For architects, artists and designers, the lifespans of large-scale projects can be crushing. Movies, games and products all move at length-scales of months, and its not uncommon for buildings to take decades to realize. For creatives, the monotony of throwing yourself at a shared vision endlessly, and the inherent corporate approval and compromise process, can become suffocating. I have seen fellow creatives leave well-paid jobs at well funded studios and taking pay cuts get away running on what I'd call content treadmills.

At a recent workshop, I saw a new idea that could challenge creative lock-in. For the past several years, a trickle of designers and creative coders from Zaha Hadid Architecture have made the pilgrimage from the London studio to teach workshops at ACADIA - the conference for computational architecture. For the past two years, we crated a shared workshop and micro 3D print farm to turn code into digital sculptures. 

With a duration of only a few days, the workshop format functions like a creative cleansing. As a class, students focus on learning new skills, while instructors work to bring a creative vision, communicate methodologies, and respond to the ideas and challenges the students bring. Decision-making is immediate and the pace is hectic. 

Instructor Mostafa Elsayed discussing Visual Basic script with students with a farm of 3D printers in the background. 

For example, at a recent conference, we teamed up with Soomeen Hahm and Igor Pantec - two longtime collaborators who use simulation to generate abstract morphologies. They came with some a rough processing sketch based on Dijkstra's shortest path algorithm, which we used to generate the skeletal shapes that informed our class outputs. Going from these abstractions into a fully 3D printable model added an urgent and satisfying problem to solve, aided by the fact that we had one of the first beta Form 2 printers to fiddle with.

Inevitably, the requirements of the process puts several concrete constraints on outcomes. When you come to a new design method, finding the functional borders is a process of experimentation and discovery that opens the mind up to learning and play, as well as limbering users away from stylistic conventions they may carry from their day to day projects. When throwing together toolsets, like 3D printing and computational geometry, the abstractions compound - forcing you to give up control and simply play with the process.

Simulation in process at ACADIA 2014. The evolving flow process (captured as a series of points) was given volume in Maya, and 3D printed.

After two years of ACADIA and several other workshops, I can relate a few thoughts I have about workshopping that might be useful for others in the design and creative industry:

INSTRUCTOR OR STUDENT CENTRIC: A workshop can be used to convey ideas to students, or manage a broad task to test some concept out for the instructors. In the latter example, it helps to break down students into groups to allow them each to manage and master a portion of the task in the allotted time (in the case of a 3D printing / coding workshop, some students worked on coding and simulation, while others concentrated on geometry generation, rendering and printing models).

Allowing the instructors to coordinate means the outputs may be more defined and attractive (since instructors can generally direct students in a constructively towards a predefined goal), but reduces somewhat the experimentation that can occur when each player in the process owns their outcomes. Pick your path: big goals vs. swarm learning.

Adding volume to the point cloud in Maya.

ADDRESS REAL PROBLEMS: One of the brilliant sides I saw of the Zaha:Code group was their focus on generating ideas for new projects and proposals. The lens of a workshop can definitely put a nice capstone on the brainstorming process (which like a gas, often expands to fill the space given to it). Opening up real working problems, like brainstorming geometry for future large-scale projects, is a low-risk way to double dip on your efforts. As an added bonus, you have the opportunity to check out potential recruits in the field. 

CREATE A PHYSICAL OUTCOME: Creating physical objects creates a tangible anchor to the lesson, and drives the urgency of running a class (what did we make? is it good? is it useful?). It can also create a bridge or anchor to future ideas. While I've been fortunate to have access to 3D printers, I've seen beautiful work hacked with cardboard mocks, or even bent and lasercut paper. Don't let a budget stop you.

CREDITS: I've been fortunate to work with an awesome company that paid me to fly places and meet with incredibly smart and talented people, while learning coding and how to teach 3D printing. Over the years I've been able to work with amazing folks. Images you see here were shot by me, and were the outcome of a collaboration between students and Shajay Bhooshan / Vishu Bhooshan / Mostafa El Sayed and Meagan Maupin (Zaha: Code - Parametrics) or a student group and Soomeen Hahm and Igor Panatic (BIO AGENCY).  

Generated forms fresh of of a 3D printer.