Minding The Gap: Design & Engineering
Can we find balance?
As someone who both designs and builds software for a living, I’ve often felt a certain tension. This tension is the eternal struggle between two seemingly equal but opposing forces: Creativity vs. Logic. Art vs. Science. Left brain vs. Right brain.
This separation has always seemed to exist. Early on in life, mainly thanks to schools influenced heavily by the industrial revolution, we are systematically sorted into groups based on standardized tests or teacher/parent observations. Some are given tracks in art and writing. Others are pushed towards science, math, and technology. Colleges have distinctive majors and minors that promote these silos. Once we are adults the distinction is made complete. Companies give out job titles with clean, tidy lines drawn between these sides. Either you are a designer or an engineer. Marketer or number-cruncher. Creative or analyst. Simple as that.
By my best guess, society seems to give the edge to engineering over the creative arts. Money, usually a decent measure for gauging how people feel about particular things, gives the edge to left brain skills. STEM has become the buzziest of buzz words. Preschools are racing to develop programming curriculum to teach little Jenny how to code. In tech companies, it’s the left-brainers who are usually the highest paid functional group. According to payscale.com, software engineers make about $20K more on average than designers. Technical left-brain prowess is easier to measure, more acceptable, and generally more valued. But should the scale be tipped toward the engineer?
A designer friend once told me the story of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer. In the mid-nineties, P&G was trying to come up better mop. They knew that little had changed technologically about this household tool for tens if not hundreds of years. They put their best engineers on the problem. Soon they were churning out prototypes for lighter, stronger, smaller mops. They even started exploring how to optimize the cleaning agents the mops used. But nothing was working and most of these prototypes were massive flops.
It was decided that the team should start talking more with mop enthusiasts to find out what people really wanted. Researchers would go into people’s homes and observe their day to day use of the mop and how they cleaned. Somewhere along the way someone (a designer maybe?) started spilling a cup of coffee on purpose to see what would happen. The result was fairly universal even among the most seasoned mop-lovers: they would quickly grab a paper towel or rag to clean it up. People didn’t want a better mop. They wanted more convenience. It took creativity, risk, and free thinking to realize that.
Recently was in the market for a new notebook and stumbled upon a cult Japanese brand called Hobonichi Techo that people love thanks to their commitment to quality and design. As I was browsing, I was struck by an interesting anecdote regarding the notebook’s design:
The inspiration for the Cousin (A6, larger notebook) actually came from frequent user comments that the Hobonichi Techo (A5) was heavy. The team figured they could make the Hobonichi Techo Original seem light by producing a book that was even bigger and heavier!
In many ways, this battle of the brain is symptomatic of our obsession with specialization. My hunch is that many people are fairly balanced but end up identifying with one group or the other. Fortunately I’ve been able to tow the line between both worlds. To the engineers and programmers, I am the creative, design guy. When I’m with artists and designers, I come off technical. Over time I’ve been able to embrace the duality which has lead to satisfying work and more unique, less-generalized roles. If you can make peace with the tension, it seems that there are rewards for crossing the left-right divide.