The Language of Design

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

I think engineers can and should produce better design drawings; better technical drawings but also better conceptual drawings.

The ability to produce amazing visual drawings is a skill that has eroded over time in the engineering community. I have a couple guesses as to why that is, but I’d really like to hear from you what you think.

Better Technical Drawings

Hand drafted drawings before the days of CAD were beautiful and personal. They used simple, elegant methods of communicating design intent.

In my job I look at a lot of plans for buildings from the 70’s, 60’s, even back to the 20’s. They’re beautiful. They are easy to read. Information flows from the page to the reader in a way that I don’t see from modern engineering drawings.

I’m not saying modern drafting is in a shameful state of disarray; I’m saying that new tools with different constraints and a faster pace of project delivery have degraded the artistry that was prevalent in hand-drafted technical drawing. With less constraining tools and more attention paid to fundamental visual communication skills we can make drawings that are much better than the current status quo.

Better Conceptual Drawings

What I have in mind is similar to the type of conceptual images and graphics that architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and some other disciplines produce regularly. These graphics are beautiful, inspiring works of art. They communicate so much and rarely use many words. I want to see more visual communication in this style used to communicate engineering projects.

[Image: Paul D Nichols’    Elevated Brood   .]

[Image: Paul D Nichols’ Elevated Brood.]

Most conceptual renderings of technical objects I’m aware of are low quality, corporate-esque chunky graphics that you expect to see in a PowerPoint slide deck. This doohicky goes here, that membrane does this, and voila! It also makes fries. You should buy it. They explain how it works, not why it works, nor why it should work or even exist.

I once overheard an engineer say, “We’re engineers, we don’t draw“, as if drawing was a frivolous task beneath engineers. Drawing is the language of design. If your drawings are awful, you are grunting your design at the world. Good luck with that.

Engineering is a field not typically associated with aesthetic considerations, so perhaps a problem is that drawing=aesthetics in the minds of engineers and are thus dismissed. Drawings explore aesthetic considerations, yes, but they go beyond that.

[The Third and the Seventh, by Alex Roman: Man Made vs. Nature]

Look at the Third and the Seventh project. Look at any beautiful architectural conceptual image. It’s not just saying “This will be pretty.” The visualizations conceptualize social, philosophical, artistic and abstract dimensions of a project. The human dimensions.

I cannot find or think of any convincing argument as to why engineers shouldn’t be exploring the multiple human dimensions of engineering projects and concepts as deeply as possible. Engineering work is as deeply embedded in the fabric of society and history as any human endeavor. Perhaps it is a function of the engineering mindset to assume that technical solutions exist in a contextual vacuum, but I think it has more to do with the narrative arc of Western Civilization over the 20th Century. This essay is getting long enough, so I’ll leave that thought for later.

The task of decarbonizing and detoxifying civilization looms massive over the scope of work that we as a species must undertake. We need to be critically examining everything – we need new forms of exploring designs, of speculating on the ramifications and consequences of technical design decisions, and on the interrelationships between civilization, technology, culture, nature, and survival. We need to engage our latent imaginations and be engrossed in the mental and physical space of design for the future of humanity. We need to communicate with each other better about our understanding of our world.

I think renewing the skill of visual conceptualization in engineering is a critical component of successfully navigating the complexity of design approaches to civilization overhaul that we must undertake.

Why Have Drawings Degraded?

I mentioned different constraints of new tools. It’s harder to control curved leader lines in AutoCAD, so all drawings nowadays use straight leader lines. That sort of thing.

But fundamentally I think the degradation of artistry in technical drawing has to do with the myth of progress, of technology-empowered emancipation from menial tasks . We’ve been promised for years that machines will one day automate everything for us; they will prepare our food, clean our homes, do our factory work, etc.

We just have to sit back in leisure and watch the machines take over all the onerous chores we used to do manually. Humanity will ascend into luminous beings of leisure, the top of a pyramid that rests on the sweat equity of machines. It’s questionable to me how much people actually believed that modern life could become totally automated, and how much of it was marketing efforts to link consumerism to the ascent of mankind.

Somewhere along the way, I suspect technical drawings got thrown in to that bag of promises, at least for the engineering field. We mistook new tools and technologies for a quantum leap where we didn’t have to invest as much of ourselves to get the same quality work. We did less of some things, more of another, got more of some things and less of another.

Don’t get me wrong; CAD has made many things infinitely better and easier for us than they used to be, I’m not suggesting we got back to the good old days. I’m saying its time for a re-evaluation of where we are and where we can be, what our potential is, what we’ve lost along the way and what we’ve gained. Everything is complex and not amenable to simple explanation or solution. I’m trying to dig into the state of visual communication in engineering, critically examine it, and propose ways we can do better.