cannot first understand what he needs to learn, can learn it only by educating himself, and can educate himself only by beginning to do what he does not yet understand."

While it seems ambiguous to define creativity, educators and students alike seem keen on recognizing the byproducts of creative decisions. In truth individuals are more comfortable in identifying when someone is being creative than to give formal instructions on how to reach that “creative zone.” There is a growing concept in the field of education called Make Learning Visible. The theory states that if educators can make visible what it is their students are learning than they could be more effective by adjusting the learning experience to properly match the student’s level of development. If learning is in fact invisible then there is no way to tell if students are more advanced or further behind the necessary place to understand the desired material.

 Design education has for years been making learning “invisible” by not dealing with the nature of creativity. Many leaders in the field have used labels such as “tacit knowledge” to avoid dealing with the formal explanations for what they do. Shape grammars however deal directly with the meaning of creativity and offer a formal process to achieve it. Embedding and recursion allows us to debunk the ambiguous mystique of creativity and gives design students and educators a way to make learning very visible.

Architecture has long held the belief that design is inherently intuitive and cannot be explained (or explored) through formal descriptions. There are striking differences between communities of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and the guild communities of architecture. While the STEM fields pride themselves with the creation and sharing of knowledge, design education’s guild-like behaviors continue to promote secrecy and illusion to mask the true identity of acts we call “creative.”

Computational thinking and the ability to express one’s design ideas algorithmically are skill sets needed for the future of the profession.
Formal descriptions of creativity can now be generated as flexible companions to intuitive methods of design. This way of design should be both generative and descriptive, allowing students to reflect on their actions and use their actions to move forward and building upon the design process.