As laid out in the introduction, a certain strain of computational thinking is presented as a necessary and sufficient basis for knowledge altogether. In recent years, ‘computational’ as an adjective has emerged to describe new approaches to various older fields — among them, computational biology, computational linguistics, and of course, computational design. Ironically, given post-Enlightenment progressivism and the hegemony of scientific knowledge, for some, computation even threatens the scientific method (see Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science). However, both rational scientific analysis and computational processes tend to disregard or undervalue practices that cannot easily be quantified; for example, tacit/embodied knowledge, divergent thinking, and framing problems. Computational designers bring valuable approaches and strategies to the greater fields of design and technology, but there is also a distinct friction arising from the intermingling of computation and design, processes with particular (and perhaps opposing) ways of knowing.

A few of my interview subjects addressed the sometimes arduous process of reconciling computational thinking with design. Ken, an adjunct professor of architecture and a technologist who learned programming at an early age, described challenges he faced specific to his background in his architectural education. He points to handling ambiguity in the design process in particular, confessing that he “couldn’t handle not having a process.”1 To wander in search of a solution, and sometimes in the process, reframing the question itself and starting over again from the beginning was onerous: “How could you just scrap your whole plan and start again?... That’s so inefficient and nonlinear from a code perspective.” Unexpected discoveries in every field, of course, come about only through nonlinear, emergent practices, as opposed to tried-and-true methods and techniques. For someone schooled in computation and programming practices, successful design work requires a simple (and not at all simple) mindset shift. Ken concludes, “I had to unlearn a lot of things about programming in architecture school… To acquire a logic of design was to abandon certain logics of programming.”

Another interview subject, Maria, a design instructor, notes how certain ways of thinking are also related to age. A notion that, in design, one not only solves a given problem but frames it, is one that somehow grows more difficult with age. Having taught design to both elementary-level and high school students, she says:

“The 8 to 14 year-old range [are] actually much more open-minded… For the high schoolers… Some of them are against that ideology. They’re used to being given the topic. It’s hard, sometimes, for them to step back and really have an open mind about ways of solving for problems that are not one single thing.”2

Like Ken’s experience in architecture school, Maria’s students face difficulties not so much in the technical knowledge of software, but in the more nuanced worldview of designing generally. For Maria, as a teacher, one of the greatest challenges is instilling this spirit: “To teach a student to look at a problem from multiple perspectives, really analyze a problem critically, and then solve for that problem, through something that’s designed.” In addition, for students with an all-or-nothing approach to their work, the nonlinearity of certain unsuccessful designs can be discouraging. Maria points to the fear of failure as another hindrance to embracing designerly ways of working: “A lot of these students are afraid of failing, they’re afraid of getting bad grades, so it’s been kind of indoctrinated into the way they’re thinking. It’s sort of like I’m unteaching them. They have to unlearn some of that to do this studio.” While certain approaches to programming do run contrary to to the design process, for designers who can pragmatically discard the constraints of programming logic, computation can also meaningfully and even poetically situate their creative practice. Beyond specific technologies and software programs, the ability to imagine and see transformations in objects and systems greatly expands the space of possibilities for designers.

1. Skype interview with Ken, July 17, 2017.
2. Skype interview with Maria, September 10, 2017.

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