When is a designer not a designer?

13 May 2015

When is a designer not a designer? This is the question Jeremy Pullin has been pondering recently and here he comes to the conclusion that design is a matter of approach rather than education and qualification

Recently I was having a conversation when the question arose about a group of people who refer to themselves as designers.
The person I was talking to said “only one in that group is a designer, the rest are engineers who work at CAD stations”. This made me question the difference between designers and engineers. What is it that makes a designer a designer and not just another engineer?

Both are problem solvers and possess technical skills. Both also change the status quo of the world around them. So, on the surface, there is no difference.

However, the term engineer is broad, covering many disciplines. Specifically those in engineering institutions have for many years argued that the term is too widely used. This certainly does seem to be the case in the UK compared to many other parts of Europe.

For instance, a person who fixes vending machines but does not have any engineering qualifications cannot call themselves an ‘engineer’ in Germany, but they can (and do) in the UK.

It seems that here we have come to use the word to describe a job function rather than a professional standing. You need to have a medical qualification to call yourself a surgeon but you only need to own a chainsaw to call yourself a tree surgeon. We can argue all we want that it shouldn’t be this way but the fact remains that it is.

In Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s day, the lines between engineers and designers were far more blurred and during his professional life he wore many different hats from civil engineer to naval architect

So, back to the original question, and here is where it gets messy. The role of design largely (although not exclusively) sits within the two disciplines of art and engineering. To simplify matters, let’s exclude artistic design from the discussion. Now, you can argue that every designer is an engineer but, as design is a subset of engineering, the reverse is not true. Similarly, every man is a human being but not every human being is a man.

If engineers spend their live’s writing CNC code then it’s easy to see why they should not be called a designer but do they become one when they sit on a CAD station and model a fixture? The simple answer is no.

In essence, all they are doing is defining the physical geometry of an object that serves a particular function. Also, there is far more to design than that.

Design embodies a holistic approach that encompasses exploring and understanding a complex set of requirements and opportunities and defining a total solution that addresses not only how to do something but also the why, where, when and who.

A non-designer engineer will be able to accurately define the geometric properties of a 20 litre bucket on a CAD station but a designer will be able to examine and understand all of the issues surrounding the design of a product to contain a 20 litre volume of an amorphous substance.

They would for example look at the corrosive properties of any substances that may be put into the product and use this to decide upon suitable construction material. They would establish the needs for containment restrictions (i.e. how much does it matter if any of the substance escapes the product?) and how to address this.

They would also look at the portability needs and how the product would be transported. The list goes on and includes target costs, end of life, market analysis, environmental considerations, applicable regulations and standards, DFM, DFA etc etc.

For a true designer, the geometry definition or CAD work forms but a single part.

There was a time when the lines between engineers and designers were far more blurred. This was because roles were not as studiously defined as they are today.

Despite the commonly held misconception, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not a great inventor like his father Marc. He was, however, a civil engineer, a quantity surveyor, a structural engineer, an architect, a mechanical engineer, a project manager, a naval architect and all sorts of other roles which today are discrete professions in their own right.

We don’t have people who fulfil so many roles as these today because we are educated in different disciplines separately.

We are taught maths in a maths classroom within a maths block by a maths teacher who belongs to a maths department. The same is true of all STEM subjects. Design is a discipline in its own right and is a matter of approach rather than education and qualification.

Bearing all of this in mind I have to admit that I was wrong in the conversation that I referenced at the beginning of this piece, in that not every engineer who works at a CAD station is a designer.

Comments on this article:

There are two commonly accepted standards for an engineer. Either :- 1. the person is either Chartered (C.Eng) or Incorporated (I.Eng) 2. the person takes responsibility for the design through calculations or management of the project/manufacture etc. Personally, I prefer the former, but I will accept the later. I am working towards C.Eng Incidentally, the Institution of Engineering Designers also has a "Registered CAD Practitioner - RCPIED" - membership http://www.ied.org.uk/becoming+a+member

Posted by Duncan Anderson on Wednesday 13 2015 at 07:13 PM

IEng or CEng confirms you're an engineer it doesn't define it. By there nature you have to be an engineer before achieving (and paying for) that status. I just tried to define engineer in my own my head and I think an engineer is some who creates or maintains something in a planned manner. The planned thought out bit is the key to me, I.e. Not following someone else's instructions. Designer on the other hand is even more wooly term!

Posted by Michael leslie on Wednesday 13 2015 at 09:31 PM

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