The Soda Academy
"Designers are known innovators, especially in the digital space."
"Designers are cultural generators, and their work needs to continue being generous, inclusive and useful."

Zoë Warne, August

Moving Beyond Technology: Redefining the Design and Engineering Professions

Moving Beyond Technology: Redefining the Design and Engineering Professions

Ok. I’m calling it; designers are engineers. Engineers are designers. Why do we persist with the different names? Is it their perceived qualifications? Certifications? Ego? Or something more?

Both professions are becoming increasingly aware of their potential for positive impact in the design of better systems, services, and processes. However, their time as siloed disciplines are limited. Collaboration is the key to unlocking—or better yet, unleashing—their potential, and it’s time we challenged their definitions.

While engineering is often rooted in infrastructure, technology and systems architecture; the critical relationship between these elements, and an engineer’s role as a designer, is not often recognized. The same could be said in reverse for those of us that call ourselves designers.

In a recent survey of the public, engineering was considered a ‘professional designation’ by 55% of surveyed participants – well above the 30% that identified it as a mere ‘skill-set’. I’d argue that the results would display a similar shift in the design profession. Design is moving beyond a skill-set to be seen as a professional designation – and given the impact of design on the world we live in, this shift is far from unprecedented.

Designers are known innovators, especially in the digital space. Their skills and knowledge are regularly consulted for creative projects and idea execution. However, their design contribution isn’t often leveraged in a technical or system-led capacity.

How often do we say to ourselves as designers, that our value and insight was not consulted early enough in a project? I say that designers need to become more like their engineering counterparts – looking at the system and process design stages of a project, not just the solution. And, if we are not invited, we bring our own seat to the table and make it happen.

Designers are engineering a future that must be as practical as it is beautiful. The rigorous methodologies often associated with the engineering profession can be used to help create this balance.

The engineer’s tendency to specialize and operate in an insulated environment has not fostered a collaborative approach with those outside. Whether in the digital or physical world, engineers are often relegated to projects that are built rather than invented; and more precise than they are purposeful.

In this context, engineers retain a strong technological focus when using established tools. And while designers let aesthetics guide their use of technology, they do not feel it is their duty to drive the social future of tech.

Problem solvers at heart, engineers are taught to think systematically and break down complex issues, which can be a powerful tool when approaching design problems. However, their contribution is limited due to a perceived disconnect between design and engineering. The creative aspects of an engineer’s role are sometimes overlooked. Or worse, considered socially irrelevant because they are identified as systematic problem-solvers. ‘Over-engineering’ a solution is something we often hear in a negative context. Black and white. Function over form.

Engineers have a unique opportunity to change. They can approach problems proactively by developing technology that is driven by societal needs, rather than reacting within technological constraints or pre-defined ways of working. Engineers need to redefine their own system from within. This shift is for both themselves and the end user – the citizens of this better world valuing their design input, precision and penchant for process.

Designers are advocates for this end user. Recent developments in the areas of UX and accessibility are testament. Designers have the potential to show more leadership and better recognize their ability to contribute beyond the creative arena. Reaching deeper into the problems they are tasked with solving will allow designers to approach projects with an engineer’s eye and bring about truly collaborative problem solving.

Designers and engineers looking to contribute on a systemic and process level face a massive challenge. Both are ultimately disruptors. They need to break out of the accepted silos of their roles and facilitate social change.

This journey will always require the technical expertise that engineers are renowned for, however they must continue to pioneer. This should be encouraged by designers; it’s time to stop protecting the perceived sacred turf. Designers are cultural generators, and their work needs to continue being generous, inclusive and useful.

Engineering and design are professions on a path of self-optimization: identifying value in meaningful bonds, aligned goals and shared potential. Only by pursuing these relationships will we move beyond technology, professions, and their various definitions, and play the roles we, as designers and engineers, are capable of; having the maximum positive impact on the world we want to see, together.

About the author:

As August’s Co-founder, Zoë engineers an organisation’s online presence to create meaningful touchpoints with audiences. With a regular co-hosting gig on ABC Radio National and 774 Melbourne talking all things digital, she is also a guest lecturer at RMIT, Swinburne and Monash Universities, Chair of the Swinburne University Multimedia Course Advisory Committee and Vice-President of the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) for Victoria.