Computational Design

Mihai Nadin, University of Wuppertal (currently Stanford CSLI)

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 16, 1999


Let’s begin with the conclusion: Computational Design is the decisive factor in shaping concepts, processes, and products for the post-industrial age. The premise for Computational Design is the digital, understood as the means and method of multi-sensory human interaction in a global, integrated world.

The digital is in the process of replacing the underlying structure characteristic of industrial society. This is reflected in the transition from sequence to configuration, from linearity to non-linearity, from centralism to distributed variable centers, from hierarchy to non-hierarchic methods, from homogeneity to heterogeneity, from permanence to transitoriness, etc. In the new context of human interconnection, means other than those used in literate communication emerge as better adapted to the goals of human activity. The visual is already dominant. Multimedia is in the process of reshaping human interaction.

Computational Design is the theory and practice of design in and for the digital age. Through Computational Design, of all that is technically possible--and we see a lot of products seeking acceptance in the marketplace--only what is truly legitimate becomes necessary. In other words, only what makes sense succeeds. This is how new tools, new ways of learning, new forms and methods of scientific inquiry, new forms of entertainment, etc. emerge and become part of a new culture of extreme dynamics. The great number of failed concepts and products, and the even greater number of mediocre products forced upon us by the still infant computer industry, is proof of the high price all pay for being late in accepting and using design principles and methods of corresponding to the digital perspective. The few success stories--among them, the desktop metaphor--are only marginally a proof of the power and viability of design considerations successfully pursued.
Instead of a cosmetic approach--making things look good, even if they function miserably--based on the old problem-solving model, Computational Design advances a pro-active perspective. As knowledge becomes a commodity, design knowledge leading to unprecedented concepts, products, and processes allows us to maximize the return on scientific and technological investment. Indeed, Computational Design is not reducible to the mere use of computers (as ONLY another tool), but results from a new way of thinking and conceiving things that is impossible without computation.

Mihai Nadin founded and heads the Computational Design Program--the first in the world--at the University of Wuppertal in Germany. The Program provides undergraduate and graduate credits. It also houses Ph.D. candidates. The Program introduces a pro-active, integrative perspective of design to students, as well as to the business community and government institutions in Europe.

Nadin’s professional development integrates science, technology, and humanities. His involvment with digital technology dates back to 1964 when he generated several of the first known computer graphics images. At the same time, he also looked into synthetic sound generation. The main focus of his career is the study of the processes through which creativity, aesthetic creativity in particular, is made possible, in particular through the use of digital technology. His post-doctoral dissertation, Sign and Value (Munich, 1980), is a semiotically based investigation of the cognitive and sign (semiotic) processes that facilitate human interaction.

Nadin’s arrival in the USA (1980) was an intellectual and cultural turning point. He became involved in new foundations for design. Results of this preoccupation were several: publications, lectures, consulting for the computer inndustry and for higher education institutions, and the design of new products.In MIND--Anticipation and Chaos (1991), Nadin ascertains that the mind exist only in relation to other minds, and that mind activity is anticipatory in nature.

The Civilization of Illiteracy, Nadin’s most recent book, addresses the causes making the digital revolution possible and necessary. It also suggests means and methods for a new type of education and for a new economic and political focus corresponding to multimedia interaction in a global, networked society.


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