Is Kick-Ass Visual Communication Important for Engineering?

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


Scenario A: Francis has a brilliant idea for a technical design solution. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make, and it could change the world for the better. Francis types up some text in Word, makes some awful sketches in Paint, and starts telling people about it. No one has a bloody clue what he’s talking about and they ignore him forever.

Scenario B: Kelly has a mediocre idea for a technical design solution. It’s sort of expensive, it’s a specialty item only the rich will ever buy, and its toxic to the environment from a cradle-to-grave perspective. She makes some project boards in Adobe InDesign, whips up a nifty animation in Maya, gets some VC attention, makes a startup, manufactures her product… somewhere, and manages to get bought by a larger company in a year or two. The product gets incorporated into yet another line of toxic gizmos that fuel the cancerous world economy and make human civilization a little more anemic.

This is a problem.

Having kick-ass visual design skills can

  • Get more people to back your idea

  • Get more people to build/operate/implement your idea properly

  • Increase your understanding of the complexities of the design itself as you design it, leading to a naturally iterative design process that produces a better result.

  • Make people understand the conclusions of your analyses. The strongest example of this is made elegantly by Edward Tufte in Beautiful Evidence, where he examines how the burial of crucial launch analysis information in a PowerPoint deck on the shuttle Columbia contributed to the tragedy.

So, to answer the question “Is kick-ass visual communication important?”: yes. It could be life or death.

columbia.jpg


[Columbia upon reentry, trailing debris. Image via NASA/USAF. Public domain.]

The stereotype is that engineers are terrible communicators. This is not a false stereotype. But, dammit, it doesn’t have to be. I’m sick of people hiding behind their stereotypes. Be an engineer with an outstanding head for graphic design, an understanding of color theory, and be able to sketch up a compelling perspective of a fresh idea on a napkin. Understand the intrinsic affinity humans have for natural forms, a concept coined by E. O. Wilson, known as biophilia. I don’t even know what we should know, because I’m just a dumb engineer.

Most engineers graduate from college with nearly zero training on how to visually express themselves. The biggest pointer I got in school was to turn off the grid lines on my graphs because they made the data points harder to see. The only engineers I knew who were able to put together a presentation or report that was visually compelling had either switched from an artistic major or had some other background in art, external to their engineering training.

Meanwhile I observed my friends studying architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and the like spend hours upon hours developing beautiful visuals to communicate their ideas to any audience. I understand there is a categorical difference between an engineer’s work and an architect’s, but not so much that completely neglecting the visual education of engineers is acceptable.

I have found no reasonable explanation why engineers shouldn’t be expected to excel at visually communicating their ideas, their designs, and their analyses. Until formal engineering education picks up the slack, we need to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves. Take art classes, read design books, learn to sketch properly, bug your artistic friends to talk about what they do, learn Photoshop, do whatever you have to do.

The world needs engineers who can compellingly communicate their ideas, designs, and analyses. So change the stereotype. Kick ass.