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Adapted from an article we previously published on Link

If you’re reading this, you might already know about our wacky wooden puzzles, and you might have heard a bit about our use of parametric design (also known as computational or algorithmic design) to create these unpredictable patterns. We’re here to share some insight about this contemporary design practice by answering a few questions: what is parametric design, anyway? And, what does it mean when something is created parametrically?

It’s hard to define in just a few words, and googling “parametric design” or “computational design” leads to some dry explanations that can sound a little too abstract. For example, Wikipedia says it’s “a paradigm in design where the relationship between elements is used to manipulate and inform the design of complex geometries and structures.” This is accurate but not that straightforward, and leaves most of us scratching our heads.

A brief case study: The Nubo Light

Before we started Puzzle Lab, we ran a multidisciplinary design agency with a focus on parametric design. The idea for this light fixture, which we designed and fabricated for a restaurant called Nubo Japanese Tapas in Victoria, was born from the design of Japanese wooden screens. We fine-tuned a model of an elegant curving form using a computer program called Rhino; the shape could then be manipulated because the software lets us generate different geometric forms by adjusting the parameters.

Like a spreadsheet, but way more exciting

Think of it like a spreadsheet you’ve set up to make calculations; you choose which math function will be performed, input the different numbers, and your result depends on what those variables are. This is basically the parametric design process. (It’s not surprising that the term “parametric” does come from parametric equations in math.) 

The program Rhinoceros is based on a mathematical model commonly used in computer graphics for generating curves and surfaces. We operate Rhinoceros with a plugin called Grasshopper, a visual-based programming language (pictured here), to create these forms.

Before computers: Gaudí's Sagrada Família

Of course, parametric design existed before our digital times. Take the work of Antoni Gaudí, a Spanish architect whose work is famously found throughout Barcelona—he first used parametric techniques at the end of the 19th century.

To design the church of Sagrada Família, Gaudí created an upside-down model, using strings weighed down by birdshot. A mirror placed below the model showed what the chapel would look like right side up. Who needs computers when you have gravity? This still has all the parts of a parametric model:
A set of parameters:
• Length of the string
• Anchor point location
• Birdshot weight
A set of outcomes: The various vertex locations of points on the strings. The outcomes are derived from math functions: Gravity! Or Newton’s Law of Motion. The force of gravity acted on the strings to create the shape, which took away the need for Gaudí to do the math to produce a model.

An inverted model of Gaudí’s unfinished Colònia Güell church, which has all the components of a parametric model. He also used this experimental method to design the Sagrada Família. Photo credit: The Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Família.

The ceiling of the Sagrada Família church designed by Antonio Gaudí

Limited only by imagination

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of parametric design and the design possibilities it enables us to realize. Specialized software such as Rhino help us make products of any scale and for any industry (furniture, buildings, art pieces, clothing, jewelry—whatever you can think of). Modern designers are only limited by their mastery of these design tools and their imagination.

Parametric design examples, large and small:

Generative jigsaw puzzles by Puzzle Lab & Nervous System

Serpentine Pavilion by Bjarke Ingels Group

Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid Architects 

Ted 2018 Installation by Studio Robazzo

Grotto Sauna by Partisans