George Stiny



Oscar Wilde’s critic as artist asks that we see things as in themselves they really are not. This

inspired call for new meaning seems scant of thought, flouting its laws for art’s sake. Indeed, seeing is ambiguous everywhere. Alphabets of all kinds at the quick of change are readily traced in two squares, one drawn in the other, corners to sides—four triangles, shifting pairs of pentagons, irregular hexagons, untold K’s and k’s, etc. But earlier, Mathew Arnold asked that we see things as in themselves they really are (two squares), in all fields of knowledge from art to history, philosophy, science, and theology. Wilde copies Arnold’s formula and flips it—Arnold’s truths and ours vanish in extravagant fancy.

At the crux of visual calculating in design, shape grammars address both Arnold (use—what is it?) and Wilde (art—new meaning) with recursion and embedding in any dimension i ≥ 0. This includes symbolic calculating in Turing machines (computers), as a special case when i = 0; it links art and use across dimensions in reciprocal processes for shapes and structures (sets, decompositions, measures, and other descriptions). Shape grammars are key in design; without them, it withers—use is secure in STEM fields and 0-dimensional thought (computer models), while art prowls free, packed with surprise. Schemas and rules in shape grammars are good for design as art and use. Wilde scorns their union— “All art is quite useless”—but seeing things as they are not, returns to Arnold and seeing things as they are. Art and use meld in strong design, implying, it seems, a heuristic rule of three—inconsistency is to insight as necessity is to invention. Identity rules in the schema x →x show why, and that doing nothing and calculating without symbols are vital. Wilde recognizes the importance of doing nothing; calculating without symbols is the true function and value of shape grammars at the present time.* There are visual examples for all of this—stunning myriads. Talking about them means seeing them. Seeing is the only way to grasp visual calculating with shape grammars.

*Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is from 1864; Wilde replied 26 years later in “The True Function and Value of Criticism: with some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing”. Wilde’s revised version of this essay is “The Critic as Artist”in two parts including subtitles, in Intentions of 1891.


George Stiny is an American design and computation theorist. He co-created the concept of shape grammars. Other topics are visual reasoning and design research. Stiny’s work is theoretical and also linked to philosophical positions, e.g. N. Goodman.

Stiny was educated at MIT and UCLA. He has taught at the University of Sydney, the Royal College of Art (London), and the Open University. He was faculty at UCLA for fifteen years before joining the MIT Department of Architecture in 1996.


Stiny, George. 2006. Shape: Talking about Seeing and Doing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Stiny, George. 2015. “The Critic as Artist: Oscar Wilde’s Prolegomena to Shape Grammars”, Nexus Network Journal 17: 723-758.

Knight, Terry, and George Stiny. “Making Grammars: From Computing with Shapes to Computing with Things.” Design Studies. 41. Part A (2015): 8-28.

Technische Universität Darmstadt The Society for Philosophy and Technology Technische Universität Berlin Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft  Institute of Philosophy TU Darmstadt