Engineering v. Design

Silicon Valley has always been obsessed with efficiency. But lately, it is also obsessed with beauty. In a place where engineers have reigned supreme, the new tech talent war is for designers. (more)

In those parts of the economy that are well modeled by the introductory economics textbook treatment of widgets – firms producing a thing with workers with increasing marginal costs in a somewhat competitive industry, such as durables, clothes, and cars – we’ve seen continuing, very substantial growth in real wages as measured by the purchasing power of things that our economy produces. The reason that real wages in aggregate have stagnated is that much of what people buy are things where there are issues of fundamental scarcity: energy, the land under the houses we buy, and goods and services that are produced in complicated, heavily public-sector-inflected ways. Medical care and educational services are examples of the latter category. (more; HT Tyler)

Many long-term trends over the last few centuries can be plausibly attributed to people getting richer, and thus wanting different things than poor people want. One interesting example: the decline of engineering relative to design.

All products and services have to negotiate between the two extremes of the raw physical world and complex human preferences. That is, products must deal with the physical world in order to give humans what they want. Engineers tend to focus on the physical world, trying to minimize the effects of key resource constraints, while designers tend to focus on how a product looks and feels to customers.

Because we have simple powerful general theories of how the world works, engineering can make use of a lot of math and computer modeling, and can often transfer inventions to very different products. In contrast, since humans are very complex and poorly understood, designers must instead develop intuitions by seeing many specific examples of good and bad design.

As we have become richer, we have become less concerned about raw physical constraints. When we have enough calories in our food, enough insulation in our clothes and walls, and enough mass moved fast enough in our transportation, we focus more on how exactly our food, clothes, etc. make us feel. This includes how we feel about how the product is abstractly described to us – marketing also gets more important as design gets more important.

Rich people also care more about product variety. When we can barely make any affordable car that functions, car design focuses on making one working car at sufficient scale to be cheap enough. Such as the Model T. But when we get better at cars, customers are willing to pay extra to get cars in more variety, to better match the self-image they want to project. So design and marketing come to matter more than simple engineering.

These trends have many implications. Since innovations that accumulate and transfer well are more easily found in engineering, our focus on design slows our rate of economic growth. Also, since local tastes vary, our focus on product variety that better adapts to local tastes gives us fewer gains from globalization. Finally, a focus on design weakens the connection between economic and military power. An economy that is better at making more varied products to make more customers feel good about themselves is less obviously better able to make weapons that kill. After all, engineering matters much more than design and marketing when it comes to weapons of war.

In the em future scenario that I’ve been exploring, income per em falls to subsistence levels. This should increase economic growth rates, the importance of engineering relative to design and marketing, and emphasize scale economies relative to product variety. Our descendants would return to focus more on conquering nature, and on acquiring economic power that translates better into military power.

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    Do we know if a “focus” on design means an actual focus in terms of resources (aren’t engineering departments much larger and much more funded than design departments, where half the people will be unpaid interns/involuntary-freelancers-barely scraping by)? In other words, does engineering really lose that many resources when a few designers are hired?

    • anon

      Design seems to be labor-intensive in a fairly fundamental way, compared to engineering. So engineering departments might appear large and well-funded simply due to how we evaluate these kinds of scales. And if you include marketing the products to consumers, and perhaps “artsy” concerns more generally, it’s not clear that we expend little in resources compared to engineering.

      My guess is that design will become more akin to “science” over time, since as Robin says, our increased interest in it is comparatively recent. But we will probably always face some tradeoffs between resource costs, usefulness and designing products to be more compelling to us.

      • IMASBA

        Alright, marketing can be very expensive and marketing can be expected (though not always true) to increase when there’s a “focus” on design.

  • Ely Spears

    Some of the ideas in “The Timeless Way of Building” might argue against this post. The author argues that prioritizing engineering over design is a really modern concept that has led both to worse design and worse engineering.

    • Sid

      Reading the Timeless Way, I felt that the tendency towards worse design could be better explained by our movement away from traditional habitats. Basically, people had acquired lots of insights about building over time, but when we decided to switch to cities, we lost a lot of those insights.

      • Ely Spears

        There is also a kernel of the book that discusses why such insights were ever made to begin with; how did they ever arise? The conjecture is that they arose because folks focused on design and functional health as opposed to feasibility. Surely not in all cases; e.g. large-scale structures like Pyramids, while certainly well-crafted, were more feats of engineering than design, yet these (though memorable) kinds of structures are in the vast minority of design and construction patterns that arose organically with civilization. So yes, I think your claim is correct; it’s just that the thing that endowed those traditional habitat patterns with their goodness was a prioritization of design over engineering in the first place.

  • Sid

    Also, relevant:

    Kevin Simler argues that our increasing desire for better designed computer interfaces mirrors our acquisition of “refined manners” as we became more civilized (i.e. richer). Bad interfaces are analogous to “rude” behavior.

    Indeed, as you’ve predicted elsewhere, as we fall to subsistence levels, we may use profanity a lot more, i.e. ruder.

  • Cahokia

    We have more product variety today in consumer goods, electronics, and food products, but do we really have access to such a vaster range of designs?

    My sense from looking clothing, interior decoration, home styles, etc. is that if anything the decline of engineering has been accompanied by a falling away of the pace of change in aesthetics as well. Styles change these days at a slower pace than they did in the 20th century.


    If things first have to be affordable before design is focused on and if engineering (and thus technological progress) suffers when there is more focus on design then in our world one way to get back to a focus on engineering would be to reveal hidden/externalized costs. We live in an age where a lot of stuff only appears affordable because we are using natural resources in an unsustainable manner. Perhaps ecotaxes can spur innovation through forcing a return to a focus on engineering. In a more sustainable future world this wouldn’t work anymore but in a sustainable world fast technological progress becomes less of a necessity for survival anyway.

  • rorysutherland

    Maybe. But then without design would not all human competition for status then take place over those things which are scarce, rivalrous and cannot be mass produced? Which is more inefficient still.

    At least in this world I get a great-looking car. In your world, I’d have to spend all my money on a really ugly house.

  • Daublin

    It’s an intruiging line of thought!

    I will say the word “design” led me the wrong way in your description. Engineers use the word “design” as a large part of what they do — it’s the higher-level planning for how all the bits and pieces of their product are going to go together. They call it design whether or not there is an aesthetic element.

    It is also not obvious to me that variety is inefficient. Individuals really do have different needs. Until you started hitting on it in the last few weeks, I’ve just assumed that the high variety we see for any given product in the modern economy is mostly helpful.

    Among other things, a learning economy must fundamentally have a variety of options to experiment with before it can learn which ones work better than others. A strong market economy thus seems inextricably bound with a variety in the individual offerings. Or so I’ve thought for a long time.

    • While innovation requires that one try different approaches, most product variety doesn’t vary along the dimensions that is of much use for innovation.

  • Lord

    While I agree that design is less advanced and requires more effort to get right, this is a learning process, and while we don’t know much in the way of design now, that just means we have more room to make greater progress in the future.

    Further, though tastes change, people are an underlying constant, and the better we adapt our products to them, the less they will change until all that changes will be the ephemeral. Local tastes vary, but they are rapidly becoming homogenized, so while we may currently enjoy a broad variety of products, the best, most favored products will win out. We will have even greater variety of design as fashion, but on a smaller scaffold acceptable designs as the more awkward and less universal become weeded out. This may translate to no advance in growth since design is a satisfaction driver rather than a cost driver but does represent an increase in utility.