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Exploring Order and Chaos in Design and the Creative Process

“The answers you get depend on the questions you ask.”

Thomas Kuhn

The creative process requires a certain amount of introspection, and general navel-gazing. We are certainly not above that sort of thing here at the studio. Like the quote from Kuhn suggests, how you start a project has certain unavoidable consequences. It becomes important at a certain point to foil your own plans, and indeed question the notion of plan making in general for some more nimble notions like strategic anticipation, or improvisation.

Like many designers, when looking for inspiration, nature seems to be as good a starting point as any. So, asking ourselves how we would describe how we organize and attend to design problems here at bDot we amusingly suggest we simply “swarm”. It’s a bit dramatic, especially in regard to the number of swarm-ees, but there are plenty of interesting correlations and inspirations to the swarm analogy.

There is an entire field of study devoted to understanding swarm intelligence and its corresponding algorithms. One such algorithm observed in ants is Stochastic Diffusion Search (SDS). Feel free to check out the wiki page on that. The short of it is that optimal solutions are derived by peer to peer communication. In the absence of hierarchy, the solution becomes identified through mutual agreement. Something that comes up often in our work is the conscious acknowledgement of what our preconceived notions about a certain solution are. The general tactic is to state the idea and bring the intuition in as a point of reference, and then see how far in the opposite direction the idea can go. Similar to setting up limits in an equation, it allows us the opportunity to see a spectrum of design solutions. By simply playing a bit of point/counter-point, it becomes clearer why certain ideas fit a solution and others don’t, creating a logical path away from one’s impulse or ego. In the rarest of cases, solutions may actually validate the intuition of some lucky individual. But even in these cases, the exercise of trying multiple solutions allows for the refinement or articulation of the initial idea.

Another concept we came across, in trying to define how designs manifest was stigmergy. This is another kind of coordination which is seen in the insect world (here is the wiki). The rough idea is that it is an indirect form of coordination that takes place through the environment between agents.

Everyone is allowed 5 minutes to make a formal gesture on their own site and then each site is passed to the next user. Interesting trends begin to manifest and while the overall project is afforded some homogeny from the use of a single material, many idiosyncratic forms emerge, morph, and ultimately inform the process that, besides the occasional whimper from a hot glue burn, is without communication. In a process like this, there is a back and forth between order and chaos, between conformity and resistance where the agents only inspiration is the built environment, and their reaction to it.

It’s paradoxical that a solution might be both correct and unintended, but to really ask a design question in earnest you have to preclude your own ideas at times and weigh them against the evidence that presents itself. Not doing so creates a kind of half-literacy of the design problem by which someone can only see that which they can already imagine.

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