Blurring Boundaries with Emerging Technologies and Traditional Design Methods

SGJJR HTC Vive image

Throughout time, the design process has included many methods and tools to visualize and test building and urban design concepts before they’re constructed—from scale models of the Il Duomo di Firenze to Le Corbusier’s perspective sketches of future cities. The evolution of these technological tools is almost as intriguing as the works of art they help us produce. Theorist W. Brian Arthur writes that technologies evolve in an organic manner, layering on complexity over time just as a smart stylus and tablet retain ancient attributes.

In the present day we’re experiencing a blossoming of new digital tools and technological innovations which are helping designers and architects build better. Both old and new design tools exhibit a scale of complexity and each helps us illuminate unique insights into the design process. Designers at SmithGroupJJR are taking advantage of these tools to design inspiring places, like the new DC Water Headquarters in Washington, DC, bringing more value to clients by ramping up collaboration during the design process.

In the past, design ideas were presented using a cart full of drawings or physical models (as in the term charrette made famous by the Ecole de Beaux Arts). While these more traditional methods are still used, new technologies are emerging and helping to miniaturize and digitize design ideas. Digital tools like Building Information Modeling can help teams analyze concepts by providing data and metrics that can help to inform design decisions. Additionally, 3D models of existing conditions can now be generated using aerial photogrammetry or by using data from Geographic Information Systems, which overlays data analysis on top of spatial forms. During the conceptual design phase, designers can share 3D visualizations and animations with clients and stakeholders through screens and more recently through augmented reality and virtual reality headsets.


Like smartphones, augmented reality and virtual reality devices are emerging technologies that are set to alter entire industries. They’re increasingly becoming design tools, as they open the gates to collaboratively inhabit a design before anything has been built. These technologies help designers prove predictions internally, and make it easier to share a vision with clients.

Tools like virtual reality or photorealistic renderings start to eliminate the gaps in the abstractions produced in the human mind, and provide a “real” picture that clients can immediately understand. While elaborate physical models and drawings can still be created to express design solutions, clients now have the option to virtually step inside the building and experience the space. There’s potential here for a deeper exploration of a concept earlier in a project’s development—and that can help speed up the process.

During the design process, decisions are made at varying levels of scales, from visioning and programming, conceptual design and onward. At each stage, it’s important to relay enough information to advance a solution to the next level. But even as technology continues to improve, it is still up to designers to utilize a level of abstraction appropriate to each phase of the process. In other words, while these tools allow clients to experience development of their project in new and exciting ways, designers must be responsible for ensuring that their visualizations help to facilitate decisions that advance the design process.

With a steady stream of technological innovations, will we soon see an end to traditional methods? Old technologies rarely disappear completely, as Kevin Kelly writes in “What Technology Wants.” There may always be value in using these tools. Sketches and diagrams are quick and can convey information directly from the design to their audience. They also provide a unique and direct connection to the human mind and exhibit a warmth and charm that may be lacking in virtual worlds. I believe that the pencil sketch, like printed books, will continue to provide value and may be integrated with an increasing array of presentation gadgetry. In fact, sketching and VR are already joining forces with Tilt Brush and we may see sketching augmented by an increasing array of digital creative tools in the future, too.

Futurists expect we’ll soon experience a “Cambrian Explosion” of innovation, where new technologies rapidly multiply and are optimized by a sort of evolutionary process. Imagine a world where digital content is all around us. From museums to the entertainment industry, major technology corporations such as Google, Sony, Qualcomm, PTC and Microsoft are betting that augmented reality will disrupt much of how we live our daily lives, generating $150 billion by 2020 and changing the game for a variety of industries. VR’s power of disruption lies in its ability to create an illusory sense of place through digital objects and spaces, eliminating distance while connecting people and ideas at a more intimate level than provided by older communication technologies. These advantages will give designers greater freedom. In the near future, the digital worlds designers are creating might interact seamlessly with the physical world, infusing new life into real-world places.

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