The Language of Design

I think engineers can and should produce better design drawings; better technical drawings but also better conceptual drawings.

The ability to produce amazing visual drawings is a skill that has eroded over time in the engineering community. I have a couple guesses as to why that is, but I’d really like to hear from you what you think.

Better Technical Drawings

Hand drafted drawings before the days of CAD were beautiful and personal. They used simple, elegant methods of communicating design intent.

In my job I look at a lot of plans for buildings from the 70’s, 60’s, even back to the 20’s. They’re beautiful. They are easy to read. Information flows from the page to the reader in a way that I don’t see from modern engineering drawings.

I’m not saying modern drafting is in a shameful state of disarray; I’m saying that new tools with different constraints and a faster pace of project delivery have degraded the artistry that was prevalent in hand-drafted technical drawing. With less constraining tools and more attention paid to fundamental visual communication skills we can make drawings that are much better than the current status quo.

Better Conceptual Drawings

What I have in mind is similar to the type of conceptual images and graphics that architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and some other disciplines produce regularly. These graphics are beautiful, inspiring works of art. They communicate so much and rarely use many words. I want to see more visual communication in this style used to communicate engineering projects.

[Image: Paul D Nichols’ Elevated Brood.]

Most conceptual renderings of technical objects I’m aware of are low quality, corporate-esque chunky graphics that you expect to see in a PowerPoint slide deck. This doohicky goes here, that membrane does this, and voila! It also makes fries. You should buy it. They explain how it works, not why it works, nor why it should work or even exist.

I once overheard an engineer say, “We’re engineers, we don’t draw“, as if drawing was a frivolous task beneath engineers. Drawing is the language of design. If your drawings are awful, you are grunting your design at the world. Good luck with that.

Engineering is a field not typically associated with aesthetic considerations, so perhaps a problem is that drawing=aesthetics in the minds of engineers and are thus dismissed. Drawings explore aesthetic considerations, yes, but they go beyond that.

[The Third and the Seventh: Man Made vs. Nature]

Look at the Third and the Seventh project. Look at any beautiful architectural conceptual image. It’s not just saying “This will be pretty.” The visualizations conceptualize social, philosophical, artistic and abstract dimensions of a project. The human dimensions.

I cannot find or think of any convincing argument as to why engineers shoulnd’t be exploring the multiple human dimensions of engineering projects and concepts as deeply as possible. Engineering work is as deeply embedded in the fabric of society and history as any human endeavor. Perhaps it is a function of the engineering mindset to assume that technical solutions exist in a contextual vacuum, but I think it has more to do with the narrative arc of Western Civilization over the 20th Century. This essay is getting long enough, so I’ll leave that thought for later.

The task of decarbonizing and detoxifying civilization looms massive over the scope of work that we as a species must undertake. We need to be critically examining everything – we need new forms of exploring designs, of speculating on the ramifications and consequences of technical design decisions, and on the interrelationships between civilization, technology, culture, nature, and survival. We need to engage our latent imaginations and be engrossed in the mental and physical space of design for the future of humanity. We need to communicate with each other better about our understanding of our world.

I think renewing the skill of visual conceptualization in engineering is a critical component of successfully navigating the complexity of design approaches to civilization overhaul that we must undertake.

Why Have Drawings Degraded?

I mentioned different constraints of new tools. It’s harder to control curved leader lines in AutoCAD, so all drawings nowadays use straight leader lines. That sort of thing.

But fundamentally I think the degradation of artistry in technical drawing has to do with the myth of progress, of technology-empowered emancipation from menial tasks . We’ve been promised for years that machines will one day automate everything for us; they will prepare our food, clean our homes, do our factory work, etc. We just have to sit back in leisure and watch the machines take over all the onerous chores we used to do manually. Humanity will ascend into luminous beings of leisure, the top of a pyramid that rests on the sweat equity of machines. It’s questionable to me how much people actually believed that modern life could become totally automated, and how much of it was marketing efforts to link consumerism to the ascent of mankind.

Somewhere along the way, I suspect technical drawings got thrown in to that bag of promises, at least for the engineering field. We mistook new tools and technologies for a quantum leap where we didn’t have to invest as much of ourselves to get the same quality work. We did less of some things, more of another, got more of some things and less of another. Don’t get me wrong; CAD has made many things infinitely better and easier for us than they used to be, I’m not suggesting we got back to the good old days. I’m saying its time for a re-evaluation of where we are and where we can be, what our potential is, what we’ve lost along the way and what we’ve gained. Everything is complex and not amenable to simple explanation or solution. I’m trying to dig into the state of visual communication in engineering, critically examine it, and propose ways we can do better.

What do you think?


5 Responses to The Language of Design

  1. Clifton Lemon says:

    Good thinking, amigo

    I like the word “resilience” where did that come from?

    This post basically ties into the “reinventing engineering” movement- if there is one. (If not, we’re officially starting it now, right?)

    visual Aesthetics are certainly part of engineering, as engineering is a design activity, in the full sense of the word. We tend to think of beauty as merely decorative, but it was way more than that to the Greeks, who started the inquiry. According to Xenophon, Socrates “regarded the beautiful as coincident with the good, and [that] both of them are resolvable into the useful.” That’s really an early version of “form follows function”, right?

    Probably one of the reasons that visual design communication
    (aka drawings) done by hand is so powerful is that in order to communicate something complex in 2 dimensions, we’re forced on some level to figure it out carefully in order to represent it to others and convince them to build it. That cognitive process is probably considerably different with CAD, where the design can look like it’s figured out but it isn’t.

    Pencil on paper also is more like a conversation, and seems more malleable, which is the way thins need to be at early design stages, where input from all team members is important.

    But maybe the technology can evolve to the point where clients and others who participate in a design can add their visual design input in a very flexible software environment, say on ipads, in sketchup, or something even more intuitive and ubiquitous- more like drawing by hand.

    I’ve always felt that attention to aesthetics has enormous potential to get people thinking about good design and technical solutions, partly because it seems so counterintuitive to talk about beauty in the context of engineering, but one could argue that something that achieves its purpose with optimal efficiency- like, say the exoskeleton of a sea urchin- is almost by definition beautiful.

    • Tyler Disney says:

      That is a great Xenophon quote. The one I had in mind was by Buckminster Fuller:

      “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about Beauty, I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

      Although I’m not certain I agree or endorse his habit of never thinking about beauty…

      That’s a very good point about the cognitive process in hand drawing vs. CAD vs. Sketchup or whatever. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you they have a preferred writing tool, whether it’s a keyboard or a typewriter or a certain type of paper with a specific fountain pen. They just *write better* with the right tool, and I think that has to do with the effect the tool has on cognition.

      Perhaps as engineers we need to pay more attention to, and experiment with, different tools and workflows. Using different tools at different stages in design to optimize the cognitive relationship with the design over the life of a project. I think this experimental effort could jumpstart a lot by looking at the tools used by engineers and designers in the past… da Vinci, Bell, Bucky Fuller, etc…

  2. Neil Bulger says:

    Resilient is a great word.

    I really like the title of this discussion, the Language of Design. So much of my time is spent in the weeds of details and specifics with a project that the flow and purpose of what we are trying to accomplish gets forgotten very quickly. The lingering feeling is one of ‘get the work done, with the tools we have, in the same way as the last design, but try and do it faster. Oh, and if you can, think of some ways to improve, but focus on just turning the machine because we don’t have a lot of money’.

    I feel a push for linearity (is this a word?) in engineering that tends to drive designs towards efficiency at the expense of beautification. In my mind, speed and defined procedural structures might be related to your idea of automation and the leisure life goal. Creating a method of design that removes the active human, substituting institutional-knowledge and means-and-methods. I really don’t like this direction for the simple fact that it subscribes limits to how I can draw my mental map of the work I do and dulls my ability to be creative and actively apart of a project.

    I have more comments but wanted to post this for now. On the side of tools and what tool fits the hand of the artist, I definitely relate to this. For whatever reason, Illustrator seems to be the brush of my choosing in relating beautiful ideas.


    • flowxrg says:

      Thanks for the great comment!

      Yes – it’s super easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. We need ways of taking the initiative – actively seeking and manipulating – mental models of the forest. It’s so easy for us to get bogged down in the details.

      I’ve been wondering for a while why there isn’t an analogy to architectural criticism in engineering (unless I’ve missed it?). I wonder if it isn’t because A) it’s so hard to actually criticize engineering, because the problems are always so detailed and complex you have to spend days and weeks examining an engineering system before understanding its intent well enough to criticize it.

      And B), there isn’t enough of a precedent for criticizing the telos of a project – the criticism quickly drops down into “this won’t work because of that, there’s a more efficient way to do this, did you think of this, etc”. What about asking the larger questions of “Why are you trying to solve this problem? This is really a symptom of a larger problem, and your solution just adds to the complexity of the issue. Stop. It.”

      There certainly is some of that, but not enough. It’s an exception not a rule.

    • flowxrg says:

      Perhaps the failure of engineering criticism isn’t that we’re failing to criticize engineering projects, but that we’re failing to properly and thoroughly criticize conventionally non-engineering projects, from an engineering perspective, in a way that anyone can understand.

      The most obvious example is that perhaps engineers aren’t doing enough to criticize architecture from an engineering perspective (glass boxes, poor orientation, etc)….

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