Informational architecture: 1963, Ivan E. Sutherland “Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication system” | Miguel Villegas

Light pen protype. c.a. 1963 | Fuente: Marcin Wichary
Light pen protype. c.a. 1963 | Fuente: Marcin Wichary

In 1963, Ivan E. Sutherland, presents his thesis “Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication system”, directed by Claude E. Shannon, creator of the Theory of the Information.

“The Sketchpad system makes it possible for a man and a computer to converse rapidly through the medium of line drawings. Heretofore, most interaction between men and computers has been slowed down by the need to reduce all communication to written statements that can be typed; in the past,we have been writing letters to rather than conferring with our computers.”

The fundamental aim of this work of doctoral thesis was the production of a new system of communication with the computers. Shutherland was conscious already of the difficulties of use that the necessary abstraction to programme the computers was generating in certain type of users and it tried to construct a system of mediation that, resorting to natural procedures for the users to whom it was trying to come, was settling this problem towards the exterior, towards the user, but that internally was not losing this capacity of abstract functioning.

One of the points of inflexion that supposed Sutherland’s work was the real objetuatilation and later instrumentalización of the drawing, not as process, but as unit of content.

“It has turned out that the properties of a computer drawing are entirely different from a paper drawing not only because of the accuracy, ease of drawing, and speed of erasing provided by the computer, but also primarily because of the ability to move drawing parts around on a computer drawing without the need to erase them.”

This I lead Sutherland to conceiving, and here it is where there appears the radical importance of his offer, and that we believe has been forgotten till now in the development of CAD‘s systems, a work system in which, thanks to the objetualización of the drawing and to his consistent aptitude to be manipulated of not destructive form, the operative capacity of the user was increased enormously.

“As the work has progressed, several simple and very widely applicable facilities have been discovered and implemented. They provide a subpicture capability for including arbitrary symbols on a drawing, a constraint capability for relating the parts of a drawing in any computable way, and a definition copying capability for building complex relationships from combinations of simple atomic constraints.”

The concepts of subdrawing, restriction, definition and copy of definition, they expose with clarity the capacities of joint of the information in knowledge or, since it names it Sutherland, process computation.

The graphical action happens of being immediate to needing from a previous reflection that he constructs his internal structures.

“We have indicated that the vertices of the hexagon are to lie on the circle,and they will remain on the circle throughout our further manipulations. If we also insist that the sides of the hexagon be of equal length, a regular hexagon will be constructed.”

In the introductory example, the construction of a regular hexagon, we estimate like, the geometric thought that determines the internal rules or of construction of this polygon, in Sketchpad, by means of the construction of the restrictions and his conversion in a definition, it will lead to this graphical element to having a top identity that, in our opinion, is capable of coming out the graphic design, not already in the semantic plane, if not in that of the own reality.

“We have said, in effect, make this line equal in length to that line. We indicate that all six lines are equal in length by five such statements. The computer satisfies all existing conditions (if it is possible) whenever we turn on a toggle switch.”

The subpicture sends us in Sketchpad to the possibility of iterar, to the fractalidad of ideas capable of being atomized iterativamente up to infinitesimal elements by a symbolic identical quality to the first level that gives them origin.

The constraint does not reflect the idea of limitation if not, on the contrary, it is indicating the construction of conscious and explicit relations between graphical elements – parts of the drawing – already be for dimensional determinations or typologys.

The definition copying operates with the operative exploitation of the thought, while an intellectual operation is capable of objetualizar, the restrictions -independently of his complexity- to store it and reutilizarla without limitation.

“Sketchpad drawing itself is entirely different from the trail of carbon left on a piece of paper. Information about how the drawing is tied together is stored in the computer as well as the information which gives the drawing its particular appearance. Since the drawing is tied together, it will keep a useful appearance even when parts of it are moved. It is this ability to store information relating the parts of a drawing to each other that makes Sketchpad most useful.”

The references to the information are constant in all the work, and it is possible that for this own excess his relevancy happens to us unnoticed, but it is undeniable that the whole process that Sutherland develops spends for the need to translate into foxglove the intellectual operations that take place on having used graphical analogical means.

It is this translation to foxglove, and therefore to information, which forces Sutherland to create a system that allows him to structure what till then has been an immediate relation thought – drawing.

Sutherland, in spite of the primitive of the work, is capable already of affirming that the computer does not know what it is drawing, there does not have aptitude to understand the semantic cap of the represented object, but if it knows and supports the internal structures determined by the author of the drawings and that also they have in if same one significant componente for the totality of the structure.

“Most important of all, the computer “knows” that a “transistor” is intended at that place in the circuit. It has no need to interpret the collection of lines which we would easily recog- nize as a transistor symbol. Since Sketchpad stores the topology of the drawing as we saw in closing the hexagon, one indicates both what a circuit looks like and its electrical connections when one draws it with Sketchpad.”

Sketchpad and the process of design.

Thus, Sketchpad turns – for need of his functioning – into a model of the process of design. The user / designer has to make the process of thought explicit – till now now learned, internalized and generally automated and unconsciously – that it develops forthwith creativly.

From a clearly pragmatic approach, and that has demonstrated indicative in the development of the models of digital design performativo (Oxman, 2006 and 2008)1,2, Sutherland associates Sketchpad’s aptitude to fulfill geometric conditions with the necessary capacity of a design to fulfill project conditions, reaffirming his predictable usefulness.

“The ability of Sketchpad to satisfy the geometric constraints applied to the parts of a drawing models the ability of a good designer to satisfy all the design conditions imposed by the limitations of his materials, cost, etc.”

Beyond the great interest that has the historical statement of the development of the program that the own author incorporates into the thesis, it is fundamental to outline that this statement describes with transparency the importance of understanding the processes in all work informacional.

Sutherland faces constant, and describes it with clarity and profusion, with the concepts of systematizing, of structure in chain, of anidamiento, of cause and effect relationships, of the separation between the generic thing and the specific thing, and his own conscience of the primitive of his work does not do if not to encourage it anticipating future applications.

Those that we were lucky to enjoy subjects as Graphical Statics, we cannot stop astonishing that, even in the initial stages of Sketchpad’s development, the program could be used for a resolution very brought near of structures in lattice, managing to anticipate the author safely that the jump to his three-dimensional application was a mere instrumental problem.

We cannot stop mentioning, in spite of the seemingly anecdotal thing, a comment that the author does like obliquely on the configuration of the interface of the system, in this case still you roll, dials, and physical switches, very far still of the icons or bars of digital commands of the current programs.

“Users get used to either sense of change about equally poorly; the major user so far (the author) still must try the knob before being sure of which way it should be turned.”

This comment seems to us to be specially relevant for the explicit of Sutherland’s affirmation. Even the principal user, the own author, must prove the dial before confirming the suitability of his use.

In the instrumental systems of representation, the transcendent thing is not the tool, if not his potential.

Miguel Villegas, architect
Editor in arquitextónica
Sevilla, september 2015


1. Oxman, R. “Theory and Design in the First Digital Age.” Design Studies 27, no. 3 (2006): 229-265.

2. Oxman, R. “Digital Architecture as a Challenge for Design Pedagogy: Theory, Knowledge, Models and Medium.” Design Studies 29, no. 2 (In: Design Studies. (Design Studies, March 2008, 29(2):99-120); 2008-03-01, : 99 es editada desde 2003 desde Sevilla por Lourdes Bueno Garnica y Miguel Villegas Ballesta. Desde hace un tiempo, decidimos sacar nuestra actividad profesional de aquí y trasladarla a villegasbueno arquitectura, así arquitextonica se quedó como nuestro espacio para la investigación, difusión y comunicación. Nos interesa dedicarnos a desarrollar e investigar en proyectos de arquitectura, con dos líneas fundamentales de trabajo.

La de vivienda social, alojamientos residenciales y arquitectura docente, que dirige Lourdes, y la diseño computacional y arquitectura para la sociedad de la información, que dirige Miguel. El trabajo que hemos venido desarrollando en desde el 2003 nos ha llevado también a trabajar por y para la difusión de la arquitectura y el diseño en internet, haciendo un énfasis especial en promocionar el talento de nuestro entorno. Lo llamamos #Ser_Red.

En la lista de etiquetas de la columna de la derecha puedes ver un registro más explícito de nuestros intereses. Si te interesa nuestro trabajo, no dudes en ponerte en contacto con nosotros.

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