Excogitatoris ex machina – Influence of CAD on Product Design

Excogitatoris ex machina, the title of this post, is a latin expression that directly translates into “Designer in the machine” (if Google Translate is to be believed). This phrase was chosen due to it’s similarity to another descriptive phrase, “Deus ex machina”, or “God in the Machine”. This title was specifically chosen due to the topics covered within. Deus ex machina referred to a literary plot device that would appear suddenly and unexpectedly, resolving any solution that the characters were facing. Different from it’s literary cousin, the designer in the machine can be seen as the designer themselves. Although there are various tools at a product designer’s disposal, this essay will primarily focus on CAD (Computer Aided Design).  This report will cover multiple examples from various sources, presenting the argument that CAD is, at it’s core, a conduit through which a designer’s thoughts can be translated into a virtual, three dimensional space. Rather than a tool used for creativity. To support this argument, sources include an interview of Jay Doblin, an American industrial designer, an article about how CAD Changed Product Design, and an article discussing AI, humanity, and the future of product design. Essentially a past, present, and future view of Product Design. 

In a 1983 interview with Innovation (The Journal of the Industrial Designers Society of America), Jay Doblin, a then 40 year veteran of the industrial design industry, was asked a series of questions. These inquiries ranged from personal, to advice for current industrial design students, to the merits and importance of CAD tools. “The computer’s value to design is unlike the contribution it makes to […] any other sector” expressed Doblin (1983), “[…] the designer who settles for using the computer to manage details […] is not a designer, but a technician.” As was stated in the opening of this essay, Doblin’s views on the use of CAD reflects an often unquestioned view on the use of computer software in the creative field. Rather than being a tool for creation and expression, it is presented that the computer is a means to “[…]absorb and structure(s) information and gives back the pivotal link, the street map to where the designer should focus creative energy.” (Doblin 1983). This statement can be interpreted not as an outright refusal to the technology, but as a precautionary message towards the over reliance of CAD software. Essentially, you get what you give, and a strong comprehension of computer software does not a designer make.

“Scan2CAD” is a vector conversion software produced by AVIA systems, a UK based software development company.  Their software takes drawings from both digital and physical media, and transcribes it to a vectorized form (Scan2Cad).  An article was published on the companies blog discussing the nature of CAD, and how it’s introduction has changed the way that product design as a whole is conducted. Although the nature of the company hosting this article may lead to some bias towards this topic of discussion, their arguments for and against the use of CAD in product design are sound. “Those who design exclusively with CAD […] may find themselves more constrained to certain ways of thinking and drafting.” writes Andy. (2017, June 21), the author of this specific piece. This claim harkens back to the observations by Jay Doblin made almost 34 years ago, although from vastly different technological landscapes. Although the article lists the benefits of CAD to product design, like the ease of customization and the ability to run simulations that would otherwise end up being costly and time intensive, these factors have little to do with the overall ideation and conception of the design, rather focusing on the final, testing phase of the product in question; a stage in the development well past the timeframe to reinvent the core attributes of the design. “Another issue [with designing in CAD is that] designers may focus too much on how their object appears in a virtual space, rather than keeping in mind the real-life utility of the product.” states the author of this article (Andy 2017). This statement is followed up with the declaration that the rise of 3D printing further severs “the link between the designer and the product” (Andy 2017). As hyperbolic as that statement sounds, the author has a point. The democratization of rapid protoyping has led to the ability to produce production ready products in a matter of hours. Although this can be seen as a blessing, it’s safe to state (from personal experiences), that this can lead to a “trial and error” method of design, which can also be detrimental to the overall design. 

Although this next article dwells into the realm of future technologies and more abstract concepts regarding humanism and the efficiency of an artificial intelligence as a “replacement” for human input, it still covers many of the same thematic elements that are presented in the previous articles. Written by Avinash Royyuru (Abbreviated to “Roy”),  cofounder of Product ML, a machine learning company specializing in providing solutions for UX, software, and hardware manufacturers. In the article, Roy touches on the evolution of the design in the scope of product marketing and consumption, and how the implementation of AI systems can in turn assist in the prediction of, and the design of, trends and areas of interest in the design world. “With AI and machine learning techniques becoming increasingly commoditized” writes Roy (2017), “How we choose to blend these techniques with human creativity will define the future of product design”.  What he means in this statement is that the marriage between machine learning and artificial intelligence, we can finally incorporate the more “artistic” elements of an intelligence system into the design and fabrication of consumer goods and products. The article punctuates this with a quote from John McCarthy, an American computer scientist and cognitive researcher, stating that “As soon as it works, no one calls it AI any more” (Roy 2017). Further examples of AI systems exhibiting what can be called “creative choices” are listed in the article as well. “Netflix recommendations, Google Ads, Facebook News Feed, iPhone battery optimization, algorithmic trading, dynamic pricing in your Uber app or when you look for flights – AI is everywhere and we don’t notice it.” (Roy 2017). While these specific examples come from a primarily User Experience (UX) or User Interaction (UI) standpoint, it can be applied to the world of product design. Just by looking at web browsers from the 90’s (excite) in comparison to todays modern browsers (google), one can see the improvements that a contextual interface, that is, a less cluttered, “there when you need it” approach to design can make for a more pleasant and less intrusive experience. Using machine learning, you can bypass the consumer testing of say, a children’s toy, by exposing the design and concept to an AI system that was programmed based on the parameters of the target audience for that toy, receiving feedback based on the collective “consciousness” of thousands of recorded trials. While that may influence the design decisions, that decision to create and to implement is solely a human trait. For now.

When Jay Doblin was interviewed back in 1983, there was no way of predicting the seamless integration and amalgamation of technology into our day to day lives. It was almost seen as the stuff of science fiction. The ever-present circus of machinery that fill the lives of industrial designers has made the manufacturing process as accessible as ever before. However, the act of conceptualizing and ideating a product will forever be based on the designer, regardless of the prevalent nature of CAD software. A strong comprehension of computer software does not a designer make.




Andy. (2017, June 21). How CAD Changed Product Design | History and Future. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from https://www.scan2cad.com/cad/cad-product-design

“Scan2CAD” is a vector conversion software produced by AVIA systems, a UK based software development company. This article was written by a man named Andy

Doblin, J. (1983). Reflections On Industrial Design Past, Present and Future [Abstract]. Innovation: The Journal of the Industrial Designers Society of America, (Spring), innovation, 12-14.

The specific article was an interview of Jay Doblin for the Spring 1983 issue of The Journal of the Industrial Designers Society of America

Royyuru, A. (2017, September 14). AI, humanity and the future of product design. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from https://hackernoon.com/ai-humanity-and-the-future-of-product-design-4dc566be372e

Avinas Royyuru is the cofounder of Product ML, a machine learning company