The New World of Design



I began writing for Canadian Architect in 1987, and since then I have watched the profession be transformed by digital technology. Gone are the parallel rules, technical pens and set squares that once dominated architectural offices, replaced by screens, keyboards and plotters. This is, however, only the beginning. In this special issue, experts from across Canada have come together to speculate on the future of design, and what they describe suggests that the next 20 years will be even more transformative and disruptive than the past 20 years.

Thomas Seebohm from the University of Waterloo, John Danahy from the University of Toronto and Hugues Rivard from the cole de Technologie Suprieure explore the changing face of practice; Brian Lilley from Dalhousie University reports on going green and the contributions designers can make to reducing greenhouse gases; and Rob Woodbury, a professor at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University investigates the economic potential of design. And finally, a brief discussion of the work of partners Shane and Betsy Williamson, who explore some of the possibilities derived from CNC-milled materials.

While new technologies inform each of these pieces, they mustn’t blind us to the underlying trends that are driving these developments. Design itself is emerging as a credible and significant field of research and we need to assemble the practices, expertise and infrastructure necessary to nurture the idea of design research.

Design research is important. As we grapple with global warming, design research is the key to understanding and validating effective approaches to creating sustainable environments and products. It is the key to making Canadian industries more productive and competitive. It is the key to selling more products and services abroad. And it is the key to improving our health and quality of life.

Design research, however, presents the design professions with both challenges and opportunities. New tools for visualization and fabrication provide designers with new approaches to design. Practices such as the Farrow Partnership are pioneering the use of new techniques such as evidence-based design (see “Healthy Measures” in CA, October 2005) to gather data on how buildings are used. And our colleges and universities are expanding or developing their graduate programs in design with an increasing emphasis on research. Canada, however, has not kept pace with other nations in investing in design and design research. South Korea is in the midst of its third five-year plan for design and has developed design centres across the country. Finland designated 2005 as the Year of Design in its own country and invested $40.9 million CAD in design research, education and promotion. It is worth noting that Finland, with a population of only five million people, ranks fourth in the world in terms of innovation and second in the world in terms of overall global competitiveness according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Rankings in 2006. In comparison, Canada’s rankings are 13 and 16 respectively, and slipping.

Canadians can only address these shortcomings by working together. No single university college, company or agency, for example, can afford all of the resources that would make it an international centre for design research. For this reason, academic institutions, government agencies and industrial partners have come together to form the Canadian Design Research Network or CDRN. The CDRN includes 19 schools of architecture and design from Dalhousie University to the University of British Columbia. It provides a forum for sharing information, personnel and resources connected to design research while also providing a vehicle for disseminating that research through workshops, publications, podcasts, seminars, conferences and other activities.

In 2006, the network was energized through funding from the prestigious Networks of Centres of Excellence program. While other disciplines have always been well represented in Canada’s research community, this is the first time that design research has received such a level of support–and we must make the most of it.

As a Network of Centres of Excellence, the CDRN has identified six key research areas that it will address–Sustainability, Advanced Design Technologies, Fabrication, Interactive Technologies, Design Visualization and Simulation, and Visual Analytics–many of which are described in this issue. Designers will be familiar with most of the these areas, but it is worth noting that Advanced Design Technologies include innovations such as parametric modelling which can be thought of as a 3D spreadsheet in which changing one variable cascades through the entire design. Visual Analytics is another emerging technology (and science) that uses visualization to represent large, complex data sets in a manner that facilitates decision-making.

The network also hopes to influence decision-makers at all levels of government to develop the kinds of policies that have worked so well for Finland and Korea. While designers rarely delve into areas of public policy for the reasons listed above, we must convince our governments that design is critical to Canada’s future.

With such a mandate, the network must be interdisciplinary, and as such it includes over 100 researchers in faculties of design, architecture, engineering, computer science, environmental design, construction and landscape architecture who are working together on these themes to transform the practice of design in the 21st century. In this respect, the key strength of the network is its people. In addition to the authors noted above, it also includes practitioners such as Philip Beesley, Sara Bonnemaison, John Cirka, David Covo, Patrick Harrop, Christine Macy, Oliver Neumann, and veteran researchers such as Pierre Boulanger, Ray Cole, Pierre Ct, Sara Diamond, Richard Levy and Ron Wakkary. The CDRN is also fortunate to have Rob Woodbury as its Scientific Director and I am very fortunate to have been asked to be its Executive Director.

One of the major goals of the network is to connect design research with practitioners across the country, and we would like to thank the editors of Canadian Architect for allowing us to do just that. We hope, however, that this is just the beginning of a powerful dialogue with designers and researchers from across Canada. We welcome the participation of all interested parties and this begins with a visit to our website at or by sending me an e-mail at

Douglas MacLeod is the Executive Director of the Canadian Design Research Network.