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)
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.
While innovation requires that one try different approaches, most product variety doesn't vary along dimensions that are of much use for innovation.
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.
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.
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.
Alright, marketing can be very expensive and marketing can be expected (though not always true) to increase when there's a "focus" on design.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?