Intelligent Machines

The Engineer and the Artist

Industrial design has long depended on strange bedfellows.

In this special design issue, two truths seem to emerge. First, in order to make great things, technology companies must practice collaboration. Bill Moggridge, a cofounder of the design consultancy Ideo, implores us, “Put together a team with a great engineer, a crazy designer, a good businessperson, and a good human-factors scientist or psychologist of some kind, and put them in a room and get them to try to work together” (see Q&A). Second, behind companies with well-designed products are leaders who care deeply about design. No company exemplifies that better than Apple, as Daniel Turner reports (see “Different”).

Industrial designer Niels Diffrient used probes to measure the contours of the human body (1) in order to design airplane seats for American Airlines (2). The office chair (3) is a sketch by Diffrient of a chair meant to fit the body—and look elegant.

For the February/March 1983 TR, Ralph Caplan, a former editor of Industrial Design, wrote “Designers and Engineers: Strange but Essential Bedfellows,” in which he asserted the importance of those same two truths.

This story is part of our May/June 2007 Issue
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Whatever the project, stereotyping makes strange bedfellows seem stranger than they really are. Designers, like engineers, are insatiably curious about how things work. Engineers, like designers, are attracted to some forms simply because they are nicer than others. I suspect that if design and engineering are to be integrated, it will not be through having designers master high technology or engineers study theories of form, but by exposing members of both disciplines to the humanities.

More generally, the hope for integration lies with individual engineers who are genuinely concerned with the human uses of what they make (including appearance, the use of which is to look at); with industrial designers who know that materials, methods, and structure are as important as a clean line; and with corporate leaders who understand the role of the design process in corporate life. For without the support of top management, no integrated program of design and engineering will succeed. …

What can managers actually do to improve working relations between designers and engineers? They can give both parties access to essential information and to each other. Designers should be involved very early in a project because their chief contribution may come before the problem is defined. Similarly, engineers need to know marketing objectives because they may impinge upon their work in unpredictable ways, and because they will help make the designers’ efforts understandable.

Managers, including design managers, also need to become more sensitive to crediting. Engineers are understandably incensed when they are not given credit for the design aspect of their work, which is, after all, basic.

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