Sunday, November 3, 2019

Elementary

No one knows what goes on in the mind of a designer. Maybe not even the designer does from one moment to the next. That is because we are all furtive organisers who, habitually, feel obliged to order and rearrange our lives, living rooms, right down to our smartphone user interface. Subconsciously, we strive for simplicity and are conditioned to find workarounds within poorly designed habitats. Professionally, there are design practitioners - the most familiar category being industrial product designers - who solve real-life problems and earn a living by creating products and services that compete for our attention. But at a pragmatic level, design is everyone’s business.


Studies show that designers are mostly influenced from the outside-inwards or, technically, designers’ mental activities respond in a world-to-mind direction of fit.” Not only are people interested in what is, but in what could be, by projecting outwards and into the future. As aptly expressed by Richard Buchanan, a US professor and editor of Design Issues, “Change has always been an essential part of design, because designers are concerned with creating new possibilities in human experience, mediated or facilitated by human-made products. In general, good designers are those who can operate at the nexus of art and science, possess good observational skills, and follow smart design principles. So, where do design ideas come from?

As humans, our eyes perceive objects in two dimensions, primarily rendered as a circle, triangle, square or rectangle. At normal resolution, we discern straight lines, a corner where two sides meet, flat shapes in two dimensions, and much more. However, through a process called stereophonic imaging, our brains superimpose depth perception which enables us to view objects in three dimensions. Therefore, from our perspective, solid objects are made up of variants of shapes such as a sphere, cylinder, cube, cone and rectangular prism. From early on in life, intuitively we learn to delineate and de-construct physical structures. Then, using our imagination, we attempt to model elementary patterns from the bottom-up using the same building blocks, as demonstrated by kindergarten children mimicking real life when playing with Lego sets.

Going all the way back to empire builders five thousand years ago, arguably the pinnacle of early antiquity architecture was embodied in Egypt’s network of Pyramids. Encompassing a square base and four triangular faces, there are several theories why the Ancient Egyptians chose a pyramid configuration and not, say, a cone or rectangular prism. Amongst Egyptologists, it was widely speculated that “dead Pharaohs could climb symbolically to the sky and live forever” or “the pyramid shape represented the rays of the Sun.” However, a more mundane explanation could be that, architecturally, the cone shape exceeded their engineering capabilities while a rectangular prism shape would have appeared stodgy and uninspiring. Still, hats off for an awesome engineering feat that involved moving over two million blocks of stone, some weighing as much as ten tons, during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

More than four thousand years later, the Aztec, Mayan and adjoining civilisations of Central America constructed less grand pyramid monuments with flat tops to harbour and honour their deities. Throughout the ages, an underlying design principle across cultures seems to have revolved around shape and function being inextricably linked. Instinctively, designers seek the synergy between form and function, even if they do not always succeed.

Similar to plane shapes such as triangles and rectangles that are associated with solid structures, curved surfaces are just as easy to conceptualise, but much more difficult to construct in practice. In the past, casting evolved as a true and tested technology, whereby the mould of a complex object is made, followed by a displacement process to produce copies of the original. Across time, the challenge of fabricating non-regular shapes was also taken up by skilled artisans - from carpenters, metalsmiths to stonemasons - who add or subtract from base materials to create a finished product.  

In modern times, one of the most striking and groundbreaking architectural designs is the Sydney Opera House (SOH) in Australia. In my mind’s eye, SOH’s silhouette reminds me of sand dunes, which are crescent-shaped formations with a windward side and a slipface. Sometimes, nothing matches the elegance and majesty of natural phenomena which, with timeless precision, can produce both fragile and highly stable structures that inspire designers.

Conceived by the late Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, in the 1950s, the radical SOH design was a structural masterpiece which was implicitly and geometrically complex. At the time, it could easily have been abandoned without the aid of computer-aided design (CAD) technology. This period coincided with the era of mainframe computers when only governments and well-endowed organisations could access such processing capabilities. Thereafter, the democratisation of digital technology began with the personal computer and culminated in the connectivity enabled by the Internet. Thus, design, like many other areas of human endeavour, migrated from the rudimentary to the industrial and on to the digital age.

Progressively, information technology opened up new opportunities for professional designers, amateurs and hobbyists. CAD and similar tools are primed to boost productivity and creativity, limited only by end-users' imagination. But the ultimate game-changer may be a nascent technology known as additive manufacturing (3D Printing) which empowers users to convert intricate design blueprints into finished products anytime and anywhere in the world, with no holds barred.    

Later!

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