Computational Design: challenges and opportunities. An Interview with Onur Yüce Gün

We interviewed Onur Yüce Gün, teacher of the Computational Design course at School of Disruption. To present the course and discuss with people interested in his field, he will hold a live webinar tomorrow 07.18.2022 at 9 PM. The link to register is at the end of the interview.

Onur, tell us a little about yourself and the path that led you to become one of the leading experts in computational design.

I lived my life in a visually-driven way, and as I grew up, I discovered my skills in reasoning and rationalization. These two qualities are not mutually exclusive; thus, I frequently was forced to pick between “arts” and “sciences” within the conventional education systems. I was not satisfied with what has been offered in such dualities. First, I transferred from engineering school to architectural school and then heard about computational design in 2002. The rest has been a fantastic experience of both learning about computational design and pushing the boundaries in the places I have been at.

I got my Masters and PhD degrees in Computational Design at MIT. I taught at MIT, Rhode Island School of Design, and Istanbul Bilgi University. I founded and led computational design teams at Kohn Pedersen Fox in New York and New Balance Athletics in Boston. I am sought as a leader in the field, and I found chances to give lectures at international conferences across the US, Europe, and Asia. I still think this is just the beginning, and there is much more I can contribute to people, industry, and academia. I have a lot to share and need more channels to do so.

Computational design sums up the possibilities offered by algorithms to traditional design methods on CAD. It offers creative solutions that were previously unthinkable. Not just architecture, then. Your work at New Balance proposes innovation-driven design ideas. What are the limits and potentials of Computational design and its applications?

The opportunities in computational design are virtually infinite. Design ideas we were able to explore by using computational design methods in the past, including generative modeling and visualizations, today are taking only a fraction of the time they used to take. The emergent Artificial Intelligence tools are getting better in supporting the design processes. Today we can not only explore ideas but also iterate designs by employing simulation tools. Digital fabrication is becoming an indispensable part of both prototyping and manufacturing processes.

These all sound great, but then I challenge everyone with this question: with all the brilliant research, emergent computational design tools, and digital manufacturing capabilities, we reach a point at which we create “flashy” designs with minimal effort… so moving forward, how can we define what is good design, how do we separate futile trends from everlasting values?

Once you develop the skills to do these and develop a critical mind and eyes, you find the answers. And then, the scale is just a matter of transforming and applying these ideas in different domains. If you have the right motivations and skills, you can design intelligent sky-scrapers and great performing beautiful shoes.

Computational design has enabled the creation of futuristic and iconic architectural works. It seems to succeed in stimulating the artistic vein of planners and designers. Does it have a development in the field of art as well?

Definitely, and I think the effect will only grow moving forward into the future. We can also claim vice-versa: the developments in artistic design tools, such as 2D image editing software or 3D simulation and animation software, have deeply inspired architecture. I see this is a bi-directional relationship. Within the last five years, we have seen a massive leap in automated image generation using AI and ML techniques.

The recent text-to-image AI tools empower designers and artists to execute and explore visual ideas quickly. You can start at an abstract point, diverge and then converge, which is one of the principal mechanics of producing designs and artwork. Emergent computational design tools empower more people to discover and harness their creative drives. This is wonderful as, without arts, we are barely human, and as we keep expanding the ways in which we create artwork, we will get closer to our inner selves.

Can you briefly explain the characteristics of Computational Design, notably the software used and the “node and spaghetti” visual programming?

Computational design is often identified using specific software names. This is a very, very bad practice that would take away from your skills and narrow your perspective in design thinking and execution. In the first seven lessons I have prepared for SIDI, I tell what computational design really is.

Visual Programming is a way of “plotting” your design ideas as or after you discretize your design idea into procedural steps. Every step gets built using smaller code pieces, and these code pieces are represented as nodes. As a “program” requires these smaller code pieces to be read and executed in a specific order (or in loops), you connect the nodes using “wires” or “lines”, referred to as spaghetti.

Learning why visual programming matters and how it works is essential, rather than learning one specific software. Of course, learning such tools also increases your understanding of the inner-working of such tools. Still, I prefer to teach these with a broader perspective, so one can carry their skills to the following visual programming software, say in 2030, 2040, and so on.

Once you develop the skills to do these and develop a critical mind and eyes, you find the answers. And then, the scale is just a matter of transforming and applying these ideas in different domains. If you have the right motivations and skills, you can design intelligent sky-scrapers and great performing beautiful shoes.
Onur Yüce Gün

What changes from the classical design model and what does it entail for the designer to adapt to this new system?

I’d seen the classical design model doesn’t change immediately; it rather slowly evolves and transforms. Understanding how trends work, what changes rapidly, and what remains constant is crucial.

In this respect, the design tools evolve and help design thinking, execution, and manufacturing evolve. Yet the reasoning and urge for better performing, better-looking buildings and products never cease.

I advise designers to keep their skills fresh and sharp and their minds and eyes generous yet critical.

Do not buy everything being sold to you as the “new tech”; inquire and challenge the new tools. But also use them to understand the mechanics of new design methods. Work on enhancing your analytical skills, learn a bit of math, and especially strengthen your geometric knowledge; it will be critical. Yet never try to become a scientist or mathematician, you won’t be able to, and you are not supposed to anyway! Investing in your sight and vision is vital. A critical eye will help you go the distance a mathematical formula can’t!

What role will design by algorithms play in the future?

Algorithms have always been a part of the design, even around 2500 BC, thousands of years before the word’s etymological emergence (13th C). Algorithm, as a word, implies a finite sequence of instructions. These instructions can be defined and executed in the presence or absence of computers. Of course, Turing’s introduction of digital computers was a significant milestone for algorithms to be defined and executed in digital bits.

Computers have been empowering designers to translate their concepts into algorithmic entities, which in turn yielded massive amounts of design options and unexpected surprises.

Moving forward, designers will work with algorithms in a similar way they have been using them (as steps of procedures run by instructions). Still, I expect the computational tools to become more and more accessible.

How important is it to take a course and study to learn how to properly exploit the potential of computational design? What are the opportunities for designers who will specialize in this subject?

It is very, very important. Sometimes I see people confusing “being able to build parametric models” with “knowing what computational design is”. Actually, they have almost nothing to do.

If you know how to build parametric models for someone, you are not much different than the drafter of the 20th century, who was making the drawings of a building for an architect.

Computational design is an ever-growing niche field that will become a hub between disciplines in the future. Computational designers are being sought more and more each passing day across disciplines. Don’t be surprised if you hear of a financial investment company hiring a Computational Designer.

It is crucial to take the right course to determine your own growth path in computational design and prosper with the proper knowledge and drive.

Here I will be confident and tell you that I am preparing a unique Computational Design course by distilling what I have learned, experienced, and built within the last two decades, as I took part in leading universities and companies in the world. You can learn technical skills by finding the right source, but it will be tough to find WliHAT I will be teaching in this class and how I will teach it. There are a lot of opportunities in Computational Design, and this class is for those who would like to go deeper into the subject and envision becoming either a leader or an independent, self-driven designer or artist.

Onur Yüce Gün is the teacher of the Computational Design course at School of Disruption.
To introduce the course, Yüce Gün will hold a free live webinar tomorrow.
Register at the link below.

Computational Design Live Webinar

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