The Three Kinds Of Design

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There are three kinds of design that are competing for attention today. Ken Yeung of VentureBeat did a great job explaining the three types when the new 2016 #DesignInTech Report came out, so I recommend that you read his article to start.

Computational design in 2016 relates specifically to the kind of design that Margaret Stewart of Facebook refers to in her popular TED talk on designing for millions of people.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 1.14.37 PM.pngBut it wasn’t always that way. Computational design also refers to a body of work that began in the 70s and 80s by leaders like Muriel Cooper, William J. Mitchell, Red Burns, Donald Norman, Gillian Crampton-Smith, and also work that my graduate research team led at the Media Lab. A few graduates from that era when I led the Aesthetics + Computation Group, Professor Casey Reas at UCLA (with Ben Fry at Fathom) and Professor Golan Levin at CMU have taken those ideas to heights that I could never imagined with Processing and OpenFrameworks. And there are now literally hundreds of thousands of people who live at the intersection of computation and design in ways that seemed impossible way back in the lonely 90s.

Computational design in general is a completely new kind of design that had not existed in the era of physical materials (wood, metal, paper, concrete, etc), and even with dynamic materials (like film or broadcast media). It’s still emerging. And that’s what makes it still exciting. It’s in part about algorithms, and it’s also in part about how people interact with those algorithms, and it’s also in part about how it impacts society at a speed and scale that is unprecedented due to Moore’s Law’s impact on our world.

So in 2016, I’ve decided to come back to computational design and to define it in relation to classical design (i.e. the way that art and design schools teach design today) and design thinking (i.e. the way that business schools teach design today). Because we now live in an era when the word “design” now means something incredibly important to industries of all scales and at all levels of maturity from startup to public companies. But because design has so many definitions, it’s important to clarify what kind of design we’re talking about.

Dividing designs into three bins like this will naturally be offensive to folks out there who don’t see them as separate things, and already some interesting discourse and criticism has emerged. My hope is that more of it can occur — because only through debate can we sharpen and find new meanings to the work that we do. As a theorist and practitioner who has worked across these three kinds of designs for most of my life, my hope is that by distinguishing them as three types can lead to the formative discussions around design that are especially needed today. Let’s see where this all goes!


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