Susan S. Szenasy and Phil Bernstein on What Technology Can and Can’t Do

A recap of Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy and Phil Bernstein of Autodesk's conversation on how technology is changing the boundaries between designing and making.

3D-printed footwear designed by Francis Bitonti, who weighed in with his views on the technology during the November 13th discussion between Metropolis editor in chief and publisher Susan S. Szenasy and Autodesk’s Phil Bernstein.

Courtesy Francis Bitonti Studio

Although our society is growing increasingly accepting of technology’s ubiquity, the sheer speed of change has left little room for a thorough consideration of large-scale questions brought on by this shift. What impact does technology have on how products and buildings are designed, manufactured, and used? How is technology changing the boundaries between designing and making? And finally how do we negotiate the role of technology in regards to humanity and the planet?

These questions, and many more, were discussed Friday November 13th, when Metropolis hosted a live Twitter interview between Metropolis‘s publisher and editor in chief Susan Szenasy and Phil Bernstein, the vice president of Autodesk, a leading provider of design and engineering software.


In order to analyze where technology has brought us today Szenasy and Bernstein first took a look back, into the history and tradition of design technology. Bernstein put forward the argument that computer use in design could be categorized into three distinct eras. The first one was “documentation,” when hand drawing was replaced by CAD drafting through software such as AutoCAD. The second era was one of “optimization,” when digital models began supplementing CAD, and projects that tackled single issues such as cost or energy were improved through iterative design processes. And finally, the third era, which the world is set to enter, is the “era of connection,” “where we can represent integrated systems, and not just geometry,” Bernstein said.






Throughout these periods production strategies have been changing incrementally—bringing us to today, when physical and digital systems are merging and designers are tasked with developing both physical artifacts and associated digital software, similar to Autodesk’s Impact Design Database. At the same time users are becoming increasingly design and computer-savvy, pushing designers to create better and smarter.

As part of the conversation, three inventions were singled out for their role in this changing design landscape. These included cloud-based computing, which has allowed for the proliferation of virtual collaboration and sharing, and new design and architecture software which has helped smaller and nimbler design firms compete with bigger and wealthier companies. And finally 3D printing, which, as it becomes cheaper and more widely available, has disrupted the traditional manufacturing process by allowing for cheaper, faster, and easier development of projects, from design to manufacture. Bernstein offered the example of the Yale School of Architecture, where digital models in the studio quickly and easily become physical objects in the lab, teaching students valuable lessons in real-time, while designer Francis Bitonti stressed the importance of 3D printing both in enabling emerging designers and providing new materials, properties, and textures optimized for specific uses and people.


“Better design access improves things across the board,” Bernstein said.

And while he doesn’t question that recent innovations have opened up the design field in unprecedented ways, he also cautioned: “Access doesn’t equal talent. Although more people will be able to design, best design answers will still come out.”

To this Robert Yori, Senior Digital Design Manager at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, added: “Having the software doesn’t matter. It’s how you use it to do something meaningful and worthwhile.”

The conversation ended with each of the participants offering their perspectives on the future of design technology. Szenasy warned that although technological tools might be ethically agnostic, their use and related knowledge are not, so it is up to designers to use new capabilities for the right reasons. Bernstein added that he hopes that designers will focus less on the physical artifact and more on systems and relationships between things. “My hope is that when computers do what they do best—manage the rational—humans can do what they do best—create the ineffable,” Bernstein concluded.

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