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Theories and Models of Parametric Design Thinking

Rivka Oxman1 , Ning Gu2

Technion Israel Institute of Technology 2 The University of Newcastle

1 2

Due to significant recent design-related technological developments, design

theories and processes are undergoing re-formulation and an epistemological
shift. The tools and practices of parametric design are beginning to impact new
forms of Parametric Design Thinking (PDT). The present work is motivated by
the need to explore and formulate the body of theoretical concepts of parametric
design. It is built around the intersection of three areas of knowledge: cognitive
models of design, digital models of design, and parametric tools and scripts. The
work identifies forms of cognitive mechanisms in parametric design; types of
logical flow of information that can be applied in digital processes for
performance-based design; generative design and form finding. It explores the
impact of parametric models and tools upon styles of design thinking from
conception to production. These are presented as a body of knowledge in the
search for thinking and process models of PDT in design.

Keywords: Parametric Design, Parametric Schema, Parametric Design

Thinking, Generative Design, Performative Design

INTRODUCTION ronments are also contributing to a distinctive de-

Due to signicant recent design-related technologi- sign methodology and new epistemological bases of
cal developments, design theories and processes are design knowledge resulting in new forms of design
undergoing re-formulation and an epistemological thinking (Oxman and Oxman 2014). We refer to these
shift. Parametric design systems today can adapt emerging phenomena as Parametric Design Think-
to changing context (Woodbury 2010) under the in- ing (PDT).
uence of parametric languages and scripting tech- The work presented in this paper is motivated by
niques (Jabi 2013) and to diverse topological rela- the need to explore and characterize current theories
tionships and generative processes of design (Ox- and practices of parametric design and to reformu-
man 2006). Among its forms of inuence paramet- late the underlying concepts behind parametric de-
ric design has aected the topological and formal sign thinking. One of the bases for understanding
characteristics of designs produced in diverse design these phenomena is the emergence of a body of cog-
elds such as architecture, industrial design and fash- nitive and computational concepts that are expand-
ion design. Current research has also shown that ing the role and overall design impact of paramet-
the development of new tools and scripting envi- ric design. This body of concepts is rapidly becom-

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ing the nexus of theory and production in paramet- than merely basic architectural knowledge. How-
ric design. Terms and concepts such as parametric ever, there should also be an informed balance be-
schema, algorithmic thinking and parametric reason- tween pure parametric tool manipulation and the
ing are becoming an important body of new knowl- utilization of a broad understanding of architectural
edge in the search for a general theory of PDT. knowledge in the parametric design process. For ex-
Following upon recent studies on parametric de- ample, some designers who embrace what is referred
sign methods and tools in academia and practice to as Parametricism may tend to abandon fundamen-
(Hernandez 2006; Iordanova 2009; Cellini and Vaz tal architectural principles and concerns, having the
2012) we focuses in this research upon theoretical tendency to avoid comprehensive critical judgment
and methodological issues, and the denition of con- and aim instead for formal novelty through comput-
cepts while exploring their relationships in order to ing power without addressing other basics of archi-
expand current design theory and knowledge. tectural design such as social, historical and environ-
Our research is built around three areas of knowl- mental concerns, functional and programmatic re-
edge: cognitive models of design, digital models of quirements, and user's psychological needs (Castel-
design, and the examination of the impact of para- lano, 2011).
metric tools and scripts. The research aims to explore The following three points are generally charac-
their relationships and their mutual impact on PDT. In teristic of the parametric design process:
the following sections a body of design topics is intro-
duced, discussed and presented with specic exam- Designers design rules and dene their logi-
ples from architectural design. cal relationships in the creation of 3D visual-
ization models

PARAMETRIC DESIGN The distinction of parametric design in compari-

Parametric design thinking can be dened as hav- son to traditional computer modeling is that rule-sets
ing three characteristics - thinking with abstraction; become basic design procedures in conguring 3D
thinking mathematically; and thinking algorithmi- models of parametric design (Abdelsalam, 2009). In
cally (Woodbury, 2010). Thinking with abstraction is building parametric models, designers set variables
a base that enables parametric design as a genera- and digital data ows, adjusting the values of param-
tive approach for producing parallel alternatives and eters, and revising the rules accordingly. Rather than
it also enables parts of the parametric model to be traditional conguration ways of the object itself, the
reused. Thinking mathematically refers to the the- design of the generative rule set and their logical rela-
orems and constructions used to dene the script- tionships is becoming the main focus of design think-
ing language for design representation and genera- ing. In this way, more alternative solutions can be ex-
tion. Thinking algorithmically means that the script- plored by changing the parameters of the logical re-
ing language provides functions that can add, repeat, lationships (Hernandez, 2006; Karle & Kelly, 2011).
modify or remove parts in a parametric design. A recent cognitive design study (Yu et al, 2014)
Woodbury claims that in a parametric design en- presents the following ndings: Designers write their
vironment designers need a dierent kind of knowl- rules referring mainly to geometric modeling focus-
edge that can "predict persistent eects to under- ing on geometric elements. This suggests that wider
stand the diversity and structure of the mathemat- comprehensive aspects of architectural knowledge,
ical toolbox, and to shuttle between the intended principles and concepts are outside of this primary
eect and mathematical invention that models it" focus.
(Woodbury 2010). That means that parametrically
discriminating designers would need to know more Designers can change and modify their de-
sign at any stage

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Designers can change and modify their own rule- of parametric structures of design knowledge that
based representations in any stage of the design pro- can be formulated and represented as generic para-
cess. In processes of parametric design, the design metric schema. The adoption of design patterns in
system is dierentiated and correlated. In the para- certain domains is a phenomenon that has been ob-
metric model, all design procedures and activities served by a number of researchers in both traditional
are related to one another and clearly dened (Schu- architectural design (Alexander et al., 1977) and in
macher, 2008). Therefore, designers can return back parametric design (Woodbury et al., 2007).
in any stage and revise parameters or rules to mod- According to Brett Steele, parametric design
ify their design or to pursue a dierent one. This al- knowledge is a model of design thinking that in-
lows them methodologically to keep the design pro- tegrates topological patterns within generic typolo-
cess open and exible. gies. This cognitive capability has been termed, the
"serial sensibility" (Brett Steele, in Lee and Jacoby,
Design alternatives can be developed in par- 2007).
allel in any stage
The Role of the Cognitive Parametric
Designers often consider a relatively limited Schema
number of alternative solutions (Woodbury & Bur- The cognitive role and the logic of a generic knowl-
row, 2006). In the parametric design process, once edge schema as a basis for understanding pro-
the rules are implemented, unlimited numbers of de- cess of schema adaptation and renement by re-
sign alternatives can be generated in parallel. The representation can be demonstrated through exam-
possibility to use parallel design generation is chang- ples of prior research (Oxman, 1992; 1997). The emer-
ing modes of thinking and contributes to explorative gence of a new schema is a fundamental cognitive
processes (Hernandez, 2006; Holland, 2011; Karle & capability of creativity in the human designer. In the
Kelly, 2011). process of design, engineering, and construction the
schema can be modied and adapted. To summarize,
PARAMETRIC DESIGN THINKING (PDT) the role of the parametric schema:
Beyond any particular formal style or design tool,
Providing an explorative mechanism
parametric design thinking is emerging as a theoret-
ical topic (Oxman and Gu, 2013) and a key model Providing a medium for generating variation
of digital design. With the emergence of new lan-
Providing a medium for transformational pro-
guages and tools, and in comparison to traditional
models of the parametric, the generic formulation of
a Parametric Design Schema should be formulated The cognitive roles and the logic of a generic
and explored as a comprehensive theoretical frame- schema (referring in this case to architectural knowl-
work to support design. edge of basic classical temple types) can be demon-
Karle & Kelly, 2011 describe this process as "a new strated through the example of the Classical Greek
way of relating tangible and intangible systems into Temple, reecting the dierent styles, geometrical
a design proposal removed from digital tool speci- series and proportions (see gure 1). The cognitive
city and establishes relationships between proper- role and the logic of a generic schema (referring in
ties within a system. It asks architects to start with this case to architectural knowledge of column types
the design parameters and not preconceived or pre- and variables) can also be demonstrated by examples
determined design solutions." (Karle & Kelly, 2011)Be- of the Classical Greek columns (see gure 2).
yond being merely a new digital technique, paramet- These two examples represent the distinc-
ric design thinking is more about an understanding tion between generic typological-schema referring

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to typological design of dierent types versus a logic behind form making and the development of
topological-schema referring to topological forma- the object under design.
tion by changing the value of parametric variants of In visual parametric schema the designer inter-
the Greek Columns.Please also write your "reply to acts with parametric modeling using visual code
the reviews" directly in the paper, using notes such symbols. The image of the design is generated by
as this one to point out where you have reacted to the 3D Rhino modeling component of the system.
the inputs given. The parametric capability of a Grasshopper system
enables generation and modication of the design
by changing the parameters rather than rewriting the Figure 1
code (or 3D re-modeling by Rhino). This presents a Classical variation
typical process of visual reasoning in which a para- of the generic order
metric modication process of the script maintains of the Greek Temple
the parametric relationships that have been dened (Wikipedia)
and generated.

Tools, Scripting and Coding of Parametric

Design Process
Understanding and developing methods of pro-
graming such as parametric scripting and coding for
various process-based models of digital design are
providing a foundation for the characterization and
conceptual denition of parametric design thinking.
In order to represent processes of parametric de- Figure 2
sign there is a need to explicate the ow of informa- Schema for
tion and the logic that is embedded in process mod- topological
els of design focusing on the explication of knowl- formation of a Doric
edge structures and the order of ow of informa- Greek Column
tion; the constructive logic should become explicit. (Credit: Michael
In parametric modeling of digital models of design Weizmann)
(for example: Grasshopper) there are two types of vi-
Figure 3
sual display. An interactive display of the visual im-
Schema for
age is generated in parallel to interactive program-
ing by visual scripting code. Parametric variations of
formation of a
the image can be updated and generated simultane-
Corinthian Greek
ously in a visual display in parallel to code modica-
Column (Credit:
tion. The following gure illustrates the linked dual
Michael Weizmann)
provision of the visual interface for interactive code
The Role of the Visual Representation in input and the resultant 3D graphical representation
Parametric Schema (Oxman 2016) (see gures 3-6).
Traditional representations in design are focused
upon visual and geometrical representation of the
design object. Visual representations are generally
non-explicit with respect to presenting the structural

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Figure 4 Conclusions
Visual scripting in We have introduced and explored a range of research
performative model issues in the characterization and denition of PDT
of digital design in architectural design. Certain basic terms and con-
(Oxman 2016) cepts have been discussed in order to provide a the-
(Credit: I. Musizuk) oretical framework for dening PDT. The clarication
of the taxonomic, epistemological, and theoretical is-
sues in PDT has been outlined. Further development
of a comprehensive theory of PDT in parametric de-
sign in architecture is a comprehensive and impor-
tant undertaking.
Such a comprehensive theory would be based
Figure 5
upon the distinctive concepts and models of para-
Visual 3D image in
metric design thinking and their impact on the for-
performative model
malization of distinctive forms of information ow
of digital design
in parametric models of design. This would include
(Oxman 2016)
a comprehensive formulation of the generic cogni-
(Credit: I. Musizuk)
tive and computational reasoning models that are
applied in processes of parametric design.
It appears to have now become important to
understand the role of parametric tools on design
thinking. We have here made a rst attempt to con-
tribute to the denition of PDT, its dominant con-
cepts, theories, models, and its emerging research
agenda. Given the rapid development and the broad
acceptance of parametric design tools, the further ex-
Figure 6 tension of this research agenda as well as the deni-
Visual image tion of its intellectual resources appears to be a high
resulting of priority agenda for design research and the digital
algorithmic design community.
scripting in
generative model ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
of digital design The images presented in this article are based on
(Credit: I. Musizuk) experimental work developed by Illia Musizuk and
Michael Weizmann under the supervision of Profes-
sor Rivka Oxman of the Technion, Faculty of Architec-
Understanding how a parametric schema sup- ture and T.P.
ports the logic of a digital process model in de-
sign (Oxman, 2006) requires skill and knowledge that
includes parametric design, theories of topological Celani, G and Vaz, C 2012, 'CAD Scripting And Visual Pro-
structures and their relations, mathematics, and as- gramming Languages For Implementing Computa-
sociative geometry. tional Design Concepts: A Comparison From a Peda-
gogical Point of View', International Journal of Archi-

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