More Better Words


by Josh Lobel Design Technologist

Why this is important:

The lack of critical reflection on how we talk about design technology leads to the development of, and short-lived excitement for, novelty as opposed to real innovation. For example, in his essay “The Promises and Disappointments of Computer-Aided Design”, from the 1975 book Reflections on Computer Aids to Design and Architecture (Nicholas Negroponte, ed.), Vladimir Bazjanac noted that one of the reasons that many practitioners were initially encouraged by computer aided design (CAD) was the general belief that,

Computer applications will ‘free’ the designer from distracting and unproductive activities and allow him to devote more time to design.

These activities included,

noncreative tasks that are considered wasteful of [their] time (like drafting, manipulation of information, maintenance of an extensive information system, etc.).

Bazjanac concluded however, that after 10 years of working with CAD those initial expectations had given way to a more nuanced understanding of CAD. The importance of information to those involved in design and construction was not the content – the data created – but how the content was understood and used. Apparently these reflections fell upon deaf ears, at least within the AEC industry. To wit, in 2007 (before BIM was as widely adopted as it is today) a popular manual for Revit Architecture 2008 stated that their software would,

…take responsibility for redundant interactions and calculations, providing you, the designer, with more time to design…

It may be hard to believe that design technology had made so few advancements in the intervening 30-plus years between these quotes that developers were still trying to tackle the same issue. However, if we consider the issue here was a language issue and not a technological one, it makes more sense why technology continues to be defined and discussed in the same terms when the technology itself is constantly changing. If only this were a new idea.

In 1989, the pioneering digital designer and researcher Muriel Cooper identified the issue as follows,

In each period of our history, design and communication have evolved synchronously with the technology of the time. Each new medium has extended our sense of reality and each has looked to its predecessor for language and conventions, referencing and adapting its characteristics until its unique capabilities can be explored and codified.

Again in 1997 the problematic relationship of language and technology was succinctly captured by Timothy Binkley when he wrote,

[W]e will continue speaking about computer [technology] in paradoxes until our language catches up with our creativity.

And more recently (from a completely different point of view) Nate Silver made note of this issue in his book The Signal and the Noise,

We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.


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