Dirk Knemeyer

Software design and industrial design are the same damn thing

Our recent Design Vision conversation includes hundreds of non-published pages of email conversations that ran in parallel to what was publicly published. Among the unpublished stuff are many valuable nuggets. Here is one of the themes articulated during the discussion that I think is valuable to share in the interests of helping people better understand the whys and what-fors of design. I’m copying this verbatim (with the consent of the participants), and picking up in mid-stream:

Bob Baxley said:
Don’t disagree that they’re parallel. What I wonder about is if in the case of physical products, manufacturing is significantly advanced and understood to support a wider range of design innovation and imagination as opposed to software engineering which remains less understood and therefore less malleable requiring closer collaboration between the designer and engineer to find feasible solutions.

Dirk Knemeyer responded:
I think it is more a question of perception, and a reflection on the ability of the software designer, than a reality inherent in the different contexts.

So, with physical products, there is a finite known quantity (what is physically possible to build, considering all possible contingencies) and an infinite unknown quantity (what could be specified but there is currently no known way to make it). As I know Jim will attest, the actual manufacturing specialists using various materials know more about what is and is not possible in the edge cases than the industrial designer, in almost every case.

With software products, there is a finite known quantity (what can be built, considering all programming languages and use of those languages today) and an infinite unknown quantity (what could be specified but there is currently no known way to make it). As we all know, the actual engineers know more about what is and is not possible in the edge cases than the interface designer, in almost every case.

I think that both physical product design and software design require similar amounts of collaboration between designer and engineer/manufacturer/fabricator provided that the relative ability and knowledge of the designer is the same in both cases.

The big difference that people find mystifying is that engineers are controlling completely ephemeral constructs when they code, whereas manufacturers are making real things you can hold in your hand. But I think that really great interface designers – and this has proven to be perhaps Andrei’s best skill in my working with him – have their head deep-ass into the engineering part of it. They can’t necessarily back-end code the damn thing, but they are five steps ahead during the design in knowing what is or is not possible, what will or will not work, and what it will cost, how it will affect schedules, etc. Just as great industrial designers are playing in that same space with physical products.

The more time I spend working on this stuff, the more convinced I am that the difference between industrial designers and interface designers is simply a difference of context and perception. They’re fundamentally doing the exact same thing.

Jim Leftwich added:
Dirk nails it. This paragraph in particular is very closely related to what I’m saying about the “architecture of interaction” and its relationship to and differences from “real world architecture,” (whether buildings or products):

“The big difference that people find mystifying is that engineers are controlling completely ephemeral constructs when they code, whereas manufacturers are making real things you can hold in your hand. But I think that really great interface designers – and this has proven to be perhaps Andrei’s best skill in my working with him – have their head deep-ass into the engineering part of it. They can’t necessarily code the damn thing, but they are five steps ahead during the design in knowing what is or is not possible, what will or will not work, and what it will cost, how it will affect schedules, etc. Just as great industrial designers are playing in that same space with physical products.”

My contention and stated starting goal in 1983 was that just as industrial designers (again, primarily the European ones) had emerged from the field of architecture (several of the Bauhaus designers were architects), and that these forms of architecture were based on tangible, fixed and configured structures (i.e.: brick and mortar, or metal and plastic), the new field of interaction would extend yet further into a new realm, where the architecture was of comparitively intangible, dynamic relationships of function and usage (and embodied within traditional real world architectures).

My goals were lofty. They weren’t an attempt to decorate media and software. They were to establish (along with what I felt would be others) a completely new realm of architecture on par with the Eurpoean models of architecture for buildings and products.

And hence, why my goals were to be very rare here in the U.S., and yet once I began to meet and work with European designers, were embraced as the obvious and sensible way to look at things.

Bob added:
Appreciate the ongoing thread on this as I suspect you both are right and I’m simply trying to understand and accept the nuances of the argument.

What strikes me as different about Industrial and Interaction Design is the temporal dimension. Although there is a huge amount of overlap between the two there also seems to be critical difference brought about by the added dimension of time.

By way of metaphor I might say that Industrial Design is to photography as Interaction Design is to cinema. And btw, I actually prefer photography *^)

And just to echo one of Dirk’s other comments, I couldn’t agree more on the need for designers to have a rich understanding of the underlying technology. All of my success as a designer is directly attributable to my technical knowledge as the success of basically every successful designer I can think of. It still astounds me how little technical understanding many UI designers actually have.

And Jim capped it off:
Yeah, I think this is yet another multidimensional topic that’s difficult to map in a linear text thread.

I know that what Dirk said was actually focusing a bit more on the aspect of how closely architecture (of any kind, really) needs to be aligned/coordinated with the technology/technologists. I agree with that, as well. I’ve spent most of my career working hand-in-hand with engineers, and most of those I’ve worked with have been incredibly brilliant (and actually very pro-design/architecture).

This brings up another thing that I’ve sort of grumbled at for years, and that’s the sometimes-veiled/sometimes-overt anti-engineer sentiment. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard anti-engineer sentiments expressed at BayCHI, and it always chapped me, because it was so wrong-headed.

It was as if it were designers vs. engineers, and that’s expressed even in the whole “user-centered design” meme. It’s always contrasted with the “engineering-centered method.” Yes, there are plenty of examples of devices, software, and systems that are bolted-together assemblages of functionality with no regard to how its integrated and used, but that’s just as much poor engineering as anything. I think engineering and design is one continuum, and that reflects the fact that the best designers/architects are very informed about/involved with the technology, and the very best and most effective engineers are actually really design and user aware.

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