Dance With Data

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In one word, the difference between architecture and product design is progress. Progress comes in the dance with data.

By Lennard Ong

Data should flow eloquently, seamlessly and effortlessly. We must realise that each time we perform an action, we manipulate data.

Since 1970, manufacturing efficiency has grown 1500%. In contrast, building efficiency has withered. On average, 43% of all efforts on a building is waste.

This waste comes from reworking, poor coordination and the act of repetitive coordination. Like a game of Chinese Whispers where the information is passed from owner to eventual person on site.

In product design, this implies that owners are paying double for an often inferior product. We are an industry walking into the future, backwards. We must progress.

The hypothesis of digital matter is that progress comes in the dance with data, which applies to buildings as well.

It is a fact that the future runs on data. There will be no more files and sheets. Only data. This is already happening. We have forgotten what a file is.   

Do you download an MP3 anymore? No. You Spotify it.

Do you borrow a DVD to watch a movie? No. You Netflix it.

These data have no dead ends to its flow. We access them directly and dynamically. MP3s, CDs and DVDs are examples of data dead ends. Nothing dynamic can flow from them. Likewise, excel files and word documents are poor transfers of information.

In architecture, the traditional design process of concept, detail, tender and construction is all about data. At every stage, a new dimension of data is added: 2D, 3D, costings and such. Essentially, we turn unstructured data like briefs, sketches and legislation into structured data: a building.

Data should flow eloquently, seamlessly and effortlessly to the next. We must realise that each time we do an action, we manipulate data.

Each time we manipulate data, we should add meaning and velocity to it.

There are bad ways to manipulate data. If you produce them without merging with other data, you create a dead end. Copy-paste is poor data manipulation.

If you produce the same data repeatedly, you are doing a monkey dance. You know you are being a monkey if you are modelling the same drawer the nth time without making it parametric. Be smart. Spend 20 minutes setting up the parametric model and you will forever be thankful.

Each time we manipulate data, we should add meaning and velocity. Meaning is when we give the data more context, structure or detail. Velocity is when the action moves ahead faster because of the meaning we have added to it.

Each time we send data, it should flow smoother, with more structure. When friction is reduced, efficiency is increased. As a simple example, we send emails with the action first. “For decision”, “for reference”… they guide the recipient with actions to move data forward.

A team is a beautiful machine when everyone is aligned on the same vision. Using internal memos, a person writes a source article and releases it to the team for “forking”. Team members are invited to edit, improve and build on it. Like improv, the goal is to have each person flesh out the company vision into something that is personal to them.

This is a virtuous cycle that creates collective buy-in. It engineers better than expected outcomes. The more we practice this dance, the more moves we invent. There will come a point where we are no longer stuck with old patterns. We can invent our own progress.

Here are some examples of how we develop this in our office.

We must not accept a copy-paste mindset. It will lead us into a dead end.

Client is data. We often spend the first week on a project in workshops and surveys. Without diving into design, we document, organize and categorize every pinterest image the client likes. We measure and digitize every piece of art and furniture they want integrated.

By structuring the soup of wishes and constraints into meaningful data points, we simplify the rest of the project. This helps us focus better on the next challenge: give meaningful structure to a client brief before adding a cost dimension to the equation.

A river starts from a single stream. That’s why data is integrated into our master 3D database. It is not good enough to have geometry, specifications and textures living in different data silos, related by a text ID. This is a “fake connection” that cannot scale, because of the human coordination needed amongst silos. It is a monkey’s job. To avoid this, we invest a lot of time and thinking into integrated 3D databases that are anchored in geometry.

Externally, we must help people dance to our dance. This means moving away from email and into direct communication in the databases we work in.

For this to work, it is our responsibility to invent and implement database views that are simple and intuitive for editing. If clients find this easy, we will be dancing together in a closer, more integrated way.

Internally, the only resistance to our dance with data is the limit of our ambition and imagination. We must not accept a copy-paste mindset. It will lead us into a dead end. Ultimately, our goal is to keep thinking, when we work, how do we dance with data? How can others dance this dance with us?


Lennard Ong helms LLx, a design studio that specialises in sculpturally iconic spaces. Together with his wife Lara, the couple believes that design should never be neutral. They are sculpted to form unique memories and experiences.

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