Much of my career has been in creative or innovation based companies, from advertising to technology, where I’ve worked with numerous talented engineers and designers with significant success. This has provided me with a unique perspective on innovation. Conventional wisdom suggests engineers and designers are as compatible as oil and water, pitting opposing priorities of form versus function. But I think this viewpoint is flawed, as both engineers and designers share the same goal, to solve a problem, whether that is creating something new or making something better—innovation.
Innovation is the lifeblood for a company’s long-term viability, so learning how to drive and manage innovation is crucial for both executives and entrepreneurs. The essential first step is to discard design and engineering as a job roles and think about them as approaches to problem solving. Too often designers and engineers let their job title or role define their thinking exclusively.
Designers and engineers just approach and work through problems differently to arrive at a solution. Contrasted simply, engineers keep adding to build the perfect solution while designers keep subtracting to create the perfect solution. Ultimately there isn’t a perfect solution from either vantage, add too much and the solution becomes too slow and/or cumbersome to use and remove too much and the solution becomes unstable and/or unworkable. The ideal balance is determined by the customer or end-user—internal or external—based on perceived value received from the innovation, which includes both form and function.
To understand design and engineering approaches better, the innovation perspective of each is outlined here:
- Designers approach—look at the human factors, aesthetics, functionality, ease-of-use, fitness for purpose, and quality from the end-user perspective.
- Engineers approach—concerned with coming up with a system (or specification) which is correct (robust, scalable, etc.), safe, cost-effective, and quality from the operations/implementation perspective.
Just as conducting international business is not about identifying right and wrong of differing cultures and political systems, innovation is not about differences, it is about leveraging the similarities and shared goals of engineering and design. Most innovation based solutions require both design and engineer thinking to succeed, from food and technology to finance and healthcare this holds true.
To see this approach in action with significant success, look at Apple. They have a very small design team of @100 compared to Facebook’s hundreds and Google’s thousands, but have regularly put out more user friendly and customer valued solutions as judged by end-users purchasing behavior and Apple’s profits compared to competitors. Mark Kawano, formerly of Apple put it this way, “It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better…much more than any individual designer or design team.”
Some professions, such as architects, are expected to have both skill sets and viewpoints when approaching a project, so it is not unreasonable to expect individuals and teams to approach innovation with similar balance. Once you understand innovation is not a battle between design and engineering, then you can challenge your team, regardless of role, to find customer-focus solutions that balance form and function, design and engineering.