Ambiguity in Design: Part One

In this first part of Ambiguity in Design I will talk about why ambiguity is important to designers and how current CAD programs are inadequate for early sketch design.

Par two will explore the promise of Mixed Reality to deliver better sketch design tools.

I got interested in Mixed Reality through my journey in coming to grips with ambiguity as a student learning the design process. Common sense says that as a project progresses it moves along a gradient of vagueness starting from something totally vague and unknown to a completion point where most things stand accounted for. Common sense also tells us that the more decisions that can be made up front the quicker the project moves. There is a paradox with this vagueness gradient however, because too many decisions locked in too early can stifle creativity and cause costly changes later on. One of the greatest values of an architect is the ability to manage the delicate balance of known and unknown as a project moves from page to stone. Ambiguity becomes our greatest ally.

Rather than fear ambiguity and unknowing, designers come to know it as vital to designing. The usual tools we have to work with this ambiguity of known and unknown in the early stages of a project have been with us for centuries; the sketch and the scratch model. These two tools allow for quick iteration, one after the other. They are relatively cheap also, which allows you stay detached from any one idea as you move from idea to idea. You eventually have to pick a favorite, but quality projects come from a process all about exploration and iteration.

What happens next has plagued designers for the last few decades. Modern workflows require the design to enter a computer. A sketch or a scratch model is turned into more formalized plans or digital models. This workflow leads to an annoying duplication of work as you digitize an idea and rebuild it within a CAD system. Laser scanners can help speed the process along and programs exist that allow you to scan a sketch and quickly pull out vector data. These systems can be costly, but more importantly, they still take time away from actual design.

So begins the dream: is there a suitable sketch design tool within the computer? Because physical scratch models are great and all, but I hate duplicating work, and it would be useful to have all the benefits of a virtual model from the start.

I’ve been searching, but so far I haven’t found anything close to a fully fledged commercial product (I’ll give some examples in part two that look promising). I know there are some CAD programs that work to aid sketching, but they are inadequate. SketchUp is often touted as an excellent program for quick modeling. Smaller firms find it economical to enter this cad program immediately. SketchUp, though, is not the solution. In fact, its use in the very first stage of design is crippling to designers.

Currently jumping into CAD for early design development causes this phenomenon where the designer stops the iteration process too early and commits to a design after only a few or sometimes one basic idea. This may be seen as an advantage, but important decisions are locked in too early and cost a great deal to change (time, money, or both, depending on if this is an academic or real world project) as the project progresses. The designer’s ability to balance ambiguity is somehow diminished. The overall quality of the finished design suffers. I have seen this in my own work and in others, many professors even warn us to avoid CAD in the early stages of design.

We need to be able to express an idea clearly, but keep it vague enough to improve upon and adapt to various imput. It is too easy to look at a cad space and get lulled into the belief that it solves the design problem well enough. A physical scratch model of chip board invites much more skepticism because of the inherent vagueness of material quality, scale, etc. In fact, professors also warn us to keep accurate material expression to a minimum with our physical scratch models, thereby actively encouraging us to retain ambiguity in order to help further iteration.

Some designers can work so well within the CAD environment that they are able to continue to push out iteration after iteration. They can operate the programs so that they avoid becoming lulled into one idea, and they see joy in operating the CAD programs. This ability takes a great deal of familiarity with the CAD programs however, and time spent learning a foreign method of interacting with shape and void could be better spent learning about void and shape. At some point we have to ask ourselves; are we CAD operators or are we designers?

Is it the fault of the programs, or should we go back further? Maybe it is the fault of the interaction systems?. The mouse and the keyboard are wonderful at delivering fully defined line segments or accurately rendered perspectives, but those things come later in the design process. Sketch design requires a more direct interaction with the hands, just like with the sketch tools of the past. This is something that mice and and keyboards have difficult with. Future tools will allow us to manipulate shape and void as we can with older tools, and we get all the advantages of virtual representation. Future tools must allow this.

This is where Mixed Reality comes in. For one, rather than provide some metaphor for a pen, as in Photoshop’s brush tool, or for a scratch model, as SketchUp attempts to provide, we are offered a truly intuitive and freeing method of working which allows our hands to enter the virtual space.

An exploration of ambiguity and these future tools is to come in part two…