C o n s t r u c t i n g   D e s i g n   C o n c e p t s :   A Computational Approach to the Synthesis of Architectural Form
Kotsopoulos S, Ph.D. Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005
r e s e a r c h

I.      Preliminaries

3. Design Concepts
      Design problems demand that some objectives be defined by an observer. A design concept is a working 
      hypothesis. It indicates the intention regarding the making of an artifact of a certain kind, and establishes an
      interrelationship among the factors that a specific designer considers crucial for the design. A design concept
      does not evolve by simple analysis of the provided information. It involves judgment. It is not a classification of the  
      given facts for the object under consideration. It suggests a possible new meaning for it.

      Minsky (1974) reflecting on the first glimpses of the thinking process notes: “
Thinking always begins with
      suggestive but imperfect plans and images; these are progressively replaced by better–but usually still
”. The generation of artistic concepts, including images, analogies, motifs, and rhythms, is
      characterized by facility, fragility and incoherence. Design concepts mirror the transitory understanding of the
      conditions, and disclose a series of potentials and contradictions. They cannot be described in fixed detail. And on
      the other hand, they can be astonishingly precise on certain details, and relationships. They set the mind into a
      particular mode of activity that leads to further thoughts and actions. A design concept can take the form of a simple
      narrative, which usually ends up into a sketch. It is a tentative statement, produced in one’s mind in response to a
      problem, and it is unjustifiable with rational criteria.
                                   Figure 1.  A design concept for an office building in Los Angeles (MPAN, 2003)

      March (1976) points out that statements of this kind cannot be evaluated as true or false, because they do not
      provide quantitative information. The inability to frame an initial concept in a definite way is not due to the complexity
      of the provided information, or the observed conditions. It belongs to the very nature of interpretation. To avoid the
      ambiguity of concepts, Aristotle proposed: “
In order to formulate the appropriate propositions to be proved, one
      must pick out the divisions of the subject matter
”. Both Plato (Republic, 261?) and Aristotle (Metaphysics, 1038?28)
      suggested the operation of division. That is, analysis of a subject, to elicit its properties. Aristotle recommended to
      keep in mind a tree of the genera and the species and to discover the widest class of the whole of which a certain
      attribute can be predicated.
Figure 2.  Hierarchical categories: Tree of Aristotle’s Substance translated by Peter of Spain (1239), from Eero Hyvonen, Ontology perspectives (2003).
Figure 3.  The hierarchical approach of Alexander from the Notes in the Synthesis of Form (1967).
     Sometimes design concepts include imaginary elements, with no direct correspondence to the experienced facts. 
      Such concepts should not be avoided in favor of the existing standard modes of interpretation. It is often the
      fictitious concepts, rather than those that are fully definable, that enable designers to interpret the experienced facts
      in new ways, and organize novel designs. Instead of excluding them on the ground that they are vague, one must
      admit those for empirical interpretation. The discovery of such concepts can revolutionize understanding and ones’
      way of looking at things.

      Finally, design concepts emerging out of specific empirical facts, such as: the precise structural behavior of some
      material, or component, the movement of the sun, or the requirements of particular light and sound conditions, etc.,
      can also be easily defined at great numbers. Such concepts can be operationally useful and they are usually
      unambiguous in their definition. However, most of them end up of no great use if they do not provide the principles
      that connect them with the rest of the characteristics.

      In summary, design is an empirical inquiry that involves hypothesis and imagination, deduction and observation.
      Guided by previous knowledge a designer has to invent a concept, or a set of concepts. These concepts may lack
      immediate experiential meaning. The designer invents a system of actions implied in terms of them, and an
      interpretation for the resulting network of relationships. All these are finally implemented in a manner that retains
      some link with the existing standards.
     The Aristotelian analysis provided a “semantic net” for concepts. It was evolving a hierarchy of the cosmos,
      including man and his aims. The objectivity of the structure, and not just man and his purposes was to set the
      standards for the individual thoughts and actions. The characteristic of the structure is the analyzability of everything
      into separate parts that “work” together. A similar hierarchical analysis was proposed in contemporary design
      theory by Alexander (1967).
     Hierarchies of the previous kind are determined by regular connections between their defining characteristics. The
      relationships between their nodes are predefined. They are based on the assumption that they frame the essential
      character (physical, functional, or other) of the thing they describe. But, the notion of an essential characteristic is
      too obscure to become the criterion for any classification. In design, no examination of an object could objectively
      establish any of its characteristics as more essential than another. Definition is a matter of identity. But it also
      involves speculation, imagination and theorizing. The ideas by means of which a designer seeks to establish a
      design solution are chosen with a view to establish something novel and extraordinary. Therefore, the best
      description is the one that enables us to make further suppositions, and to produce unexpected results. This
      becomes possible in descriptions that are characterized by absence of standard connections between them.
Figure 4.  The relationships described in the conceptual schema (left) are not simply hierarchical. Diploma Thesis,
NTUA, M. Panagopoulou, S. Kotsopoulos. In Biris,
Signs and Precepts of Architecture (1996).