Decoding (Geo)design DNA

In this article, I will describe a new tool I created that helps you look deeper into a geodesign process. It enables you to gain an understanding of the design method and also opens up large number of possibles for fundamental research on collaborative (geo)design methods for different scales, geographies and designers.

Design is both a verb and a noun. Geodesign is a collaborative activity, a process for creation of a design or many designs. Geodesign Hub enables a collaborative workflow where people from different professions and backgrounds get together and go through a process to create many designs and iterate on them negotiating with each other to come to a (set of) consensus designs.


In the context of geodesign, I take a contrarian stance. As a culture, we are accustomed to hearing about the “genius” in design professions. Beyond a certain scale, however, I believe that the best designs are not ones that come out of creativity of a single person but through a collaboration. The output is more than the sum of the parts. That is for any design larger than a certain scale “emergent creativity” of a team is more important than individual brilliance. Therefore, if this process of collaboration can be deconstructed then we can understand how designs are produced and move forward on identifying appropriate methods for a given scale.

Design Methods

There are two important considerations with respect to designing in general:

  • Size and scale matter when it comes designing: strategies used to design a house are not the same as ones used to design a city.
  • Design strategy or “ways of designing” differ for every group or individual based on their experience, collaboration effectiveness, type of problem etc.

As I describe above, the design method plays a crucial part for effective design interventions. In a collaborative fast paced design setting that produces a number of designs and negotiations, how can a design method be decoded? This is a hard question and needs further research. But when I started to think about this, I realized that there are no tools available to conduct this type of study.

DNA of a Design

To understand the design method, the first thing to do is to deconstruct the process of making the design: break down the components and have a way to “walk through” or navigate the design process. It is akin to someone recording the process of assembly and playing back over to see how it is made. This technique is commonly used in Chess (although usually for a single player). This kind of analysis can also be done with modern software development with version control systems like Git or Mercurial. Using these tools, changes made to a software can be tracked quite effectively to deconstruct or jump to individual states in the history. Can these techniques be applied to architecture, landscape architecture and geodesign?

Geodesign DNA

The geodesign workflow as implemented in Geodesign Hub lends very nicely to this kind of analysis. Using the API, I built a open source plugin: Geodesign DNA. It reads the designs built on Geodesign Hub and then produces a detailed history for a design. In realtime as it progresses and the designer iterates on it. In addition, it produces visualization that help understand how diagrams are used by the designers as they iterate on a design and negotiate to make changes. You will need to have done a geodesign project using the workflow to get the credentials but some features.

  • Visually see history of a design as it is being made (like most modern source control tools).
Visual and Text history of all designs
  • Quickly see how designs change as designers add / remove new diagrams to their design.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • Visually see these changes on a grid
Move slider to see design changes.


  • Finally, see how the diagrams were added or removed as the design process progresses. The y-axis in the chart below are the diagrams and in the x-axis is chronologically ordered designs with the one on left produced first and the right most being the last. The connected lines mean that the diagram was used in consecutive designs. The longer the line, the more robust the diagram idea is for the designer and their team and they kept on picking it as they iterated on their design.
Diagrams and Design Evolution

DNA Library

Every design project is different but the chart above is a unique finger print of the design process and the diagrams and their movement over time (shown above) as genes. Together they from the DNA of the design. Across different design exercises, A library of these can produced as shown below with each design having a different fingerprint.

The images above are like a recorded video of the design process that can be played, rewinded, skipped etc. and it opens up many possibilities for fundamental research on design methods in geodesign.

Why is this important?

By understanding the way to design in a purely digital form would mean that the most effective design method for a particular scale can be taught and analyzed with empirical data. Secondly, these methods being purely digital can be fed to machine learning / AI / Big data algorithms to construct a way to design. Imagine this: we are teaching a machine the actions a group of designers take to solve a problem.

Lessons Learned

The more I work in the field of geodesign the more I realize that tools that are available in other professions are simply unavailable for design. The DNA tool described here uses techniques very prevalent in the software world. Most engineers working in a modern software development environment are very skilled in source control management to track and manage their work. Even more broadly, Dropbox for example enables you to monitor changes to a file and revert back to a old version or un-delete a file if you delete it by mistake. So while these technologies are available broadly, they do not exist natively for people in the design fields. I wanted to see how a version control system built for the process of designing a master plan for e.g. look. Can it be done? This is my version of creating a design version analysis tool that enables you to revert, edit, merge and visualize changes to your design as it builds over time.

Next Steps

This is just the beginning of a large amount of work that can be done in the field. The first one that comes to mind is to take this analysis forward and instead of listing the changes to the design, it would be interesting to see what these changes mean to the design. Does the change area increase or decrease? Does it make the design “better”? etc.

In addition, I aim to build a library of these design fingerprints at different scales and projects (which we have on Geodesign hub) to explore and test the “Ways of designing” methods as described in a Framework for Geodesign, the seminal book from Prof. Carl Steinitz.


Currently, we use this tool to understand a project deeply. We use it to identify key diagrams, key steps in the negotiation process and also build experience in running these studies. This tool is available for all projects done on Geodesign Hub and is open source. It uses the Geodesign Hub API and is written in Node and JavaScript. You are very welcome to take a look at the code and submit pull requests to improve it.



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