Designed by algorithms

There’s a design technology that’s taking its cue from nature and generating functional design options – for everything from furniture to medical implants – that meet predetermined goals. It is not a fantasy, it’s the generative design. Let’s have a look at some examples of products, prototypes and concepts designed by algorithms. 

This article on generative design is based on information gathered at lectures and exhibitions that were part of San Francisco Design Week 2017, conferences IDTechEx 2017 in Berlin and Web Summit 2016 in Lisbon, and the exhibition “California: Designing Freedom” now shown in the Design Museum in London.


The traditional design process most designers know today can be a laborious, full multiple revisions and iterations before arriving at the finished product. But the generative design software – a new tool for designing – is helping to speed up the process and, more importantly, enabling designers to come up with ideas beyond their imagination.

The next stage of computer-aided design (CAD) will be generative.

With generative design, a designer simply enters his or her goals and constraints into the computer software. Once design parameters are defined for a specific project – for example, four legs, an elevated seat on a specific height, weight requirements, given materials – the software goes to work.

Employing evolutionary algorithms, generative design software uses predetermined criteria to produce thousands, possibly millions, of optimised options for a single design, using complex forms with precise amounts material, exactly where needed. The software creates optimised lattice structures that far exceed the performance of traditional configurations.

Generative design is not just about creating interesting designs. It is about doing the most optimised designs.

All given offers meet the designer’s criteria. And because the computer isn’t constrained by preconceived notions of what a chair should look like, it’s free to discover solutions that the designer might not have come up with on their own.

To put it simply, with traditional design (first chair from the left in the picture above), a designer might start creating a chair with an initial sketch and then play with the form and materials. The end product might be something sleek and functional, but also familiar.

Technologies such as computer-aided design software and 3D printing have opened the door to new possibilities, such as the lattice leg structure (Chair 2), but here designers are still somewhat limited in what they can do.

Generative design (Chair 3) removes those limitations by exploring all the various ways to make a chair that meets the designers’ requirements while producing unexpected and new forms.

Briefly speaking, the design process with generative design program consists of the following steps.

A designer starts by setting goals – an alloy chair that supports, for example, 200 lbs and weight less than 7 lbs. The software then begins to generate many possible solutions. Then, to ensure that the chair is strong enough to support the maximum weight, each iteration undergoes performance analysis.

Through many variations, the software continues to create, simulate, and optimise the design. From results, the designer selects the solution that best satisfies his or her needs. Then, the designer can produce a prototype using various fabrication methods – such as 3D printing – to do a real-world testing.

Generative design technology mimics nature, employing algorithms to create complex forms that imitate how the natural world accepts or rejects designs.

This technology can be applied to almost anything that needs to be designed – furniture, vehicles, buildings, cars, bridges, implants etc. Below you can find a handful of generative design projects.


Generative Art Nouveau

As you can see on the picture above, the software is quite talented in designing chairs –probably Antonio Gaudi would not be ashamed of such a design of a chair.


Bicycle frame

Generative designs of a chair and bicycle frames were part of the presentation entitled “The Future of Making Things is Now” that was held at Autodesk during San Francisco Design Week in June 2017.



Under Armour, an American company that manufactures footwear and sports apparel is an early adopter of generative design software. In 2016 the company introduced the Architech – the performance training shoe with a complex shape 3D-printed midsole.

Under Armour used selective laser sintering (SLS) to 3D print the Architech’s flexible yet durable complex lattice structure, made from bonded chalky substrate.

The Architech shoe performs admirably in activities that require lateral stability as well as those where flexibility, cushioning, and lightweight are critical, improving performance across athletic disciplines without the need to change shoes during varied training regimens.

Want a pair? Actually, this item is sold out. Another model – Architech Futurist – is not available anymore as well. Sorry.


Skateboard trucks

The skateboard truck was designed by designers Daniele Grandi and John Schmier in California based on tools developed by Autodesk.

The truck’s prototype is the part of the exhibition „California: Designing Freedom” that run in Design Museum in London until 17 October. If you will be visiting the British capital up to that time (London Design Festival is quite soon), I encourage you to visit this exhibition.



On the left: the traditional approach to node design. On the right: the optimised node that performs the same function as the original component, but with significant weight reduction.

The traditional part is handmade. The optimised version was made by digital fabrication employing laser-sintered steel powder.


Heat exchanger

A cleverly designed series of struts inside each of the tubes increases internal surface area and disrupts the flow of cooled fluid to maximise heat transfer. The outside form has been designed to increase the cooling surface area and utilise the cooling air as it passes through the device.


Bio-engineered surfaces

Autodesk Within Medical software enables implant designers to create a porous coating for implants to aid in osseointegration – the fusion between bone and implant – where the porosity itself can be tuned to allow for optimal fusion. The integrated lattice topologies have been developed specifically with cell growth in mind.

This spinal implant by Novax DMA was 3D-printed using a multi-planar structure based on hexagonal cells that resemble the porous structure of the trabecular bone.


Femoral implant

In the session „How Functional Generative Design Reshapes Everything” given at IDTechEx conference in Berlin that run in May 2017, Jesse Coors-Blankenship, the CEO and founder of the company Frustum, introduced Generate, the cloud-based generative design software.

One of the examples of optimised design is the body of a femoral implant. You can watch the entire session by Mr Jesse Coors-Blankenship on the video embedded below (image and sound quality is not the best as I recorded it using a tiny sport camera; however I hope you will find the recording interesting).

In addition to these examples, generative design can also be used to design a car chassis, bridge construction or even interiors of offices and apartments. Carl Bass – a member of Autodesk’s Board of Directors and former CEO of this company – talked about it in his lecture titled “Design and the Future of Work” at Web Summit 2016 conference in Lisbon. You can watch the entire session below.


Main picture: Under Armour’s press materials. All other photos and videos:

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