Future Design Software: Design at the level of thought, message and feeling.

Graphic design software has steadily increased in power. At first the focus was on improving the visual expression capability of the software but gradually, with the addition of work-flow tools, productivity has become important. However, today’s software is limited by a direct manipulation mindset.

Direct manipulation interfaces allow designers to tweak individual elements on screen by using a mouse and keyboard (and/or commonly a tablet). This means that the designer’s vision must be transformed into discrete steps of computer interactions - think of it like the visual equivalent of programming. Any adjustments to the “feel” of a design piece are non-trivial and will often involve many interactions.

What if there was software for designers that worked more at the level of thought, message and feel? There are two areas of research that combine to produce the design software of the future: Generative Design and Aesthetic Science.

Generative design systems take parameters then produce a set of candidate designs for a designer to select from. Sophisticated generative design systems can then use those selected items to further iterate and produce more (and hopefully better) candidate designs. Imagine feeding the text and image library for a poster to software and having it come up with thousands of concepts for you within seconds.

Aesthetic Science tests (usually following Psychology modes of testing) for aesthetics that are universal. Once an aesthetic principle has been established as universal then it can be algorithmically modelled. A computer can run the algorithms to judge design pieces on an aesthetic level. Yes, aesthetics is a complicated area but we do not need a complete understanding to produce computer tools that can still be useful.

Examples of existing work in aesthetic algorithms are Donald Knuth and the TEX typesetting system, auto-balance/contrast and colour correction in photographic software and the Text Colour Contrast algorithms used by the W3C. My own research is searching for algorithms for measuring the design principle of unity. Unity has already been established as an aesthetic universal by fMRI brain scanner research in Europe. My research is in the blue-sky stage.

A criticism of generative design is that the generated candidate designs tend to break too many aesthetic universals. The designer ends up weeding out useless chaff rather than thinking at the level of message and feel.

Future design software could use a generative system approach but incorporate aesthetic algorithms to pre-screen the concepts shown to the designer. The designer can then discard designs, keep designs and even use a semantic differential like system for rating the feel of designs. Then, the generative system can iterate more concepts – for as many rounds as the designer deems necessary. Changing the feel of a design is simply a matter of asking for something in emotive terms : e.g. A bit happier and a stronger sense of community. At the end the designer gets a file they can load into direct manipulation software (like InDesign) for refinement. This process could take less than five minutes.

UPDATE 20130401: Complexity Science (eturnerx blog article) could provide insights that help build a generative design system. Conventional science methods might be too limited.

Welcome to a more human and productive design future. There will be more articles in this series.

I invite your comments. Your reactions inspire me. I hope my ideas are worthy of sharing with your posse.

This is the first article in the Future Design Software series. Read the second article: File|Save is stupid. What should replace it?.)