Vivek Haldar

IDEs and CAD

I was re-reading Charles Petzold’s 2005 talk/essay Does Visual Studio Rot the Mind? the other day and trying to relate it to the advent of automation in other fields. Nicholas Carr’s 2014 book The Glass Cage is an extended meditation on this topic. Highly recommended. But in my squirreling around I found a couple of papers that investigated the effect of CAD programs on the practice of architecture. So here’s a skeletal summary.

The first paper was The effect of CAD on Architecture Students’ Creativity and Enthusiasm. It looked at self-reported answers from architecture students.

The study found that architecture students do not perceive CAD applications as having potential to make them lazy in design. Furthermore, student’s ability to develop conceptual patterns, creative forms and novel ideas was found to be enhanced by the use of CAD. Most of the respondents (77.8%) agree that CAD enhances creativity. Lack of design drive and enthusiasm flourish among the undergraduate students because the requirement to present design solutions in manual drafting is perceived as burdensome and a waste of time.

The second piece was more an essay and analysis: CAD and creativity: Does the computer really help?

When CAD helps creativity

  • Students who have great ideas but are not good draftsmen and drawers use CAD to express ideas they would not otherwise have been able to
  • Even experienced architects say that CAD allows them to push the boundaries of how complex or intricate their designs are
  • Simple CAD systems can be used by non-professionals to design buildings

Can CAD hinder creativity?

  • Many top architects still work with paper and physical forms, and see benefits of CAD to be not large enough to justify the investment in learning it
  • Anecdotal trend among students: they become proficient in the software, but their creations lack “real” creativity: “They may look extremely convincing, they might be original, but they are most certainly not good design.”
  • On virtuosity without soul, the ease of blinding with polished presentation that lacks deeper substance:
    • “Theoretically, it has always been possible to find excellent presentation combined with poor design. However, before the advent of CAD, it seldom happened in practice. This is probably because the visual sensitivity needed to design and to draw well are so similar that it would be unlikely for a student to be skilled in one area but not in the other.”
    • “So it is possible to put forward computer presentations that look attractive and even dazzling, that seem authoritative, while the architecture so represented is really quite awful.”
  • They draw a parallel with desktop publishing: “This phenomenon can also be illustrated with reference to the graphic design that proliferated with the advent of the Apple Macintosh computer. We started to see documents obviously produced by people who owned a Mac, with its (at the time) revolutionary what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface and multiple fonts. These documents characteristically contained as many fonts as possible, apparently merely in order to exploit this new and wonderful facility.”
  • Computer makes it easy to do “hard” things without understanding underlying principles and constraints: “Even worse, some of these forms are relatively easy to generate in CAD but are hard to represent in manual perspective—for example, shell forms based on ellipsoidal sections, rotations of curved parabolic forms and so on. Perhaps this encourages students to believe that because they have drawn something infrequently seen, they are being creative.”
  • CAD does not understand or represent the materiality of the structures being designed. The shapes are abstract.

Of course, if you’re a programmer, you will note the obvious parallels to the debates around IDEs, and lately, Copilot and LLMs.