The Difference Between Engineering and Design

One of my genius engineer friends asked me to define the difference between engineering and design. I am going to tap dance around this question just a bit because I’ve never actually been an engineer, just watched them work. Wish me luck!

Engineering, for me, is the process of assembling machinery to perform a specific task. Designing that machinery is actually part of the process, in that the practitioner is visualizing the layout of the pieces.

However, the process of design (as in industrial design) encompasses the visual appearance, color, shape, and other tactile aspects of an engineered object. Call that style. You can have engineering without style. There’s a whole subgenre of internet memes dedicated to what’s sometimes called “redneck engineering,” which is when mundane objects are assembled and employed to perform functions they were not designed to do. This actually works because being a redneck, as self-professed redneck Jeff Foxworthy puts it, is “a glorious lack of sophistication.” Applied to engineering, you end up with objects like those depicted in the images below…

These two items–the plunger-turned-beverage holder and PVC-pipe-facilitated gutter cleaner–could definitely be described as engineering objects. However, they are lacking in design elegance.

My logistician and marketing friends also talk about the “packaging” of objects, which is the container engineering products are shipped or purchased in. Apple, thanks to the influence of the late Steve Jobs, puts a lot of thought into the packaging of its products.

Image credit:

Image credit: Swedbrand Group

Jobs didn’t just want people to buy “stuff,” he wanted them to have a pleasurable experience opening the item.

My thesis director, too, was interested in design from the point of view of usability. Is an object easy or even pleasurable to look at, pick up, handle, or operate? Of course Dr. K’s interest was in document usability, which includes how easy it is to find the information you need, how easy text is to read, and how controls look and contribute to the overall functionality of, say, a web site.

So Does this Post Have Anything to Do With Technical Writing?

You can engineer a document–throw together the bits of information from here and there, including text (content), fonts, layout, and images–but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily pretty or easy to read/use. You also need a bit of design in the mix so that your content looks like it all fits together and makes it easy for your user to read or operate it. Engineering, then, is the thing; design is the thought that goes into how much of a pleasure it is to look at or use the thing. If you’re doing your job right, your documents will contain a bit of each.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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