Design: Art or Engineering

Joel Olympio
4 min readFeb 2, 2021

A neighbour’s cat sits on the bonnet of my mom’s car. It somehow knows that the bonnet is warm. It’s a cold morning so it wasn’t the sun’s radiation heating the bonnet, must’ve been the engine. I wonder does the cat know this. Does the cat know that the engine produces heat which in turn heats the bonnet of the car? Or does it just sense car warm cat sit? Or perhaps it’s not the heat, maybe it’s the gentle curve of the bonnet. Or maybe both. Both the design of the car bonnet, not necessarily made to be a cat bed, and the principle of energy conversion communicated “sit here” to the cat. Another observation. The cat sits like a loaf of bread. Why? Surface area? Heat insulation? Possibly. Probably. Nature didn’t design the cat to sit like a loaf for human amusement. Yes, nature doesn’t design waste, waste of energy, waste of space nor excessive functionality. Nature is the greatest designer.

A loaf of cat

Could engineering be described as the control of nature? Could art be defined as the interpretation, exploration and subversion of nature, human nature? Possibly. Probably. So, as I watched my classmates plot their names down on a this or that, right or left, first or third world, republican or democrat, yes or no graph indicating their stance on what design is, I couldn’t help but wonder why we feel the need to describe design as a subset, an intersection rather than the overarching concept. When design is found in nature but engineering and art are derived from nature, why isn’t art described as design without engineering and why isn’t engineering design without aesthetic? Why is design considered a melange rather than the principle ingredient of either. Is it because we live in a society where design isn’t appreciated, where design is taken for granted, undervalued because good design goes unnoticed, because design is…natural? Is it because design isn’t understood? Ask the average person what a product designer is and they fail to connect the two words used to describe the profession. They think “oh I thought that’s what engineers do?”, “oh so you’re like an engineer?”.

Does nature design or does it engineer? Does nature design or does it express itself? I sighed when the design of the exercise didn’t allow us to pick a middle ground or even go beyond set A and set B. There always seems to be a side to pick and rarely a wall breaker.

Pick a side any side

A robot could clone itself.

But can a robot design a better version of itself?

Maybe. With some AI. Artificial Intelligence. Machine Learning. A take on one of nature’s most complex creations.

“One of the most coveted human skills is creativity and this won’t change. Machines will enrich and augment our creativity, but the human drive to create will remain central.”

“Empathy which is so difficult to replicate in machines, will be invaluable in the human-AI world.”

- Satya Nadella, Hit Refresh

“Ideation, large frame pattern recognition, and the most complex forms of communication are cognitive areas where people will have the advantage.”

- Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age

With AI are we not trying to imitate nature. Comprehension, feedback, analysis, response, result. Sounds like a familiar process, a design process.

Empathy is the reason I placed a sticky note with my name on the “Art” side albeit reluctantly. Engineering is often apathetic, lacks soul like modern rap. Human-off-centred. And even when it is considerate of the human condition, is that not subconsciously or consciously design? Is engineering inherently creative? Or is engineering not just a tool to aid in the fruition of creativity? Do engineers really ever think about humans or are they just thinking about a mass in space, a cause and effect and physics laws, laws that we’re induced, inspired by the design of nature.

And art. Well. Art is a form of design. Design for entertainment. Design to provoke thought. Design to stimulate the imagination. It has a different kind of function, one that’s not fulfilled by engineering but by imagineering.

And I think it says something that the greatest challenge to arguably the greatest technology of this industrial revolution is the imitation of creativity, the replication of design. Yet there I sat listening to people fall into the trap of committing to a side, denouncing their very trade to what could be considered subsets of it, snobby engineering and pedestaled art, leaving humbled design in its second class state as if either could successfully stem without it.