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"Digital Design: New Frontiers for the Objects"
A Core Book Review
by Core-e-spondent extrordinaire: Mike Gallagher

Book info: Title: Digital Design: New Frontiers
for the Objects Authors: Paolo Martegani, Riccardo Montenegro
Series: The Information Technology Revolution in Architecture
Series Editor: Antonino Saggio
Publisher: Birkhuser, 2000
ISBN: 3-7643-6296-0

A brief history lesson:

About a century ago this country (and many others) underwent a period of radical transformation that became known as the industrial revolution. Besides being a time of great social/political/economic/you-name-it upheaval, it was the beginning of mass production and industrial design.

End of lesson, fast-forward to the present.

With the digital revolution well underway, what is happening to the world of design? Is our world becoming one of digital objects created by digital designers? These and other digital questions are posed and explored in the book "Digital Design: New Frontiers for the Objects," one in a series of books 'reflecting on the effects the virtual dimension is having on architects and architecture in general.' Edited by Antonio Saggio, "Digital Design" is the only book in The Information Technology Revolution in Architecture series that focuses exclusively on industrial design. Paolo Martegani and Riccardo Montenegro are the co-authors, both architects and educators with an affinity for technology and a strong grasp of the subject they tackle. Despite the back handed compliment of architects writing a book on the 'diminished' industrial designer, "Digital Design" provides a good, if somewhat uneven, look at the digital revolution in the design world.

The unevenness of "Digital Design" is due to its being co-authored, and the different issues the authors address. In the first part Paolo Martegani covers digital objects, meaning objects that are digitally enabled or perform a digital function. Although there are no claims that this is a definitive or complete look at the digital object, the weakness of this portion is its attempt to define or categorize a digital world in flux.

According to Martegani, the digital world began with Intel's creation of the microprocessor. The microprocessor represents a shift in the previously held perception of the analog world that 'bigger is better,' to the digital world where size is no longer an indicator of power, and that smaller/faster is the new direction. Besides influencing the scale and perception of an objects' capabilities, the microprocessor is important in regards to how it functions. Through its processing of digital information the microprocessor represents the 'every/any-thing object;' whatever the input (visual, audio, text, etc.), the processor serves as the engine that allows the object to perform the desired function. Given this multimedia/multifunctionalism, what is to become of the Louis Sullivan design mantra 'form follows function?' The interrelationship between the physical object and its immaterial function has created new opportunities in design and radically changed what is designed.

With multimedia or multifunctionalism part of all objects (all objects having a digital aspect), and this quality influencing the design of an object, Martegani attempts to categorize digital objects, separating them into four groups. The categories are; multimedia objects to wear, objects for the home, objects for communication, and an all-inclusive miscellaneous group. While multimedia captures the essence of the digital object, Martegani's categorization of the objects is not as clearly defined. Multimedia objects, their nature being multifunctionalism, defy categorization. There's too much gray area and overlapping between categories in multimedia objects. Is a cell phone a communication object, wearable object, or theoretically an object for the home? Because of the malleability of digital objects, multimedia products often defy categorization or definition. Paolo Martegani identified the essence of the digital object, but how and if these objects can be classified is a different story, and perhaps needs to be rethought. The digital object resists categorization, and its morphing functionality will always cause confusion in efforts of definition.

While the weakness of "Digital Design" is in Paolo Martegani's analysis of the digital revolution's effect on what is designed, its strengths lie in Riccardo Montenegro's exploration of how design as an art and its process has been effected by digital technology. This exploration leads to the question 'what is the new formal language in design due to digital technology?' or if such a language even exists. Given the digital language that has evolved in the other arts such as music, visual arts, and literature (electronica, web art, digital art, hypertext), Montenegro searches for the digital language of design.

Before defining or identifying a digital design language, Riccardo Montenegro points out a few obstacles in such an undertaking. One significant obstacle is the lack of recognition a designer gives to the influence of tools and methods on their work or 'poetics.' Most designers like to think of their work as birthed from their creative selves, regardless of the palette of tools. Contrary to this belief, there have been 'tools' throughout history which have radically influenced the arts. Perspective (as a tool) redefined how three-dimensional space was depicted on a two-dimensional surface, the effects of which greatly influenced art and architecture from the renaissance to modern times. Skipping a few centuries, industrial technology also influenced the arts, giving birth to the machine age and the machine aesthetic (among other arts movements) of the twentieth century. While these technological advances can be regarded as 'tools,' their influence on what and how things are created cannot be denied.

Despite the obstacles, Montenegro explores the digital process and lays the groundwork of an identifiable aesthetic language of digital design. The process of designing digitally is much different than that of traditional design, which is an important aspect in the creation of a design aesthetic. The tool of the digital design process is the computer, a radical change from the drawing board or model shop, which traditionally has been the creating ground of the designer. As a tool the computer is an immaterial workshop which creates physical objects in the vapor of the digital world. Because the design occurs within the computer, the form created are limited to the capabilities of the software (also known as 'form follows software') . The same is true of the designer; the designer's knowledge of software plays an important part in the design process and outcome. Limited knowledge means form is constrained by the designers' depth of software knowledge, and their ability to be creative with that knowledge. The idea of creative computing is somewhat of an oxymoron as well. Where creativity is based on flexibility, bending and changing 'rules,' the computer is a machine dependant on precision programming and 'working with the expected,' with any deviation resulting in a crash. Computers are not the malleable tools design is used to working with, and the rigidity of the computer is certain to effect the end result.

Aside from contrasting the tools of digital design with traditional design, the digital design process operates theoretically or progressively in a radical manner. Traditional design develops from the ground up, in a linear manner. Designs move from idea to sketch to render to model to product. The digital design process is non-linear, moving from finished 'virtual' product, through multiple iterations or edits, to finished 'physical' product. What the digital process forces a designer to do is to begin with a 'finished' product, then edit or evolve it into another 'finished' product. This cut and paste power of editing is the heart of the digital process, and revolutionizes the process of design. This digital process is not easily recognized in design but is evident in other fields, such as music, writing, video and art.

Recognizing that the design process has changed, that design now occurs with and within the computer, and that tools influence the outcome of an object, how has the computer affected the actual design? Montenegro answers this through the operations of the computer, identifying categories, creating the beginning of an aesthetic language of computer design. This language is broken into four categories; plasticity/geometry, assembly, transparency, deformation.

The first category, plasticity/geometry, refers first to the absolute control of the form of the object and the creation of the ideal or perfect surface. Given the computer's demand for mathematical perfection and detailed surface analysis, the designer is capable of creating a geometrically flawless object. The second aspect of plasticity/geometry is the use of the computers' infinite viewing angles, lighting, and material possibilities enables the designer to view an endless amount of design choices. Besides the ability to accurately view the final product, a byproduct of these capabilities can be seen in the product exploration today of materials and textures.

The category of assembly describes how an object is created and viewed digitally. When building or modeling digitally, parts or components of an object can be displayed individually, or as parts of the whole. In this way, each part can be regarded as its own object as much as a part of another whole. The results, which can be seemingly fragmented, collaged, or have a constructed feel.

The phenomenon of transparency has seen large growth in product design in the recent past, arguably influenced through digital design. Through software's use of wireframes, transparency, and layers, designers literally view products in new ways. No longer a solid object, digital objects can be viewed as multilayered or transparent objects with increased space and depth. This technique of visualization has moved designers to retain the effect in the final product, creating products that 'expose' the object. Design now goes beneath the surface or the skin, exploring and often exploiting the complex nature of what lies within.

One of the strongest characteristics of digital design is that of deformation. This is the manipulative ability to change a simple shape into one of great complexity. These manipulations; stretch, squeeze, push and pull a surface, rotate, multiply, are inherent to digital design software and as a tool affect the final product. This is visible in today's form driven objects; the organic, inflated, cartoonish, anthropomorphic, and complexly blended objects of the product landscape.

As quick and unexpected as a computer crash, this is where "Digital Design" ends. No conclusion, no closing remarks, no definitive statement, the discussion of digital design is only opened in this volume. If the question of digital design is one that has been elusive or unanswerable, the beginning of the discussion is here. The official answer will have to wait till the next revolution.