Elements of parametric design – Woodbury

Daniel Davis – 11 September 2010

Robert Woodbury was studying parametric design before it even had a name – in 1990 Woodbury called it variational geometry and it was only later that ‘parametric design’ stuck. Many of the early pioneers of parametric design have gone on to do other things – or nothing at all – but Woodbury has defined his career by studying parametric design and in particular, how designers use parametric software. The list of papers he has written on the subject is a paper in itself. That is to say, when Woodbury writes a book titled “Elements of Parametric Design,” take notice. But take no notice of the cover, a bad Wordle design, the cover really undersells it.

Elements of Parametric Design (July 2010) is perhaps Woodbury’s magnum opus, it is certainly a labour of love, the accumulation of almost twenty years studying parametric design. The book is bursting with knowledge, full of thumb-nail diagrams scribbled in the margins and almost 300 pages of text. It seems to be written for the intermediate parametric designer, who knows how parametric software works and wants to become an expert in the field. Unlike other books on the same topic,  Elements of Parametric Design addresses the issues of parametric design directly without getting distracted in circular philosophical arguments and without getting lost in the specifics of a single piece of software. Woodbury can do this because he has actually studied how people use parametric software, quite a refreshing notion in our research deprived and opinion rich culture. The book is loosely divided into two sections, one on his observations of how designers use parametric software, and one on how to be a better parametric designer.

Woodbury’s key observation is that designers are amateurs in most things they dabble in, and as a result, tend to “copy and modify” from experts. By this Woodbury means that designers have a tendency to fairly naïvely copy a concept from another domain, and modify it slightly to fit their project. So designers copy and modify mathematical concepts, normally visually, without truly understanding the maths behind them – I know I do this. Designers copy and modify other peoples code – it is interesting to see technique from sites like Design Reform getting re-appropriated by students in their projects. And designers copy and modify their own code – they prefer this over using more rigorous software development methods. This copy and modify process fits into a larger design cycle for parametric modeling: “add, erase, relate and repair,” which is repeated endlessly until the design is complete. There are some other skills Woodbury observes designers using in this digital age, such as searching for solutions, delaying design decisions and dividing problems into smaller sub-problems. The key idea however, is still “copy and modify.” I am some what skeptical this is what I do, I find myself endlessly doing tasks from scratch, although this is probably the mark of a complete amateur.

The main argument in the book is that in order to improve as parametric designers, we need a deeper understanding of what we are copying and modifying. He dedicates the rest of the book to explaining how parametric software works, revisiting some basic maths principles and going through a revised version of his design patterns. Most of this information could be found in other places, but Woodbury has packaged it in a very clear way for designers.

I think the crux of the book, and where I think Woodbury might be wrong, is that he places the responsibility for becoming a better designer on the designer. It is the responsibility of the designer to buy this book, to read it, to understand it, and refer to it in times of trouble. Call me a skeptic, call me lazy, but I just do not see a generation of designers – who Woodbury has already identified as being under too much pressure to program properly or read the Wikipedia page of a maths concept – taking the time to read his book, despite all of its lovely diagrams. I read the book cover to cover and while I learnt a lot about parametric design, I do not think I have become a better designer. But I will be sure to copy and modify Woodbury’s observations the next time I am justifying what I do.

Routledge’s surprisingly good summary of Elements of Parametric Design.