Designing by algorithm: "I don't draw anything"

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3D Design student Math Whittaker is making his mark with his algorithmically-designed furniture – and now he’s off to Harvard to study on the Master in Design programme.

“The crux of what I do is design by writing algorithms and code; I don’t draw anything.”

Final year 3D Design student Math Whittaker is describing the process by which he creates his digitally fabricated furniture and other experimental designs. It’s a self-initiated approach that this self-confessed “bad drawer” turned to after a frustrating first year trying to get to grips with sketching.

“Designing this way is entirely my choice,” he explains, “everyone else on the course is very sketch-based and more traditionally artistic, I guess.”

Earlier this year Whittaker was taken on as 3D digital designer in residence at The Ideas Foundation, a role that involves sharing his skills and enthusiasm with school-age students. And from lampshades inspired by a microscopic organism to a bench designed by the mathematical manipulation of Barbara Hepworth sculptures, his sketch-free approach has clearly served him well during his time at Manchester School of Art.

So well, in fact, that the 21-year-old has just been accepted onto the prestigious Master in Design (technology) programme at Harvard. Safe to say, he is very happy to be heading to the States in mid August.

Room for experimentation

“The course at Harvard allows for a lot of experimentation, which was important for me,” he says, explaining that the Massachusetts university was his first choice. (He also applied to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and was primed to try the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia and the Architectural Association in London – “Which I’m obviously not going to do now,” he smiles.)

“The research that’s coming out of Harvard in terms of robotics within design – they’re leading the way at the moment,” he continues. “And the facilities are great, so with technology being such a big part of what I do it was my top choice.”

Originally from just outside Canterbury in Kent, Whittaker’s academic background goes some way to explaining his tech-based approach to design; having dropped Art when choosing his GCSEs, his A Levels were in Maths, Physics and Product Design. When it came to university, however, he was attracted to the “artistic freedom” of the MMU course.

“When I was looking at courses, Product Design seemed to be a lot more engineering led, and more about developing a whole new product rather than, say, the design of a new piece of furniture, which is what interested me.”

Teenage dreams

Whittaker’s interest in designing algorithmically goes back to his mid-teens; he first heard about the technique from an architect working for Zaha Hadid Architects.

“I went to an exhibition of Hadid’s work in London and there happened to be an architect from the studio in the gallery and he just started chatting to me,” he says. “I was about 16 at the time.”

That chance meeting eventually led Whittaker to teach himself how to code two years ago, followed by a three-day course last summer. His current course project is a desk design based on particle physics.

“To create a pattern I wrote an algorithm that simulated particles moving through magnetic fields, and then used the information from that pattern – like the curvature of different points – to grow the desks out of,” he says.

“The idea is that the algorithm can produce a lot of different variations of the design; I can create one algorithm that will produce a range of tables – a desk, a dining table, coffee table, etc.”

Whittaker cites generative design studio Nervous System and The Very Many as contemporary influences. Crucially, though, he stresses that his purely digital approach is about opening up new possibilities in design and ultimately influences the end product.

“The process of designing drives the product,” he says. “I use robotics and machines to make my designs because the algorithms allow a more subtle level of complexity. It would be very hard to achieve this otherwise.”