April 08, 2015
On Parametric Design
In the first of a series of interviews with people in love with algorithms, we talk to Tylko’s Head of Parametric Design, Michał Piasecki.
Once a domain of computer geeks, the art of coding has entered the world of design and is here to stay. Michał Piasecki, Tylko’s founder and Head of Parametric Design, has been using algorithms to optimize buildings, installations and furniture for years now, and is an avid advocate of parametric design. Here, he explains what it really is and how it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, not just for designers.
What exactly is parametric design and how does it differ from ‘regular’ design?
Michał Piasecki: Let’s start with how it happens the regular way. Usually a product designer creates a 3D model of an object and it’s then translated into 2D drawings and goes into production. Parametric designers deal with a stage prior to that—before a 3D model is created, we write a code, a computer program in fact, which defines the object. For example, to create a cuboid we could take the three parameters that describe it—width, height and depth—and manipulate them to achieve a cuboid of desired size. Since the parameters are determined by a code, we have endless possibilities of describing the process of drawing a cuboid with code.
Most people’s immediate association with parametric design is nevertheless the blobby architecture by Zaha Hadid.
MP: It’s a common misconception. The most famous parametric projects are indeed examples of the so-called blobitecture, but the essence of parametric design is not at all about the form that you can get out of it. Blobs are just one of many possibilities. You can also get boxy forms that are not immediately recognized as parametric architecture, but have been coded. The work of architecture studio Foster + Partners is a good example. They have their own in- house parametric design department that optimizes the shape of the buildings based on environmental parameters such as exposure to sunlight, airflow and so on. It’s the same at Tylko. All our products are parametric, but it doesn’t determine their form, material or production technology that they are made with. Parametric design shouldn’t be associated with a certain form, because it’s a way to describe any.
Your background is also in architecture. How did you become interested in parametric design?
MP: When I was studying architecture I was quite bothered by the fact that the form of a building can’t be precisely defined. If you design a building without using any parametric equations or optimization, you can never fully justify the form you came up with. I was eager to know a concrete, quantitative explanation of why a building looks a certain way.
How can parametric design be used in other fields?
MP: The most exciting uses of parametric design are those that happen at the intersection of design and engineering, or medicine even. There’s a company called Within Lab that was founded by Bartlett [UCL’s School of Architecture] graduates. They use parametric design to calculate 3D-printed nanostructures that are as light as possible while being able to withstand significant pressure. These structures are then used in skeletal implants or to make parts for formula 3 cars. A slightly less profound by equally impressive example is the work of fashion designer Iris van Herpen, who designs 3D-printed dresses with parametric design.
Is the future of design parametric?
MP: I don’t think that all designers will code. There already exists a very specialized profession called computational designer, and these are the people who support designers when there’s a need to write some code or adapt a design for the requirements of 3D-printing or other digital manufacturing techniques. It’s a new profession that’s growing in strength and number, but it’s not about to replace traditional design. The two are complimentary, rather, and work closely together.
In a nutshell, what are the key benefits that parametric design offers?
MP: It depends on the scale. In architecture it’s the optimization of a building so that it makes the best use of its environment, be it a façade that catches the most sunlight or a ventilation system that provides the most efficient airflow. Buildings that incorporate parametric design are optimized for production, and therefore cheaper to build. For products designers like us at Tylko, the key benefit is that we can let the user into the design process, and the piece that comes out of it will be better suited for their requirements, both aesthetically and in a purely utilitarian way, than anything they could get in traditional retail. In micro scale, parametric design improves the quality of human life in a very tangible way, by making it possible to create medical solutions that are lighter, more durable and better adapted to a particular body – the 3D-printed implants I already mentioned are one example, but the possibilities are endless.
Is parametric design inseparably bound with mass-customisation?
MP: It’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ kind of dilemma. One could even say that the two are essentially the same. A very natural consequence to parametric design is that it lets you engage the end user in the design process. You write the code and set boundaries for the user to create within, and therefore determine the amount of freedom that the user has. The decision how much freedom to grant them is crucial, and there’s a very thin line between too little and too much choice. It’s in fact the most difficult question – how should we design a customisation interface to avoid the paradox of choice? The paradox has two extremes – the choice can either be very limited and unattractive for the user, or there can be too much of it, which in turn is paralysing.
A very natural consequence to parametric design is that it lets you engage the end user in the design process.
What’s the process of designing a piece of furniture that is meant to be customisable?
MP: It’s a constant feedback loop between four fields. First, there’s obviously the design and the constraints of the manufacturing process, available materials and so on. Then, parametric design kicks in and we’re looking at how the piece changes in 3D. Lastly, there’s the interface and we have to make the decision what the user will be able to change in the piece. During the development process we simultaneously look at two sorts of prototypes: a tangible one and an in-app one, and wonder how the user will interact with the piece from the very beginning.
How do you work with a piece that doesn’t have a defined form?
MP: For me it’s much easier to work with a process than a finished form. I see a table and think about the spectrum of possibilities. What are the smallest and largest possible dimensions of it? For me it’s easier to think about a table in this way, but the design team will probably look more at the details and finishes. It’s all a matter of how you approach a piece of furniture. In the end it’s the diversity of the people on our team that lets us create a product that’s a process, and that’s truly unique.
Have you heard criticism that design relying so heavily on coding and computation is too far from the substance of materials and craft?
MP: I’ve heard a lot of such criticism. People often say that parametric design is about computers designing instead of people, which is obviously missing the point. There’s always a person behind the algorithm. Parametric design is essentially just another tool; a very powerful one but still a tool, just like a pencil, any other computer program or model making. And it’s not at all a limitation. On the contrary, it opens up a broad range of possibilities that weren’t there before. While designing tylko furniture we need to make sure that three requirements are met. First the algorithm has to be written in a way that eliminates the paradox of choice and makes customising the furniture a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Second, every possible version of the product has to be proportionate and beautiful, and it’s also something that’s in the code. And third, every product has to be produced with the technology available at our factories. Our production process is fully automated and there’s no messing with the technical drawings after an order is placed. Our algorithm takes these three constraints into account. So you see, it wouldn’t be possible to reconcile so many variables without parametric design.