Design or Engineering?

A 'designer' shoe

A 'designer' shoe

Yesterday my wife, my children and I visited the Design Museum and had an interesting and informative couple of hours looking at the exhibits, particularly the entries nominated for the BRIT Insurance Design Awards. Photography was banned but you can get a flavour of the exhibits from some BBC coverage here. And wandering around I was struck by the thought that I didn’t really know what it meant to view ‘design’ as a distinct process.

The exhibition included:

  • Furniture: including some chairs which could be sat on comfortably, and others which were interesting, or fascinating, but not very … functional.
  • Apps for the iPad. I thought this was computer programming but apparently it’s design.
  • Installation art – such as Mimosa or a ‘Wall’ on which one could throw virtual paint from a cyber bucket.
  • Lights: some strange and some practical and attractive, and some of which generated light when trodden on.
  • A Fiat 500, nominated for its innovative two cylinder engine.
  • The system of ‘Boris Bikes‘ used for hire around London.
  • A bicycle with no gears and a fold-up electric bike which looked like it simultaneously optimised lethality and impracticality.
  • A coffin and a system for creating tubes out of laminated wood.
  • A shoe which had been printed using 3-D printing. In honesty it was barely recognisable as a shoe and the consensus of the people gathered around was that if worn it would be on the fashionable side of uncomfortable.

By grouping all these objects together the Design Museum seems to claim the creation of each of these objects involved a distinct process called ‘Design’. And they did all look as though they had been designed: however many looked as though they had been designed badly! And I felt that somewhere in this process, engineers were being short-changed.

For example, I am sure that every curve and shaped component in the engine of the Fiat 500 is result of an intensive design process: but by automotive engineers. And the software used to calculate the load-bearing properties of the uncomfortable ‘shoes’  was designed by software engineers. And the machine which ‘printed’ the shoes (think Thing-o-matic) was designed by mechanical and electronic engineers. And the plastic used to manufacture the shoes was itself the subject of design by chemical engineers.

It seemed that the process of ‘design’ had been commandeered by iPad-wielding, fashion-conscious ‘designers’ and the achievements of the engineers which underpin all these ‘designs’ was being seriously overshadowed.

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