Associate Professor Na Ning
School of Humanities and Social Science
Quantifying the subjective
Associate Professor Ning Gu is quantifying what we think we know about design and reducing linguistic and cultural barriers to design students achieving their maximum potential.
Director, Research Higher Degrees for the School of Architecture and Built Environment, Dr Ning Gu has made significant contributions to international research in the arenas of design computing and cognition.
His work on generative design systems; computational design analysis; virtual environments; Building Information Modelling (BIM); digital design and rapid prototyping; and design education have not only informed understandings of the use of computational design methods, but also informed pedagogical practice.
With colleagues Dr Juhyun Lee, Professor Michael Ostwald and Professor Mark Taylor, Ning is turning his attention to developing pedagogical strategies to address linguistic and cultural barriers in design education experienced by Asian architecture students.
I am interested in using computational tools or methods to help us effectively facilitate or innovate designs, and also to help us understand design both as a product and as a process.
This new two-year project has been made possible by funding from the Federal Government’s Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) and is in partnership with Deakin University, RMIT University and Queensland University of Technology.
HUMAN DESIGN VERSUS COMPUTER DESIGN
Ning explains that computing technology was initially used within the design industry as an alternate medium to paper.
Computers quickly became a popular aid to documentation, because they provided the efficiency industry required, and certain details were impossible to record precisely on paper.
Exploration of the concept of using computers as a design tool soon followed, most notably in the ideation and conceptualisation phase. After much evolution, computers have the potential to be used as a generative agent to automate the entire process of design.
It would be reasonable to expect someone whose dissertation focused on artificial intelligence to be a loud advocate for utilising computers as a design tool, not just a medium.
However, it is at the intersection of these two extremes that see Ning placed. He believes that ultimately, the best results are achieved through a complementary relationship between humans and computers.
“Using computational methods has its limitations,” Ning says.
“In order to do computations, there are always levels of abstraction, and when you abstract, you leave out certain details.”
“In design, computers do not replace a human understanding. But in many cases, they can actually enhance and challenge our existing understanding about design.”
RECOMPUTING THE CANON
Together with a number of UON colleagues and PhD students, Ning has been using computational methods to analyse designs in terms of forms, styles or spatial configurations, with funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
“Understandings of 20th Century canonical buildings in regard to space and style have always been debated and maintained by historians largely through literature. And that is a very long and important tradition that we build upon,” Ning reflects.
“Now with new computational methods, for example, say we speak of innovations around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style houses in conjunction with the earlier Victorian style houses, what our team did alternatively was to use computational methods to quantitatively, and mathematically, measure that connection.”
These methods can be used to quantify, and therefore define, arguably more subjective design understandings such as configuration and connectivity of space; or investigate the consistency of a master designer’s unique style by measuring their entire body of work mathematically.
Ning sees this alternative approach not only as a means to analyse the work of past designers, but also as a complementary learning tool.
“With the computational approach we are generating an alternative understanding and evidence that allows designers and students to critically examine, not replacing but enhancing, traditional design knowledge.”
Ning completed his bachelor degree in China. During his Masters at the University of Sydney, he was given the opportunity to work on a research project that would initiate his PhD - investigating design and collaboration in virtual worlds using generative design agents.
Completing his doctorate to much interest in 2006 and coming to Newcastle in 2007, Ning’s expertise, much valued in his teaching, evolved with his continued research into design education in addition to architectural and design computing.
In 2007-2008, Ning was elected Research Leader of a Cooperative Research Centre for Construction Innovation (CRC-CI) project examining the use of BIM as collaboration platforms for the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.
A recipient of the Pro Vice-Chancellor's Award for Research Excellence at the University of Newcastle in 2010, Ning was identified as a UON Emerging Research Leader during 2011-2012.
EQUITY IN DESIGN EDUCATION
Despite unfettered success as judged by any measure, Ning is well aware of barriers which may impact on the ability of international students to realise their maximum academic potential.
“I found it very interesting that it is accepted to call Professors by their first name, that was not easy for me,” he admits, being a former international student in the Australian higher education.
“While I was not a timid person in my own country, being an international student in Australia I initially found it difficult to effectively communicate my design ideas and participate in group discussion or collaboration.”
Unsatisfied with extrapolating from his own understandings, Ning is now applying his superior logic to quantify the experiences of international students in the design disciplines.
The OLT grant will see him working with a multi-institutional team, collecting and analysing data from a series of experiments and focus groups with international design students in Australia.
“Our assumption would be that linguistic and cultural background is going to have a very significant impact on a student in terms of his or her design reasoning, communication and learning,” Ning advises.
“But it is not enough to assume. One of the main goals is to build a comprehensive database of empirical evidence because we need those data for critical analysis.”
CULTURE AND COGNITION
Ning theorises that his team will discover that these impediments can be bigger than typical in-class difficulties with social cues, cultural values, and language barriers.
In the realm of design, he states, cultural differences extend beyond communication and can influence the very reasoning of practitioners.
“Whether you like it or not, the language and the culture you grow up with influences the way you think, and we often overlook that native language plays a very important role in our cognitive process,” he explains.
Ning believes the resultant data and reactive pedagogical interventions will inform the way in which the University of Newcastle, and the broader higher education sector in Australia and globally, supports international students in the design disciplines.
“In turn, this understanding will be very beneficial for all domestic students, as we all know we are living in a global village,” Ning suggests.
“There has been a concerted effort at Newcastle to internationalise our curriculum to great effect.”
“We have attracted excellent international students and staff, now we need to focus on how they can be effectively supported to reach full potential.”