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AU2013 Day 0: Dynamo/DesignScript Workshop

December 3, 2013

I spent my first day at Autodesk University 2013 in a workshop devoted to new visual programming tools Autodesk is developing. Literally. Developing as we speak. Demo versions were compiled the previous night, and it showed.


Not quite “programming for non-programmers”

Autodesk continues to sell “programming for non-programmers.” Look at the amazing things you can do without writing a single line of code!

First, it isn’t true. By mid-morning  we were seeing plenty of text-based imperative programming code. Second, there’s nothing wrong with that. I completely understand that programming represents a new kink in the traditional design iteration loop. But that doesn’t mean designers shouldn’t step up. It is frustrating, however, to see the patronizing way that Autodesk caters to the masses, emphasizing the gulf between their products and their clients. In fact, the gap just might be the natural outcome of a software company protecting its territory. We are developers. You’re not. We won’t pretend to understand what you do, if you don’t pretend to understand what we do.


The code abides

I find it particularly interesting that sometime between two months ago when I signed up for the DesignScript workshop, and last night, when they finished compiling, Autodesk made a major course correction: DesignScript and Dynamo merged.

Autodesk is vehement that DesignScript is great, that they can do great things with it because they own and control it. But the workshop examples don’t support that contention. There are some nice syntax hacks and the language is inherently functional – or as Autodesk terms it, “associative” – as opposed to imperative. But the value of that subtlety is likely to be lost on most designers. Many of the code examples presented explicitly overrode to an imperative mode.

And there was this bizarre response to a question about Python code-block nodes in Dynamo: we’ve provided multiple inputs but only one output because of language limitations. They then proceeded to show Dynamo nodes with multiple outputs as a comparison. Come on now.  No multiple outputs because it’s Python? I don’t think so. There’s no reason you cannot send an intermediate value to an output as well as a return statement. Perhaps what they mean is that they cannot automatically identify and publish all variables the way the DesignScript nodes do. A different variable identification mechanism would solve that problem with no trouble.

So the long and short of my first full day at Autodesk University? There is a lot of good work happening around Dynamo and there is a lot of hand waving going on regarding DesignScript, especially how it works with Dynamo and where it will go in the future. For now, if you are afraid of learning to program, with these tools you can still pretend you’re not.

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