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Laiserin's Lemma—Does Technology Diminish Design?
(lemma: a short theorem used in proving a larger theorem)

A recent survey of design clients, conducted on behalf of a leading professional society, touched only briefly on the role of technology, but reached a disturbing conclusion nonetheless. Seems design clients see "CAD technology as a crutch, rather than as a supplementary tool during the design process." Worse, a recent study indicates clients fear that designers' over-dependence on technology makes them "more likely to make errors that will cause problems later in a project." Is it worth becoming a worry-wort* over this news?

What is one to make of this horrifying news? The client survey seems to be well-documented. While these perceptions are not the result of statistically valid, objective questioning, there is strong anecdotal evidence here that building clients (and, by inference, all AEC, plant/process, and infrastructure clients) see digital technology tools as a mixed blessing, at best.

Let's look at the two perceptions separately, before trying to add them up and draw conclusions. The "technology as a crutch" argument strikes me as a response to a transient misapplication of computers in design. Years ago, the easiest thing to do, given the dumb, repetitive problem-solving abilities of early-generation software, was to apply it to dumb, repetitive problems—the "low-hanging fruit" that everyone likes to pick first. Thus, the industry went through an entire professional generation of automated drafting, replicating in digital form the 2D, paper-based representation system for communicating design intent. As this electronic pencil metaphor lingered overlong in the marketplace, too many firms began to subconsciously adapt their working methods to the limitations of the available tools, rather than insist on better tools. The result, as the AIA survey shows, is a perception by some clients that computers stifle creativity and channel designers toward dumb, repetitive solutions.

However, a new generation of designers is beginning to use a new generation of tools to "digital-ize" the earliest, front-end phases of the design process. Whether working in form*Z, SketchUp, Autodesk Architectural Studio, or other as-yet-unreleased schematic design tools, young (and young-at-heart) architects are now exploring commercially viable ways that computers can liberate and extend their creativity instead of constraining it.

As for the "digital over-dependence leading to later project errors" argument, this too strikes me as a transient misperception based on the lagging indicators of lame 2D technology. In many ways, replacing disconnected 2D paper views of buildings (plans, elevations, sections, and so forth) with equally disconnected 2D digital views does make the likelihood of inaccurately coordinated documents greater, not less. The administrative overhead of layers, levels, or classes, blocks, cells, or library parts, as well as reference files, external references, objects, and so on adds escalating complexity throughout a project, until the later project phases entail more effort on the extraneous chores of file management than on the core task of design management.

Here, too, the latest generation of tools—in the hands of the latest generation of design professionals—points to a more satisfactory future. I've hammered repeatedly on the example of Infrasoft's collaborative and parametric design system for transportation infrastructure, in which changes are easily made and transmitted throughout the design team and the design documentation. Enterprixe promises to bring many of the same benefits to AEC. In a late-breaking development, Digital Software, Inc. of Chapel Hill, North Carolina has announced the availability of its Ripple-Thru technology to provide comparable change management features to civil engineers using Bentley's Microstation V8 generation software. Market-leader Autodesk's recent acquisition of the promising but immature Revit "parametric change engine" technology for AEC serves to validate the trend. When a construction company like the Dallas-based Beck Group acquires a design change management tool like Reflex/Sonata for in-house use in its DESTINI initiative, the trend is not only validated, but pushed to the competitive forefront.

AEC and infrastructure designers can no longer afford to be trapped in the complexity of unmanaged (and, therefore, error-prone) design change documentation systems. As clients become increasingly sophisticated about the benefits and hidden costs of old-style digital technology, the smartest and most competitive service firms will adopt the best new multi-dimensional tools in order to keep their clients' perceptions well above their expectations. That is a formula for true client satisfaction.

Let me know what you think.


Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetterTM
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business

*Note: no plants were harmed during the making of this metaphor.



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