Design: Science or Art?

  • Engineering design is vital to the commercial world but should we see this as a science or an art? Science is an exact art while art is open to interpretation - confused?
  • If engineering design is to be classed as art then should we see this as simply painting by numbers? Even the experts are confused!
  • The theory and practice of engineering design are very different and in real life one only works with the other.
  • The real world would suggest that engineering design is more open to interpretation than an exact science. However, this is not always the case…..

Science or Art

Let me start with an intriguing question: Is design a science or an art?

When I first heard this question it bothered me a lot. I began studying engineering in order to follow my love of physics in high school. It seemed that engineering was directly in line with physics; you learn the rules, you use formulas, you calculate, and voilà! Your design is ready.

The real world of engineering design

The two first years at university never hinted at anything else. It was during my third year that I got my first hint that it was not exactly so. I was given my first design project in the class of “machine elements”, better known today as “engineering design”. Feeling confident that my studies so far would help me to calculate everything I needed, I soon realised that I didn’t know what I was doing. Nothing that I studied in “strength of materials” prepared me to calculate the wall thickness of the simple gear box I was supposed to design!

Luckily I could ask my father, a mechanical engineer himself. I still remember the example he gave me to prove that calculating for stress is not the answer for every engineering problem; in fact, it was just a small part. I tried to argue but eventually I had to accept the harsh fact that not everything can be calculated.

Is it dangerous to make assumptions?

My next big frustration came a year later in a term examination on turbo-machines. The question given did not have all data required to solve the problem.  After the exam our professor said that we had to assume the missing data. I felt like the sky had fallen on me! Giving an exam with missing data? Unfair and unacceptable! I failed. Still to this day I don’t know whether the missing data was intentional or just a human error on his side, but in later years as a teacher, I never failed to instruct my students to assume something whenever I wanted them to do so.

Science or Art? Am I an artist or a scientist?

Shortly after my graduation, during my first career steps as a design engineer, I attended a mechanical engineering convention where a lecturer raised the question, “Is design a science or an art?” Suddenly it struck me like lightning! Is it possible that I am an artist and not a scientist?

I shall try to answer this question in my next blog post.

About: Adam Rubinstein

Born in Israel, studied Mechanical engineering in the Technion, specialized in mechanical design and particularly mechano-optics. Over 50 years experience as a design engineer, and about 24 of them as an independent consultant. lately, partially retired and teaching mechano-optical design at BGU in Beer-Sheva, Israel. Interested in photography and classical choir singing

One Response to Design: Science or Art?

  1. says:

    I have spent a portion of my engineering career as an inventor.  I am not uncomfortable with unknowns.  Actually I have realized that most are not unknown in other situation or industries.  They are unknown in the one you have in front of you.  The art part of engineering is to find a solution that will be accepted.  How to get from the starting point of belief without evidence to everyone believes.  And to do it in a time and cost frame that lets you get to the end.   First you need a wide enough background to come up with possible solution directions that are outside the normal field of vision in the industry.  You realize that the people that work in this field are as smart as you are so the obvious solutions have been tried and what is the normal practice is the best solution.   But you believe without evidence that others that may be better exist.  So your first objective is to find reasonable candidates.  The next step is to find why they will not work.  So you now have a pile of candidates and a pile of failures.  Step three is to try to fix the reason you put it in the failed pile, usually all the candidates are in this pile.   The candidate usually again ends up in the failed pile.  But you have belief without evidence  so you continue re-examining failures and fixing or combining two failures.  Actually you are increasing your knowledge significantly in this process because to fix a problem you look again outside your area or do calculations.  In the end an acceptable combination that does not fail occurs.   The art of engineering is belief without evidence.

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