What is Generative Design?

Data-Design Dictionary.
A dictionary to illuminate data-driven generative design and creative coding.


The term ‘generative‘ has its root in ‘generation’ or ‘generate’ and means something like ‘produced’, ‘created’ or ‘brought forth’. Accordingly, it refers to the process of creating a described subject or object. In the context of data-driven design, the generative term does not describe a specific aesthetic, but rather a specific creative process that allows ideas to take shape via rules.

“Generative art refers to any art practice in which the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, that is set into motion with some degree of autonomy, thereby contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art.”[1]

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The four defining characteristics of a generative system are[1]:

Rule set → A generative system is based on rules that are written down in a program/algorithm. Those rules are the basis of every generative process and its resulting design.

Autonomy → By abstracting an original idea, writing it down as a set of rules and implementing those in a program, a developer automates the design process and gives a generative system a certain degree of independence.

MovementGenerative design systems are able to produce an infinite number of results. As its usual mode of existence is process, movement as such is one basic requirements for that. Knowing that, only the result of a generative process – the form – can be rigid.

Completeness → As soon as a generative system starts moving, can act autonomously and produces results, it is considered complete, because it has detached itself from its dependence on its developer(s).

Additional quotes about generative
design and generative art

“So what is ‘generative design‘ exactly? There is no single definition of the term, but many complementary definitions with common characteristics [..]. Overall it can be described as a design method where generation of form is based on rules or algorithms, often deriving from computational tools [..]”[2]

“Generative aesthetics is now to be understood as the summary of all operations, rules, and theorems by the application of which to a set of material elements that can function as signs, in these aesthetic states (distributions or designs) are consciously and methodically producible. Generative aesthetics, then, is analogous to generative grammar in the sense that, like these propositions of a grammatical scheme, it provides realization of an aesthetic structure.”[3]

“Generative art uses a computer as an enabling technology. The work is generated by a computer program, but is not fully autonomous. The computer is guided to create the work using detailed instructions from the artist, who either writes the program or at least creates the method (algorithm) for the creation of the work.”[4]

“In the twenty-first century generative art encompasses a vast and expanding field, applied to any practice in which a computer program is coded by an artist to create experiences, and where the interplay of human intelligence and machine response drives the results.”[5]

“Generative art is a contemporary form of artistic creation, where the focus is not necessarily on the artwork or final product, but on the process of creation and the ideas that underlie it.”[6]

“Generative art is an umbrella term, coined for all artworks that have been created with the use of an autonomous system, such as an algorithm, computer code, or drawing machine. The generative artist collaborates with the algorithm, where handing over control is a large part of the process. The computer provides the infinite rigour and accuracy that humans don’t traditionally excel at, resulting in an overlap between the spheres of computer science, art, and design. It would have remained a quirk of graphic design or illustration if it weren’t for a key ingredient: a controlled quantity ofrandomness. By allowing certain elements to be directed by odd values, such as using physically imperfect tools to render a perfectly ordered set of instructions, generative artists create a space that allows each piece to land somewhere between order and chaos.”[7]

“Celestino Soddu (1994) defines generative design as ‘a morphogenetic process using algorithms structures as nonlinear systems for endless unique and unrepeatable results performed by an idea-code, as in nature’. [..] The term ‘morphogenesis’ derives from the Greek words morphe (meaning ‘form’) and genesis (meaning ‘birth’), so could be literally translated as ‘birth of form’. As with the term ‘generative design’, there is no unique of definition of morphogenesis, and it seems that the terminology is changing in relation to emerging technologies and techniques.”[8]

[1] Philip Galanter: Generative Art Theory, in: Christiane Paul (publisher): A Companion to Digital Art, Oxford 2016, p. 151.
[2] Agkathidis, Asterios: Generative Design, London 2015, p. 14.
[3] Bense, Max: Projekte Generativer Ästhetik, in: rot Nr. 19, 1965. (the quote on this page is a translation of the original German text)
[4] Parker, James R: GENerative ART. Algorithms as a artistic tools, Calgary 2020, p. 19
[5] Parker, James R: GENerative ART. Algorithms as a artistic tools, Calgary 2020, p. X.
[6] Voigt, Hans-Michael: Evolutionäre Algorithmen & Generative Kunst. Ein Essay an einem Schnittpunkt von Informatik, Biowissenschaften und Kunst, Norderstedt 2016, p. 16. (the quote on this page is a translation of the original German text)
[7] Pierre Paslier: INTRO, in: Generative Hut. A.R.E. Augmented Reality Exhibition, 2021, p. 3
[8] Agkathidis, Asterios: Generative Design, London 2015, p. 16.
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