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Varied researchers discuss design process

Architects, computer scientists and cognitive psychologists gathered at MIT last weekend to talk about design thinking -- the mental process of designing -- and how to better represent that process with tools, teams and tactics.

They were participants in the Fourth International Design Thinking Symposium, co-hosted by the Department of Architecture and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology from April 23-25. The theme of this year's conference was Design Representation.

In his opening address to the 100 researchers, William J. Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, encouraged designers to embrace digital technology as a tool to allow more innovative design. He noted the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain as an example of an imaginative design that would have been impractical to construct without the help of computers, even down to the precise measurements required for cutting the stones.

That building was designed by Frank O. Gehry, the architect who is designing MIT's new Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences.

Charles Eastman, professor of architecture and computer science at the Georgia Intitute of Technology, gave a closing address that focused on the orchestration of the design process. He advocated an increased emphasis on representing the logistics involved in today's increasingly complex designs -- for instance, how to manage design teams with members in different countries and fields, and how to incorporate the demands coming from many sectors, such as environmental.

Professor Hiroshi Ishii of the Media Laboratory gave a third plenary address to the group, discussing a series of projects aimed at making the digital world more tangible and manipulable for designers.

Professor of Architecture William L. Porter, who organized and chaired the conference along with Professor Gabriella Goldschmidt, a visiting scholar from the Technion, said that Professor Eastman's emphasis on the orchestration of the design process will likely be a hot topic in the future. Better means of communicating design on paper and digitally are going to be required so that "the different players can figure out what's going on" at any given time and place, he said.

About 50 papers were presented, as well as some short presentations by MIT graduate students from the Design Technology group in the architecture department. Papers were focused around the topics of sketching and imagery, design strategies, design models, collaboration, representational theory and history, and case studies. About half the participants were architects; the other half come mostly from the fields of design engineering, computer science and cognitive psychology, both in industry and higher education. More than half the participants came from 14 foreign countries.

This fourth symposium was the largest of the series. Professors Porter and Goldschmidt said the number and diversity of attendees reflects a new level of productivity and energy in the field, and "marks a widely shared belief that research in the area of design thinking has come of age." The fifth conference in the series will be held at the Delft Technical University in The Netherlands in 2001.

Sponsors for this year's conference were Autodesk, maker of AutoCAD, the most widely used computer drafting and design system in the world; auto���������des���������sys, Inc., the maker of FormZ, the leading computer-aided design system for support of the designer early in the process of design; and Microsoft, Inc. Mine Ozkar, a graduate student in the Design Technology group, assisted Professors Porter and Goldschmidt in the conference's organization.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 28).

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