Are engineers more creative than designers?

On Tuesdays, I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Pavel Pavia [43 votes]:

Are engineers more creative than designers?

Both answers (“Yes they are!” and  “No they are not!”) are naive. It’s foolish to compare massive groups of people against each other especially around a sloppy word like creativity. Assuming you work in the making of products of some kind, we all likely know some engineers who are very creative and some who are not. We also know some designers who are very creative and some who are not. I can’t even imagine trying to average them out into two neat little piles and have the resulting comparison be of much use. But what then? Why can’t we have some fun? ok – FINE. Here we go.

Let’s start by ditching the word creative. It’s a romantic word and the wrong one. When someone hires an engineer or a designer they want a problem to be solved. The creative ability we’re talking about is to develop ideas that solve problems into working solutions. Do good engineers and designers both do this? YES. They might be different kinds of problems, and they may use different tools, but both show up at work with the intent to problem solve, not “problem create’ or “problem multiply” (although such people do seem to exist, unfortunately).

The first argument is usually an anecdote about how “all the designers/engineers I’ve worked with suck” and to that I say you might be right. You’ve probably never worked in a healthy, successful organization that respected both roles and hired talented people to play them. But they’ve always existed – look at the teams that made the best products you admire and I bet there was a team of both excellent engineers and designers working together. Until recently it was only in elite companies that these investments were made, but that’s changing.

The next argument is often someone pointing out that designers are really just planners, since they can’t actually build their plans themselves. They need an engineer to go and built them. But so what? Why is the ability to build something necessarily superior to the ability to conceive the plan? It might be superior, but it might be inferior. I don’t think Beethoven could play the trombone, but he could write the plan for what they (and dozens of other instruments) should do, and that’s why we know his name and not his trombone player.

But I’m not taking sides here. Not really. To succeed at solving problems you need both the plan and the ability to build it.  The hard part is that depending on what the problem is, it can be either conceiving the plan or the ability to build it that is more difficult. And people are bad at recognizing when the most important challenge is in a domain that isn’t theirs (“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Engineers are notorious for dismissing designers because of their own ignorance of what the customer’s true situation is (and the related potency of the designer’s plans), and designers are notorious for dismissing engineers because of their own ignorance of what the engineering constraints truly are.

The running sardonic joke in all this is designers and engineers tend to share more personality traits than not. Which include:

  • Passion for aesthetics (debates on visual style mirror debates on code style)
  • Preference for control (engineers love their control over bits similarly to how designers love control over pixels)
  • Reverence/Arrogance for idea purity (that there is a right way to do certain things)
  • A desire to make great things that help people

Which means many of the conflicts between designers and engineers are about bad management, the lack of a leader providing shared goals that unify these traits towards a common cause. Both trades are about problem-solving and when motivated can help each other with their individual tasks. Framed properly, and properly motivated, designers can have insights that help solve engineering problems and vice versa. All that’s required is some respect, shared goals and a curiosity to discover other ways to approach solving problems.

It’s useful to go back to a time when the distinction between designing something and engineering something didn’t exist. For most of the history of invention, people did it all themselves. When Archimedes or Archytas  invented the screw (which is a mind-boggling act of genius), was he designing or engineering? Would anyone at the time have cared in the slightest what label was given? John Roebling, the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, knew that to make something great required both great engineering and great design. He couldn’t build a beautiful, functional, enduring bridge without them both. He and his team would switch between thinking more like designers and more like engineers whenever necessary, as they were unconstrained by the strict delineations we’ve created for ourselves in modern times, and we should all consider doing the same.

Related:

[Note: Pavel’s actual question was “What is the reason for which we believe that the people who dedicate to the arts are more creative than the engineers?” but as I wrote an answer it morphed into a simpler question.]

11 Responses to “Are engineers more creative than designers?”

  1. GetzelR

    A thought on the original question:
    Artists/designers are responsible for and judged on aesthetics and engineers are responsible for and judged on technical performance.

    Technical performance has a set of well understood principles and constraints with which to approach the problem. Aesthetics is the touchstone for “more an art than a science.” On top of that, physics and similar engineering constraints don’t change, whereas aesthetic taste does, requiring a practitioner to adapt to a moving target.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      That’s a fine answer – probably better than whatever I would have written.

      Reply
      1. GetzelR

        Hard to respond to that with more than “Thank you – I’m flattered,” but I’ll try.

        Firstly: Thank you – I’m flattered.

        Also, I’m a fan of the “question as opportunity” approach, which you often employ as you do here. Instead of (or in addition to) addressing a question efficiently and literally, explore the world it came from – often yielding more insightful and useful observations than simply dispatching the question.

        To put it pithily (because that’s more fun and also impressive):
        Don’t just answer the question – question the question.

        You do that and that’s a better read, even when it’s not the better direct answer to a given question.

        Reply
  2. John armitage

    I think “creative” has been replaced in current parlance with “innovative”. It is still a valid adjective in reference to solving problems in unique / unusual / pioneering ways.

    Reply
    1. John armitage

      Of course there are many “myths” of innovation 😏.

      Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    Part of the reason is that during our formative university years engineers can be weird.

    The campus drama students once implored me not to reveal where their lounge was, telling me some “engineers” had followed them across campus making disparaging remarks.

    It is telling that the phrase is “engineers” not “engineering students.” What fellow students don’t understand is that engineering school is pre real world. Students are stressed from their studies, and preparing for a world where they will need the sobriety of a banker or undertaker. Small wonder if they need release, like a stag party before marriage.

    Plus, of course, they are of the age group where folks have weak egos, weak boundaries, and make disparaging remarks.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Interesting that you bring this up as I was an engineering student who midway through his college career realized he wanted to be a designer. So I eagerly crossed that divide and always wondered, in part, why it was there at all. For me, they’re so related in ambition – even if their sensibilities can be very different.

      Reply
      1. marga

        More times than one might think, engineers can be fantastic designers. Think about building structures where the structure itself is in fact the design. old steel bridges accentuate the tension an compressive forces that the bridge exert in a visible manner and often very elegantly – it just looks right aesthetically and technically. Eiffel is another example, and then, of course, Calatrava who studied engineering. Lastly, Beijing airport shows some gymnastics in structural engineering.

        Reply
  4. Jim Harden

    At 83 and driven by a lifelong curious quest to learn, I come back to the quote, “You are not what you think you are, you are what you think.”

    Reply
  5. Max Anderson

    Well!
    I must say that engineers are quite creative than designers btw you write quite good content, keep it up!

    Reply
  6. Bethany Birchridge

    I feel like engineers are creative in a different way than designers. It also depends on the engineer or designer.

    Reply

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