Can design be taught at university?

Design is a synthesis. We have a target in mind, usually given to us by our boss or client, and we use our imagination, creativity and whatever knowledge we gathered through our life. It is like a game of catch: catch as you can! No rules. Just bring results, and fast! And it better work, or else…

Design conventionDesign Toolkits

In our toolbox we have whatever was learned in university: some math, physics, strength of materials, and a lot more. Wonderful tools for analyzing anything, or that is what we believe. We are certain that if we encounter a problem too difficult to our analytical powers we can always study a bit deeper or ask an expert, A PhD possibly. Alas, our wicked boss or client as the case may be, won’t allow us! He does not have the time, the money or both. Hey there, you are the engineer, you should know everything and solve everything. Fast! If you have not been in this situation you are probably working for a large institution, where time and money do not count. Lucky you!

Practice makes perfect

Why can’t you design a simple mechanism? Suppose we have to design a mechanism to throw out a slice of bread from the toaster when ready. Oops… what should be the strength of the holding arm? The weight of the bread is so small that by calculating the stress we get a thickness of the metallic arm to be say, 0.124 mm. Hmmmm. It does not seem right! Shall we make it of plastic? What temperature will this piece reach? How to calculate the heat transfer? An endless line of problems, many seem too difficult to solve by the tools we have. Maybe we should ask for a stronger FEA tool, if we get the budget and time! And yet, there are toasters who do the job pretty nicely. And it seems some of them were even designed by less educated people then us, even before FEA tools were even thought of. How come?

Did I make my point? The university gave us tools that are unfortunately sometimes useless in real life, and going back to ask our professor does not seem to work either. It will take too long to get the answer, and it will not solve the problem at all. We shall have to make two professors work together on this stupid problem: experts for strength and for heat transfer. Then, each will start by demanding a computer model to analyze. But, wait a minute! There is no model yet! We still have to design it in order to have a model.

This simple invented example demonstrates it all. Design is a vicious circle, where in order to use our tools to calculate it we must have it finished first. Nothing I wrote here is new. Everyone who does design knows it. And yet, in spite of this seemingly vicious circle we create good designs all the time, some of them extremely complex. What is the secret here, and why this secret has not be revealed to us in the university?

Design is art

There are several answers to that. The teachers in the university are mostly scientists. They research and make the formulas. They, as a rule, do not do design work themselves. They are expert for analysis, but design is the art of synthesis. So why are there no experts in synthesis too? This is because synthesis appears to be simple. It seems like everybody can do it, it only requires some creativity and some analytical tools, right? Wrong! But they don’t know it. It does not require these high mathematical skills, so it does not count…

The sad truth is that design is a very complex art. Many can do it, but few can do it right. There are no rules and definitely no perfect algorithms. There are few books on the subject but they don’t look like much. Not scientific enough – just like this blog. And there are no authorities: nobody ever came out and called himself master in the art of design. There are only experts in designing certain things.

True, you cannot make an algorithm for design. If we could, we would have given this job to computers. It is only us, humans, that can do real design work, much like the inability of computers to create art. Well, computers do art sometimes, but they are years away from being able to design anything at all, which is more that copying and optimizing existing design.

So, is it hopeless? Must we jump into the deep water and hope not to sink? Not quite. There are some general fuzzy rules that we experienced engineers use, knowingly or instinctively. In my following blog posts, I shall try to expose some of these rules.



7 thoughts on “Can design be taught at university?”

  1. The toaster is a pretty good example. Being a design engineer the main thing you have to focus on is what are the most important parts, and in this case it’s probably your mechanism for engaging the toaster and releasing the spring-arm. That being said, the only basic calculation that’s required would be the spring force for the mass of the arm (plus some estimated resistance) and the heaviest thing someone might put in a toaster (bagel? brick?) In the end design is an art of intuition and knowing when to apply formulas in critical situations.

    1. The toaster is just an arbitrary example, and the spring mechanism is just an arbitrary subsystem in it. I could have brought the example of a ball point pen instead, your office chair or the frame of your spectacles to that matter. there is nothing unique in the toaster.
      And speaking of the toaster, you hint that the spring arm mechanism is the most important part of it (I would prefer the wording “subsystem”), but is that so? how about the heating element? the artistic shape of it (I could have used the word “design” here too, but unfortunately there is double meaning in that). Sound silly, but eventually when this simple produce gets to the market, the difference between success and bankrupcy lies in the preference of the lady who buys it, and the evident difference between your product and the competitors is its color and shape, and perhaps its weight and the space it takes on her kitchen table. So which “part” is the most omportant?
      Indeed, starting the design with the most important “something” is a good attitude, but identifying this “something” and blending it with all the other “things” into a well ballanced design is really the heart of the design work and the art of it.

  2. Hello Adam, it was great to read your posts and looking forward for the following ones, they made me realise of very important points I missed during my studies in engineering.

    Thanks a lot for sharing such a valuable experience


  3. I think that it is designer experienced professors task to evaluate end than to suggest to a part of excellent students these difficult and wonderful professional direction.

  4. Indeed, that would be great, but hard to implement in our imperfect world.
    Somehow most Professors are not experienced designers. It is the tendency of the academic world (or at least most of it) to appreciate the theory over the practice, and it is anyway hard to be a working designer and a professor at the same time. Moreover, those who are experienced and excelent designers are rarely good teachers too.
    Likewise, this theory of design should be taught by all design students, and not by just the best few.
    It seems that our world is not yet ready for a theory of design that can be taught reasonably well by those that are not themselves either the best designers or the best professors.

  5. Hello Adam,

    I really admire your trajectory in Israel. If you allow me, I would like to have your expert advise: I am mechanical engineer and finished university in 1983. At that time there were no AutoCAD, Solidworks, ProEngineer, FEA simulation software or CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics. I was able to study AutoCAD and ProEngineer on 2000 but I never used those programs because I started working as Project Manager.

    In order to keep on the quick pace of the Computer Software Changes, I need to go back to study these Computer Aided Software.

    Do you know if there is any grant form the USA or Israel government that can help me with that? Or any other institution willing to help me to learn these tools? I am stuck in my career for the lack of knowledge of these software.

    I do the design by hand, but it takes too long and now it is basically unacceptable if I want to have an edge on my career and my job hunting.

    I hope you can help me with information. Like you, I enjoy photography and sing in my church choir.
    Cordially, Louis Montoya, Beaumont, Texas, USA

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