Designers Discussing Design, #1: Shotgun Approach vs. Rifle Approach

As an industrial designer you have to know, or at least try to guess, how an end user will think or feel about your product designs. But it’s also important to know what your fellow designers are thinking and doing. Whether you will be competing with them, co-creating alongside them, or unwittingly collaborating with them to elevate the industrial design profession as a whole, having a good grasp of the views of other designers provides context for the work you’re doing, keeps you well-informed and can be helpful when you need to make tough decisions.

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Ideally you’d be regularly exposed to conversations with other industrial designers. We’ve got something nearly as good, which is the Core77 Discussion Boards. They’re packed with information and opinions from practicing industrial designers, but we admit that the boards are so dense, they can be overwhelming. So in this series, we’re going to start mining them for interesting discussions, editing them for clarity and presenting them in a format that resembles an easier-to-digest roundtable discussion.

We’ll start off with this occasionally heated discussion, which was initially about generative design–but rapidly began to reveal the concerns of working designers vis-à-vis technology, creation, good business, meaning in design and more. To provide some context, the discussion was kicked off by a non-industrial-designer, “SK,” who seemed to walk the fine line between trolling and debate; it was also initiated some years ago, so some of the references may appear dated, although the larger issues are very relevant today.

(Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity, length, flow, and troll reduction).


SK: Years ago, on the Core77 Discussion Boards I attempted to interest industrial designers in generative design, which now seems to have taken architecture by storm. Every single architecture school of any consequence is trying to teach it. But from industrial designers I noticed a lot of scoffing and virtually no interest in generative design. I wonder if this has since changed?

Keifer: Without igniting a huge flame war, this reminds me of most designers’ initial impressions of rapid prototyping. Both generative design and rapid prototyping technology seem to prompt a “Well, it lessens my importance as a professional, so it must not be positive” reaction.

I can certainly imagine that GD would be useful in design (as opposed to art). Assuming that I understand it correctly, it seems likely that various inputs (length, height, width, specific features, etc.) could be put together with standard template-like functions to create a product (most likely in less time/with less effort than a designer could give.) Of course, that wouldn’t work for extremely specific things.

Art, on the other hand, maybe not. I appreciate art because it took skill to make it, not necessarily because it “looks cool” or follows artistic algorithms. I saw a video about generative art, it didn’t do much for me. I’d appreciate it more if a person actually made it. But maybe that’s just me, and I’m not really one to think that mass-produced objects are as “artistic” as individual pieces, so that probably distances me from some people.

Image credit: Genoform

IDiot: SK, I remember your original forum thread on generative design. Unfortunately most of the examples it showed were pretty bad, so it was a hard sell, but at that time I remember making the case (on a Core77 discussion) that in the hands of a good designer, it would be a very powerful tool for exploring variations on a theme (at the very least) once a design direction was underway.

I don’t see it as a threat to designers at all, just another tool.

SK: Nowadays I certainly see more interest, or at least more people have heard of generative design. But the ship has left the port for industrial designers. Generative design is now fully embraced by cutting edge architectural practices to make both totally meaningless blobby shapes, but also to optimize performance to a very high degree. In architecture, generative design is going mainstream [see: The Bird’s Nest and Water Cube from the Beijing Olympics].

Doing blobby stuff isn’t easy if you have to crank out working drawings and resolve connection details–there is certainly some clever thinking and new capabilities required. Architects, unlike industrial designers, have created new skills and new value, through the adaptation of advanced design technologies which exploit the creative capacity of computers. In contrast, we are witnessing the demise of shape and color play, and with it the demise of professions focused purely on it.

Electroflux: The idea of using the computer to determine a best-fit solution given constraints is hardly anything new – it’s the main strength of using the computer for any particular process!

SK: exactly. The understanding of design as a management of constraints is not new. The understanding that nature’s designs are based on generative designs is not new. The understanding that computers can devise strategies that beat the best human players is not new. The use of computers as intelligent design tools is not new.

But for most industrial designers, the concept that the computer is more than a 3D drawing tool seems to be very new and hard to digest.

Generative design is about using the computers for design exploration.

Cameron: I’ve had happy accidents in modeling programs before. Does that count?

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SK: Just imagine if you can choose from thousands of accidents. That is how nature designs.

CG: That’s not really a fair comparison, because nature designs by incorporating subtle mutations and relying on natural-selection over many generations to pass on the strongest attributes.

I don’t understand why you’d want a computer to generate meaningless design for a designer to choose from. As a designer, I want more meaning to go into form-giving, not less.

SK: Don’t understand why? Simple: Generative design can do a far better job, faster and cheaper. It can extend human imagination. This is what architects are using generative design for.

Electroflux: Maybe the problem with industrial designers not picking up on this en masse is that as-is, it doesn’t contribute much to the design process. A “Randomize parameters” tool is a rather different beast than “Fill in this space with stuff, make it strong, and use as little material as possible.”

Architects seem to be using the latter approach in your given Beijing Olympics examples. While ID and Architecture share many aspects–both are designing things ultimately for the benefit, comfort, and safety of people, taking materials and space/shape in consideration–there’s a big difference in scale. Simply making random designs is nice, but what if you could teach the computer styling and form? The architects weren’t just getting random width and height walls and windows on a concrete rectangle, and until the tools for ID can move past that stage, I see this being rather hit-or-miss for benefits.

Perhaps if you could teach the computer about form and style, give it a parts library it can work from or build off of.

SK: In generative design, the designer is very much is control of style. Generated designs in most cases appear to belong to a design family, very often with strong stylistic commonalities. The big difference between those who use generative design and those who remain skeptical is that the first sector focuses on what it can do and the second on what it cannot–for now.

Brook: SK, I am disappointed by the responses you are getting from this topic. If so-called designers cannot think of a use for this tool, then what is the state of our design thinking? People, you need to up the ante, big time, in your creative levels and progressive thinking.

SK: Don’t be disappointed; this is typical. It’s wrong to assume that designers are creative thinkers and open-minded. I have not found them to be. Many are extremely focused on creating meaningless variations–which is, in fact, what inspired my interest in generative design. Those unfamiliar with generative design find it threatening. Designers spend a lifetime honing their work processes, and naturally they are reluctant to entertain disruptive thinking. So I do not blame them.

It was the same in architecture. Only the younger generation has embraced this technology. The older guys can’t deal with it, it is just too much. But before long, they sensed that there is something in the technology for optimization and for marketing some forms of hi-tech design approaches. The main difference in architecture was that there were many dedicated academics who had worked unrecognized for decades on futuristic design technology. However, what led to uptake was the availability of easy-to-use CAD tools, and the sheer enthusiasm of design students who are now busy out-competing each other in generating designs.

Here are some examples of products I designed using generative design, around 2006 (hence it’s an MP3 player):

Image credit: Genoform

CG: When I look at all those renderings of differently proportioned MP3 players, I just see “meaningless variations,” so I guess you’ve succeeded.

SK: You make a valid point. But they were generated in four to five seconds, and in the hundreds. Would you agree that there are thousands of such meaningless designs currently on the market, designed at much greater expense and time? The good thing about digital design now is that you are able to see what is being designed or generated and kill those that you don’t like. If you have skill, nothing is stopping you from modifying it to your liking, as you surely do with your other designs.

What you create, I can guarantee will not be liked by quite a few others. If they are industrial designers themselves, then we will possibly be down to a fractional percentage. I am sure you would agree, if you ask those connoisseurs who do not like your design, none of them are likely to blame SolidWorks or ProE or any other CAD package you use.

I don’t consider myself a competent product designer; I am clearly not. So, the designs displayed suffer in quality. This has been pointed out many times and I accept my shortcoming. But I am not sure why many intelligent designers are unable to distinguish the quality and capability of CAD tools from sample designs created by it? Can you explain?

CG: The thousands of meaningless designs you refer to, were likely done without any kind of design process. They were done with a “shotgun” approach which is common in the East where manufacturing is cheap. The theory is that you flood the market first with as many inexpensive variations of a product as possible and see what sells. In the West, it’s more common to have a “rifle” approach, which utilizes a lot of research, strategy and design process to ensure the product hits its mark, reducing risk.

Generative software is great for the meaningless “shotgun” approach, but designers strive for the meaningful “rifle” approach.

For example, if an Industrial Designer were to design an MP3 player, a good design process would be to use “generative research” (aka co-creation) to help isolate preferences among those customers. In an hour, I would make a bunch of wood or foam shapes, and hand them to research participants. I’d ask them to talk about the merits of each shape and weight, talking about how they’d use the product in their life. I would then give them a bunch of cut-outs that represent controls, like screens and buttons. I’d let them choose among them, and place them on their preferred model wherever they’d want. I’d have them discuss why. I would then go back and improve the fidelity of the concepts, by sketching and modelmaking. I’d then do another round of research.

Here’s why that process beats generative design:

1) You want physical models, not renderings, and today’s rapid prototyping software just isn’t as efficient as a designer carving a bunch of concepts out of for a few hours.

2) You want to separate your research variables, and progressively-disclose choices to the user. In your MP3 example, you’ve created a bunch of renderings, but you’d really need to create thousands more to cover all the variations. That’s just not practical for the research participant. Rather than give them 10×10 choices, you want to give them 2 choices of 10: pick your shape, pick your controls.

3) You want your subject to co-create with you. Give them a bunch of controls and have them choose what they are and where they go, and tell you why. This is cheaper, faster and gives you more meaning.

Cdaisy: As for “you want physical models not renderings”–you’re saying it’s more efficient to carve objects by hand out of foam instead of modeling it and sending it to a desktop printer or the like? Cheaper maybe, but more efficient? You must be one hell of a whittler!

NURB: I don’t think CG was taking issue with the output (hand carved, rapid proto, etc.), his issue was the disconnected nature of flushing out 1,000 variants of one design without any thought to it. His process will get you from concept to completion with a much better outcome. The shotgun approach rarely works well.

Image credit: Bitonti Studio

Cdaisy: I think it depends on what you are using it for. The image of the spoons is a good example. A spoon is a spoon. Do you really need a ton of research to design a spoon? I would say not really, but you do want a shape that is both functional and pleasing to the eye. So if I can get 1,000 variations quickly and simply pick the one I like the most, I would say that’s a pretty efficient use of my time.

Isn’t that the argument people make for sketching being so important? Showing variations of the same object quickly?

NURB: Of course, but as someone else said you’d need to teach the computer your aesthetic in order to get the same result. It would have to learn from its visual mistakes, and build on a “happy accident” that makes the for more pleasing. That’s something I doubt you will get by simply modifying a few parameters and pushing Go.

Electroflux: Which is why you’d somehow need to build on what’s going on here. As I said before, the architects aren’t just pressing a randomize button either. If they were, few would see the value of this either.

They have a question they want answered, they may know roughly what the answer should be, but the human-time to get it is quite large. The computer can just create 1,000 variations, run physics simulations, and delete the 900 that fall apart.

But teaching it aesthetics is a bit different than teaching it to make a strong roof.

EngineerErrant: Having generative design software to create things like truly random shapes is exactly the sort of tool CG would need for the design process he’s talking about.

I think the shotgun/rifle dichotomy being set up is meaningless. There’s an element of randomness requisite in creativity, and generative design is great for that. It’s not like the final product is being spit out by the program and sent straight into production with zero analysis with regard to usability or aesthetic or structure or whatever else. (On the flipside, it’s not like there isn’t a randomly-generated-shapes aspect when we sit down in front of a piece of paper and draw shoes. Whatever we’ve got going on the radio gets assimilated and processed.)

SK: As for shotguns and rifles, it all depends what you are shooting at. If you are going for ducks, shotguns will do, as ducks fly in a group (products too are similar and belong to groups). It’s satisfactory if you bring one of those flying fellows down.

With a rifle, if you get the target wrong, it is a miss. It’s wrong to assume that you know exactly what will succeed, so a rifle approach is a gambling approach. Gamblers always believe they will win, or else they wouldn’t gamble. But companies have less and less use for gamblers. This is a reality that few would argue with.

The description of your own design process is useful, but it is the best? You don’t seem to be using any of the capabilities that computers can provide you.

If you want to prototype a lot of designs, then you will find generative to be most useful. The range of designs that you can generate are in the billions. So you will never cover the entire range of possibilities, even if you wanted to. It is up to you, to narrow it down to a few that you like to show your clients.

Also, generative design is perfect for the co-creation you mentioned, because genetic models can also be driven by consumers (replacing random inputs).

I hope I have convinced you of the merits of generative design.

Image credit: Genoform

Travisimo: To get a computer to spit out ten quality concepts, or to even pick ten good ones from your thousands of generative iterations, you are still going to have to understand the design problem and customer, input all the key variables in careful ways, and spend the time to refine whatever gets spit out.

It’s going to take just as much time to do it (with the target consumer in mind), and I still don’t think you would be able to capture all the critical information needed to generate the best solution – the human brain mixes variables in ways computers cannot.

Fractal patterns is one thing, but I don’t believe your system will be spitting out iPhone killers anytime soon.

SK: Babies don’t run as soon as they are born. Generative Design is still in its early stages. In its late stages, those who do not use it will not be in the business of design. Chess masters once thought that they were unbeatable by computers, not very long ago.

Travisimo: Maybe for engineering-type challenges, like finding the optimal shape for a fuel injector in an engine, generative design is a perfect approach. Evaluate designs for certain constraints, kill off the bad ideas, mutate the good ideas, et cetera.

Design that resonates with people is much more than just product geometry. Who exactly is going to be setting the criteria that this program would use to judge and evolve the products? Who is going to judge the resulting designs, and to what criteria?

To know the right criteria to input is like the wicked problem that can happen in design, which is to figure out exactly what the problem is in the first place. Afterwards the answer is more straightforward to solve.

SK: Judging the results would obviously be the designer’s job. I’m reminded of an old professor telling me there was a similar reaction, when CAD was first introduced. Generative Design is a powerful design/search tool. Designers should not be threatened by it. Good writers are not threatened by word processors.

Travisimo: Of course it’s the designer’s job, SK, I feel like you’re making my point. The designer has done the groundwork, has the experience, and spent the research time to know what the ideal solution would be. If he’s worth his salt, he could sketch ten focused concepts without ever needing to sift through the generative designs, making the whole system needless.

Designers do a lot more than just sketch and pump CAD. Experience and creative problem solving is our value.

CG: And I have to say, you’ve got the shotgun/rifle thing backwards. The shotgun approach is the gambling approach since most of the shots will fail to hit the target. This won’t work for western companies that have brands to protect–they need to ensure the products they create hit the mark and build positive brand equity. Western retailers won’t allow it either: Wal-Mart will only sell one or two of your coffeemakers, not fifty.

Desktop printers: Not only will they have to get cheap, they’ll have to get really fast to beat the typical Industrial Designer in carving foam. Let’s not forget that there is some upfront time programming the generative model to create all those variations. In a timed side-by-side comparison, I guarantee the Industrial Designer will get to a preferred solution much faster and with less waste.

Creating billions of options: It’s just not practical to weed through that many concepts. A progressive approach to both creation and down-select is more efficient.

Co-creation: I’m a believer in this, but sitting a participant in front of a computer and letting them find their ideal design is really just user-friendly CAD, not generative design.

Being convinced: I’m not.

From what I’m hearing, generative design is about automating the process of creating “meaningless designs” like spoons. This may be useful to someone, but not me. I’m looking for tools that help me put more meaning into my designs. If I was designing a spoon, my approach would be to spend a lot of time with people using spoons. To look at their style choices. To look at their cultural standards. To look at the use-cases. To understand their priorities when buying a spoon. From that information, I would design.

Can generative design process all that input and arrive at a better spoon? If not, then it’s just a distraction.

Cdaisy: CG, so the higher ups in your company will let you spend that much time and money on a spoon design? I want to work where you work!

Spending a lot of time with people using spoons? Come on, man. The sad reality is that it comes down to whether or not the buyer at a retail store or big box chain likes the shape and quality of your spoon. All that research, time and money can be flushed right down the toilet if the buyer looks at it and says “meh”. Research is important, but sometimes all you really need is a sexy shape that utilizes your taste and skill as a designer.

Consumers don’t always know what they want until they see it. Same goes for buyers and bosses. Design isn’t ALWAYS about solving problems. Sometimes it just has to be functional mass-produced piece of art that people want to buy. Are we not supposed to set the trends? Does everything you design need to be inspired by focus groups? Isn’t that the reason terrestrial radio stations suck?

That’s not to say your points aren’t valid, but there are situations where this TOOL would come in handy. Let’s say with a glassware company for example. Set the parameters for a martini glass and let it rip! Worst case scenario is that it sparks an idea you didn’t have before. What’s so wrong with that?

I think it would be a fun to have a generative design option available to me. Set certain parameters, look at the results, pick a few of the best ones, tweak the parameters a bit, look at more results, pick out a few more, narrow it down to three, show the boss, make some tweaks if you need it. Done.

IT IS NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR THE ENTIRE DESIGN PROCESS. It is a very cool option you can have ready in your tool box if you need it. sheesh!

SK: That’s the problem with designers–wanting to put in meaning. Ask your boss if he wants meaning or money.



–To be continued.

Source: core77

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