In order to project future ways of working, it is necessary to understand how and why designers and technologists work the way they do today. However, I am not attempting a broad survey of styles and techniques. Rather, I am interested in close research with people who exhibit positive deviance. As described in a 2009 sociological article on the subject, positive deviance is “the observation that in most settings a few... individuals follow uncommon, beneficial practices and consequently experience better outcomes than their neighbours.”1 Toward the ends of this thesis, I am interested in artists, architects, designers, and technologists whose work may not lead to ‘better outcomes’ according to traditional, capitalist definitions (they won’t be showing up on the cover of magazines, for example), but who operate outside of the norm and project unique, provocative futures. I sought out such individuals in order to understand their work, and more importantly, how and why they work and think the way they do.
Over the summer and fall of 2017, I conducted nine one-hour interviews with subjects working in architecture, design, technology, and art (although most lack a job title identifying them explicitly with one of those fields). Again, were I to be studying these fields writ large, nine people would be an insufficient sample size to examine. Instead, my investigation into these interviews is presented as a close study of a small group that is not representative, but which might lead to general insights. The interview subjects include architectural designers, software developers, game designers, graphic designers, digital artists, technologists, and students (with significant overlap and blurring of professional lines). All of the subjects are young (in their 20s or early- to mid-30s), and at the time of this research based on the East Coast or Midwest of the U.S. Six identify as male, two as female, and one as nonbinary. Five are personal acquaintances of mine; I was connected to the remaining interviewees through other personal acquaintances, through a technology/design forum, and through the October 2017 computational design symposium. Wherever I quote from or reference interviews in the chapters that follow, I use pseudonyms for each interview subject, and have occasionally made slight adjustments to how they describe their work in order to preserve anonymity.
In addition to the interviews, and alongside the formulation of a framework for thinking about computational design, I worked on software prototypes and conducted design workshops, which are used as case studies supporting the framework. I call the two software programs ‘prototypes’ to emphasize the fact that they are not intended as commercial apps or products, but as embodiments of the particular component of the framework I associate them with, as well as research instruments. They are full-fledged, interactive (web-based) interfaces for exploring computational design principles, and I was able to build them not only as a result of my professional background as a web developer, but with the opportunity, through this program, to take courses in strictly-typed imperative programming, computer graphics, and human-computer interaction. The third case study, a design workshop, relies on an open-source software program as a research device, and also benefited from my collaboration with my classmate, Atefeh Mahdavi Goloujeh, as well as an additional cross-disciplinary course I took on social innovation and group facilitation in design.
Synthesizing this research, the framework for thinking about computational design rests on three components: Generating, simulating, and interrogating. Unifying theories are always just out of grasp, but I found it helpful to begin to think about my own work in this way, and to start to view other work through this lens. However, the results of the interviews and the case studies together illustrate that it’s impossible to conceptually or practically separate one approach from another: Generative work can be greatly enhanced through simulation techniques; neither simulating nor generating will cohere without an interrogative mindset; and designers working technically and materially are better positioned to critically interrogate using computational simulation and generating methods.
Through this framework, supported by examples from the interviews and case studies of my own work, I present a proof-of-concept for a new way of understanding and practicing computational design. I hope that the framework, as a general and flexible lens for work and research, will lead to new pedagogies of computational design and, ultimately, bring about novel, desirable futures.
1. Marsh, David R., Dirk G. Schroeder, Kirk A. Dearden, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin. "The power of positive deviance." BMJ: British Medical Journal 329, no. 7475 (2004): 1177. ↩