They didn’t teach design when I went to engineering school.* It wasn’t until after graduating and beginning work that I was faced with the challenge of coming up with brand new solutions for problems. Figuring out where to start is always the hardest part. A blank document can be the scariest thing in the world!
I once worked with an architect and it was enlightening. You might think there’s a lot of similarity between architects and engineers, but if you do, you’re wrong.
Both of us started our problem solving with learning as much as we could about the nature of the problem. As an engineer, my next step was to investigate and define constraints for the solution. I needed a foundation upon which I could build. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there was another approach. The architect did the opposite. He started by creating a theme. His theme was circles. This could not have been more foreign to me! From there he worked out until he bumped up against the constraints, which then became boundaries for his solution. I was amazed to watch as this simple theme evolved into a sophisticated design.
The difference in results between these two approaches is startling. When you begin from the known, your design reflects that from which you started. This is a good thing for engineers because it results in a product that is safe and predictable. On the other hand, when you start fresh, this results in a design that is innovative and original, which is a good thing for architects (or so I assume).
Neither approach is perfect for all situations. Competitive environments demand continuous improvement. Evolution alone is often not sufficient; the occasional revolution is necessary. However, starting from scratch requires a bigger investment in time and resources, and not all new ideas will result in practical products.
There is great value in combining these approaches. As Prince Philip quoted the Prince Consort, “You’ve got to have a marriage of art and manufacturing and engineering in order to produce good stuff!”
* For a complete list of what else they didn’t teach me or any other engineering student (and a good laugh), you must read Ed Medley’s award-winning article What They Didn’t Teach Me in Engineering School.