Schools have a parlance for teaching students by the book. They adhere to textbooks like religion, and follow the “rules” as if they are specified by some higher power. There is so much structure and focus that students aren’t even encouraged, or possibly even allowed, to really think outside the box. The standardized tests and other needless assessments are blinders and inhibitors of actual learning and creativity. Bounds are set up around different subjects, and the important ones – namely math and science – are set up on a pedestal while others are left to whither.
I’ve always been “good at school”. I say it that way rather than saying I’ve done well because the act of school for me has always been just following along and playing by the book. For the most part, you have very little to no opportunity to explore your own thoughts and ideas. School is not about challenging the notions that are being taught, but to flat out accept them as fact. It breeds the idea that the universe is rigid; what’s here is here, and it can’t be shaped to our liking.
School supposedly teaches one what they’re good at and what they’re not. Since I was good at school, the areas such as math and science were naturally the fields I gravitated toward in terms of my education. And really, those are the only ones that schools (at least mine) deemed important, mostly because those were the standardized test scores that needed the most improvement overall.
I chose a direction focusing on math and science because that’s what school told me I should do: “You’re good at math, and that’s a ‘hard’ subject, so you should pursue that further”. It would be the wrong decision to choose anything else.
The thing is, I don’t really enjoy any of that stuff. I definitely find it interesting, but I love learning about anything. Just like every nerd out there. But when it came down to the nitty gritty of really dedicating myself to the topics, which has been increasingly required as I’ve gone on in my education, it’s become evidently clear that these raw technical fields are not truly what pique my interest. And I’ve definitely had a lot of time to think about it; I focused heavily in math and science classes in high school, and am now majoring in mechanical engineering in college (can’t get more technical than that).
It’s really taken me up until this point to not only discover, but also come to terms with, the fact that the fields of math, science, or engineering weren’t the direction my future would follow. But why was it so unclear to me, and why was I almost self conscious about it? Why was it so difficult for me to accept the fact that a career in math / science wasn’t my path, even though it was evidently clear to me that I didn’t enjoy it?
I’ve been straddling these two worlds: one of the engineer / scientist and the other of a creative / designer, the latter of which is what I truly enjoy doing. During my time in school I’ve been the engineer, while as soon as I’ve left I’ve become the designer. And as such, I’ve been exposed to this really large and uncomfortable rift and separation between these two different fields.
I recognized this divide even before I realized that my true passion was design. But as it’s become more clear to me what I ultimately love doing, it’s been extremely difficult being immersed in the starkly opposing, technically minded community. I’m consistently exposed to the notion that “design” doesn’t matter; making something look nice, or making it easy to use, are “soft” subjects and far inferior to the hard problems that true scientists and engineers face. The notion of what design is, I feel, is completely misunderstood, misrepresented, and utterly lost in translation. There is a belief that design is an optional, and possibly inconsequential, add on. And because of this, I’ve always felt like following my true passion to go into the design field would be going along a much less important, less impactful path than the one I was on because I was told good design just didn’t matter. A designer doesn’t change the world — scientists and thousands of hours of research do. Engineering is hard, sweating, hair-pulling work. Design is thrown away as frivolous.
I’ve now been able to come to the appreciation, though, that this representation is completely and utterly wrong. Good design is important. It’s extremely impactful, and it touches everyone’s life each day in both noticeable and invisible ways. The design of an object is the way we interface it. And ultimately, our interface with the things we use in our daily lives is one of the largest problems we need to be working on in order to be a successful and productive group of people; there’s too much friction in our everyday interactions. And you know what? Designing good things is damn hard.
But while I’ve at last been able to come to this realization, the rift between the two worlds still exists. Design, or the arts in general, and engineering are viewed as incompatible. They’re viewed as entirely separate entities that don’t mix. They’re vinegar and water when viewed with the definitions that traditional schools impart on them.
Coming from an education in the engineering field, I’ve often been told that beautiful design doesn’t matter. That the way something looks can merely detract from the finished product. That making something beautiful just wastes material or money. This line has been repeated over and over again in the classes I’ve taken. There’s just a total disregard for the human aspect of our environment. which is why I’ve been, in a sense, self-conscious of the fact that these are the things I care about.
How do we interact with the products we use? How do they influence our lives? How do they fit into the way we live? That stuff is entirely disregarded and ignored. Facts. Data. The scientific and engineering mindset I’ve been exposed to is very negative toward those who “think different”, or dare to go against the notions of the past.
The engineer wants to make something more robust, more economical, or easier to fabricate. A designer wants to make something more intuitive, more effortless, more beautiful, and overall more delightful. And when looked at in isolation, it’s easy to see how they can be incompatible. How can you make something cheap but also really great to use? How can you make something feel high quality, but mass produce them on the scale of millions of units?
I really think the larger issue here is just a misunderstanding and our focus on the differences between science and design. Yes, each field focuses on different aspects of an object, but both are practices in compromises. In order to engineer or design something great, you truly need to understand everything about what you’re working on. From the raw materials all the way up to how it will be used.
Now that technology is basically taking over our lives, the engineering aspect of it is often times played up. We’re still talking about “feeds and speeds” – the raw specs of a product. In all honesty, I don’t care what processor my phone has, I just care that it feels fluid to use. Throwing raw technology, or nonintuitive devices and experiences, at the public isn’t going to change the world regardless of their processor speed. New technology needs to be designed in order to truly change the universe.
The way that I’ve been able to reconcile going full force toward design in my career is the understanding that an object that isn’t designed, but merely engineered, turns out horrible. The future is in combining the engineering prowess that we now have with beautiful design. We need to create functional, intuitive, and delightful experiences with our new skills. Both designers and engineers have critical skills that we need. And because of this, there can’t be two worlds with engineers on one side and designers on the other. What this leads to is crap. And the reality is, most of the stuff around us is crap for that exact reason.
We need to change the way these subjects are viewed and taught. I’m a firm believer that in order to do good design, one must know the capability of the medium they’re designing. A sculptor intricately knows how the clay they shape will react to their hands; they know the limitations of what they can do, and work around those to present something beautiful. I also think an engineer must have a perception of how their technology is used, how it’s perceived, and the way that it makes sense to fit into our lives. Design, engineering, and technology are intricately interwoven, and when they are allowed to be linked together is when something new arrives that truly makes a dent in the universe.