Hi-tech creativity

How is technology having an impact on the design process?

Daniel During.
Daniel During.
George Katodrytis.
George Katodrytis.
David Rooney.
David Rooney.
Zain Mustafa.
Zain Mustafa.

CID asks what impact technology is having on design methodology– and what’s being lost in the process?

In 1997, the Italian-headquartered architecture and interiors firm, PLS Design, worked on a project in Abu Dhabi. In those days, communicating with a client across any kind of geographical divide was still a complicated, time-consuming process.

“Sending an image over the Internet was a massive headache; it was so complicated. You had to find alternative ways of doing everything. You had to photocopy drawings, and then try to send them by fax,” remembers Lino Losanno, a partner at the firm.

Just over a decade later and things have changed beyond recognition. Technology has globalised design, making it easy for ideas, inspiration and information to travel from one end of the world to the other, and then back again, in a matter of minutes.

“Designers are able to consult on international projects in different countries, without actually having been there, which is truly amazing and efficient, and it allows us to use materials from all over the world and to recreate a particular country’s look and feel in any other country,” noted Daniel During, managing partner of Thomas Klein International.

Technology has been instrumental in enhancing communication across the design chain, and in making design more accessible to a wider audience. “It enables us to visualise the final product better in terms of what the design will look like. The technology helps us to produce 3D renderings of the design for the client, which is very helpful,” During detailed.

“Basically, it enhances the communication process between us and our clients in terms of conveying a design idea, which is usually subliminal and subjective,” he added.

Speed, freedom, ease and efficiency are technology’s greatest gifts to the design industry. “It allows much more flexibility in terms of ease in making small changes, and also allows more intricate and complicated designs. Before technology we had to redraw the entire design from scratch to add any changes. Technology has also allowed us to be more efficient, and can combine different areas of specialisation at the same time,” During continued.

Technology also facilitates the creative process, encouraging designers to question and challenge existing boundaries, suggested George Katodrytis, associate professor at the American University of Sharjah’s School of Architecture and Design.

“Technology has made interior designers imagine and fabricate new and complex forms, and unpredictable colours and textures. It has made interiors fantasy-like, almost like renderings as seen on a computer screen. This new visual language and synthetic materiality has been synonymous with new technologies,” Katodrytis explained.

AutoCad, Photoshop, 3D Max and Maya are some of the more commonly used tools currently employed by designers in the creative process. Form-Z is another, more niche, platform, while web-based softwares that allow designers to sample a variety of materials, in varying colours and textures, in virtual and interactive environments, are growing in popularity.

“Our application of technology in design relates to our desire to test new construction processes and apply new methods and approaches to the design process. We are working on a number of schemes currently that are genuinely groundbreaking with regards to the application of alternative construction technology,” said David Rooney, design director, Luxe Interior.

Whatever the technologies employed, it is essential to use a common platform that is shared by all of the various stakeholders involved in a design project, warned Zain Mustafa, founder of Zain Mustafa Interiors.

“The technologies that we use in the office are 3D Max and AutoCad, primarily. We also end up using a lot of Photoshop to layer over the 3D Max. We will also use Illustrator and PowerPoint but these are mainly communication tools, they are not about the design. The design is done in AutoCad – after we’re done with the 2B pencil, obviously!

“The reason one uses AutoCad is it is technically sound. Any engineering company can also read it. So when you send it and it’s done on a PC format, it’s a platform that everybody can read and understand. Its unilateral quality allows it to be flexible, so we stick to that,” he continued.

“A lot of people might ask why we don’t use a Mac since we are a cutting-edge design company, but we don’t live in an isolated environment. I need everybody else who makes our design happen to understand those drawings, regardless of where they come from, how old their machine is, and how big or small their company is,” he said.

As a new generation of technologically-fluent designers make their way into the business arena, the impact of technology is only set to grow. At the University of Sharjah, students are being versed in digital modelling and rendering, digital fabrication laser cutter and 3D printers, parametric design methods and simulation of natural light and sun movement.

PLS Design’s Losanno is already noticing a difference in the way that younger designers are approaching the design process. “We still use pencils. We make sketches. But I see that new architects and designers are different. After all, they completed all their studies using computers. And some of the current design is very much affected by the software they are using,” he said.

As designers become more and more comfortable with the technology at their disposal, things like ‘virtual walk-throughs’ will become ever more prevalent, Mustafa predicted. “I would like for the virtual walk-through to come back because it allows for the design to become more experiential.

“I’d love to explore and develop that genre more but, unfortunately, right now, it would cut me away from all the people that have to build my stuff for me. I would like the virtual walk-through to become easier to do, so we could use it more in-house, like you do 3D Max,” he said.

Moving forward, technology will be the catalyst that allows designers of built environments to push more and more boundaries. “Ultimately, it will push engineers to build bigger, stronger and more creative concepts; the Burj Khalifa is a good example of how technology has evolved and enables us to build and create more daring concepts,” During pointed out.

“Technology pushes designers and engineers to go that extra mile and to find better, more revolutionary construction methods and materials.”

However, there is a balance to be struck. “There is a danger that we as creatives become slaves to the technology, rather than masters of it. One can see evidence of this in many Dubai interiors where it is clear that computer technology has driven the design, rather than a real understanding of what the venue is intended for and who will use it,” said Rooney. “The design process has to be more than the production of a knock-out visual!”

Technology can create distance, and it is critically important not to lose touch with the essence of a project. “Technology enables us to work remotely, or even to work from home, but in some cases I still believe that designers need to experience the product for themselves. I personally go to every site myself, to absorb the vibrancy of a particular place, in order to get the real essence of the location, and then convey my feelings and opinions to my team,” said During.

The all-important human element can too easily be lost, Katodrytis warned. “Handcrafted techniques and original pieces have been lost. Interiors have become generic and mass-produced, as well as fabricated in workshops and only assembled on site. The ease of production has been fascinating – I only hope that basic human senses remain an integral part of this revolution: seeing, as in natural light; touch, as in rough materiality; smell – not of plastic, and sound, as in silence,” he said.

For all its benefits, technology comes with a distinct set of dangers. Speed and efficiency should not replace considered, heartfelt design. “Consider the simple act of drawing a box with a pencil,” said Mustafa. “With technology it is so easy and quick to create a box that often you don’t have time to think about the intrinsic value of that box. Should it really be those proportions? You go so fast from one box to the next to the third to the fourth that somewhere in those layers, a lot of things do get lost.

“We have gained speed and efficiency but we don’t have time to think the design through as rigorously anymore. You are not necessarily thinking it through as much as you would because you are not going through the process of rubbing it out, throwing your piece of tracing paper away, and starting all over again.”

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