Is Kick-Ass Visual Communication Important for Engineers?

Scenario A: Francis has a brilliant idea for a technical design solution. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make, and it could change the world for the better. Francis types up some text in Word, makes some awful sketches in Paint, and starts telling people about it. No one has a bloody clue what he’s talking about and they ignore him.

Scenario B: Kelly has a mediocre idea for a technical design solution. It’s sort of expensive, it’s a specialty item only the rich will ever buy, and its toxic to the environment from a cradle-to-grave perspective. She makes some project boards in Adobe InDesign, whips up a nifty animation in Maya, gets some VC attention, makes a startup, manufactures her product… somewhere, and manages to get bought by a larger company in a year or two. The product gets incorporated into yet another line of toxic gizmos that fuel the cancerous world economy and make human civilization a little more anemic.

This is a problem.

Having kick-ass visual design skills can

  1. Get more people to back your idea
  2. Get more people to build/operate/implement your idea properly
  3. Increase your understanding of the complexities of the design itself as you design it, leading to a naturally iterative design process that produces a better result.
  4. Make people understand the conclusions of your analyses. The strongest example of this is made elegantly by Edward Tufte in Beautiful Evidence, where he examines how the burial of crucial launch analysis information in a PowerPoint deck on the shuttle Columbia contributed to the tragedy.

So, to answer the question “Is kick-ass visual communication important?”: yes. It could be life or death.

Columbia Reentry[Columbia upon reentry, trailing debris. Image via NASA/USAF. Public domain.]

The stereotype is that engineers are terrible communicators. This is not a false stereotype. But, dammit, it doesn’t have to be. I’m sick of people hiding behind their stereotypes. Be an engineer with an outstanding head for graphic design, an understanding of color theory, and be able to sketch up a compelling perspective of a fresh idea on a napkin. Understand the intrinsic affinity humans have for natural forms, a concept coined by E. O. Wilson, known as biophilia. I don’t even know what we should know, because I’m just a dumb engineer.

Most engineers graduate from college with nearly zero training on how to visually express themselves. The biggest pointer I got in school was to turn off the grid lines on my graphs because they made the data points harder to see. The only engineers I knew who were able to put together a presentation or report that was visually compelling had either switched from an artistic major or had some other background in art, external to their engineering training.

Meanwhile I observed my friends studying architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and the like spend hours upon hours developing beautiful visuals to communicate their ideas to any audience. I understand there is a categorical difference between an engineer’s work and an architect’s, but not so much that completely neglecting the visual education of engineers is acceptable.

I have found no reasonable explanation why engineers shouldn’t be expected to excel at visually communicating their ideas, their designs, and their analyses. Until formal engineering education picks up the slack, we need to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves. Take art classes, read design books, learn to sketch properly, bug your artistic friends to talk about what they do, learn Photoshop, do whatever you have to do.

The world needs engineers who can compellingly communicate their ideas, designs, and analyses. So change the stereotype. Kick ass.

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5 Responses to Is Kick-Ass Visual Communication Important for Engineers?

  1. Kristin Haselbach says:

    I completely agree with your urgency for expanding technical designs into visual ones for the purpose of communication. I’d like to add that clean graphics, color theory and pretty pictures are only pieces to the puzzle of visual composition. This composition needs to be aesthetic and connected as a whole to truly do a design justice. Design in itself should be viewed as an art whether technical, architectural, engineering, analytical, or aesthetic.

    • flowxrg says:

      Thanks for the great insight! I didn’t clarify real well above, but I think I’m well behind the curve of a lot of engineer peers even when it comes to compositional skills. Figuring out that the art of design in the context of visual communication is crucial is the first step: the next step is to actually figure out what that means specifically and how to accomplish it, and then to practice implementing it.

  2. neilbulger says:

    I love this! Communication is the vital piece that takes a great idea and makes it into a great design and ultimately, a great creation.

    To me, the focus engineers (myself included) tend to get caught up in wanting to express the vast complexities, uncertainties and calculations that can make up a design. When in-fact, the true art can be the time spent looking through a design intent at what resonates with the people and focus on how to illuminate the most import pieces.

    We tend to focus on quantitative values a lot as well and I think it would be fun to develop some qualitative descriptions that steer towards victorian & passive design principles, concepts that people just get and don’t need a scientist to explain. Simple things. Design we can prove if need be, but present ideas “because they are elegant” “because they are good” I think that would be a fun conversation to have. Like overhangs on windows, perhaps ones with seasonal vines to grow in the summer and loose their leaves in the winter.

  3. […] important for engineers?”  Tyler Disney, an engineer, asks this question in his blog.  He writes that the inclusion of visual communication often makes or breaks a proposal for […]

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