The Path of Design Communication Through Time

design communication

The Path of Design Communication Through Time

Technology and design are inextricably intertwined. This is because design is intangible and needs to be communicated -- to the client, builder, reviewer and the design team. Design has followed the evolution of practices and technology throughout history, combining and incorporating traditional methods with burgeoning concepts, and creating novel ways of creating, thinking and communicating. This trajectory will continue to shape the way we think and work in the design profession far into the future.

Beginning of Design Communication

Early humans used physical objects to communicate design concepts to each other, whether they were laying sticks in a square or, like Egyptians, using knotted rope to create right angles in a field. Designers today continue to use physical models, mockups and objects to communicate their ideas. Cuningham Group often employs finely detailed presentation models of finalized designs for clients. These models are used as design and marketing tools, and beautiful sculptural displays.

For the majority of human history, hand drawing has been the design tool of choice. Whether on cave walls, papyrus, marble, or paper, 2D line drawings and illustrations take very few tools to create and can convey as much or as little information as the designer desires. At Cuningham Group, we often sketch on the fly with clients and consultants while thinking through design challenges. This is why hand drawing remains such a crucial skill; spatial reasoning of the brain and the physical movements of the hand work in tandem to solve problems and make design decisions. The hand also provides control over line quality, weight, direction, authority, whimsy and ambiguity. It can evolve from communicating a thick dark straight beam to a feathered, wispy, amorphous shrub with little effort. Nothing is better for the stream of consciousness and free flow of design thought.

Introduction of Computer-Aided Design
In the grand scheme of design history, computers are a minuscule blip at the end of the timeline. Computer Aided Drafting, or CAD, was only invented in 1961, 30,000 years after the earliest verified human architecture. It quickly took the design world by storm and soon every design firm wanted drafters behind computer monitors rather than over hand-drafting boards. Some might argue this led to less critical thinking, citing the benefits of the hand-brain connection, but the benefits of the computer were seemingly endless. Instant and infinite capabilities for revision; the ability to quickly replace or move lines. This control and speed was completely novel and revolutionized the design process. Although the input was new, the output was similar to 2D drawings on paper from the previous era. While printers could make endless copies with zero effort, the results were similar to a perfectly hand-drafted sheet of Mylar. At Cuningham Group, we have mostly moved away from CAD, although many designers continue to use it. We still work with and incorporate CAD files from consultants, owners and jurisdictions. Often these are the format for legacy work upon which to build.

Today, the  design software used universally in our profession is Building Information Modeling, or BIM. BIM builds on the platform of CAD, allowing users to draw entire digital representations of objects with one click. These digital objects are tied together in a vast digital database that provides not only an object’s size, material and location, but also pricing and manufacturing information. 3D CAD came into use roughly concurrently with BIM, turning digital lines and shapes into three dimensional volumes. Compared to 3D CAD however, BIM is far more robust. The user can instantly query the database for useful information such as floor area, volume of concrete in the project, or quantities of doors and windows.

One major shift with the advent of BIM is the way in which drawings are produced. 2D drawings persist to this day as the final product from which  the project is built. 3D views are similarly not drawn, but populated from a camera point in the model. No longer is the design conveyed in lines and imagination, but in life-like photographs with rendering light quality, reflectivity, transparency and materiality. These images allow even the least imaginative to understand the design with clarity previously unknown. Cuningham Group regularly employs renderings that combine technologies. Our team may print computer models, hand draw over them, scan them and further combine and contrast with digital painting.

From Three-Dimensional to Virtual Reality (and beyond)
Still images are just the tip of the iceberg of what BIM can do. Since the information is stored digitally and rendered at the click of a button, multiple cameras can be strung together or moved to create moving renderings or flythroughs. Spin around the building, populate the movie with moving people, windswept trees, and experience the climb up the grand staircase from eye level. This goes far beyond the capabilities of hand tools and 2D images.

Taking this technology one step further allows the end user to create the direction of the moving rendering. The model can call up and render every surface in real time, allowing a user to control where the camera goes like a video game. The design is conveyed in its entirety in a virtual realm. Add a virtual reality headset and the recipients can  experience the finished design at their own pace. This is not something done at the drop of a hat like a hand sketch. A fantastic new idea does not get populated, materialized and rendered into virtual reality without significant work. But the end product is far more clear and relatable than any product from the past. As the technology gets faster and easier to employ, building models in progress could be explored as a progress check, without much additional finishing work.

Augmented reality is another emerging field that seems to be on its way. This involves rendering digital objects into the user’s field of vision using glasses or holograms. The process allows additional information to be overlaid onto anything such as products in a store, artistic projections on sculpture, or building facades. Will future designers project their designs into an existing space so clients can experience them in person? Perhaps builders on site could simply turn on their augmented reality to overlay the desired design onto their work in progress.

Communication of design has been bound to technology throughout history. Yet the uses and possibilities seem boundless for the future. Each iteration is becoming smarter, faster and closer to reality. The only apparent limit to this trajectory are designers’ willingness to experiment with these uses. Cuningham Group strives to continue pushing boundaries and exploring new ways of thinking and communicating design.


By: Sean Block, Architect
Sean has been supporting design and construction projects with Building Information Modeling using Revit software for over five years. He has helped lead the firm’s design documentation efforts and assisted with construction administration for the improvements on various projects including educational facilities, worship centers and high-rise structures.