Blocks World Redux: Formalizing Material Interaction in Exploratory Model-Making

Expert and Novice Behavior

To study how designers explore ideas when making physical models we ran an experiment in which architects and undergraduate students constructed a dream house made of blocks. 

Our objective with this study is to extend the notion of designerly thinking to physical model making. What sketching is to visual thinking model making is to physical thinking. If sketching is thought of as visual design thinking, model making, with its emphasis on building, assembly and manipulation, ought to be considered physical design thinking – a more tangible, interactionist way of exploring designs.

By studying differences in expert and novice behavior we can identify a knowledge base for interactive thinking.

Experiment Set-up

To explore this idea we created a simple design world – a blocks world – where model making is abstracted to picking, manipulating, and placing blocks in a configuration on a site. We devise a simple coding scheme that tracks the key material interactions over time. By video recording the design sessions of designers and non-designers we are able to compare their interactions and by using the method of voice aloud protocol analysis we can relate these to what is said during activity.

Experiment Results

Architects differed from students along three dimensions. First, architects were more controlled with the blocks; they used fewer blocks overall and fewer variations. Second, architects appear to think less about house features and more about spatial relationships and material constraints. Lastly, architects experiment with multiple block positions within the model more frequently, repeatedly testing block placements.

interaction diagram figure-01.jpg


Together these findings suggest that designers physically explore the design space more effectively than students. They understand how to experiment physically with parts and the emerging structure. This embodied know-how is something next generation robots will need to support.

Our vision is to integrate robotic tools earlier into the design process. The challenge is to support the dynamic and unpredictable nature of hands-on model making. Because model definitions unfold piece by piece, an interactive robotic system must be able to recognize the model as it changes over time. As new forms emerge designers set up rapid embodied interaction experiments to see possibilities and make design decisions. As our study shows architects do this in a variety of ways that can be coded as material interaction primitives and sequences.