Design and engineering culture

I’m sure Douglas Bowman’s blog last week was widely read. His post was a kind of public exit interview, titled Goodbye Google.

Goodbye GoogleAs Bowman left Google, he pointed out the pro-engineering bias in its approach to problem solving—including problems of design. Two of several examples he gives:

[…] a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. […]

Bowman would like to see more weight put on design principles. His blog includes a link to Wikipedia’s article on design elements and principles, which lists:

unity harmony contrast
balance repetition, rhythm, pattern variety, alternation
emphasis, dominance, focal point proportion, scale functionality
attraction artistic unity genuineness in media and form
proximity colour    

I don’t think design principles are beyond an engineer. I do think engineers need to be taught how—and when—to think about these details.

As we discovered during the development of Five Sketches™, this kind of detail is often outside the comfort zone of an engineer. However, I can affirm that even engineers who initially produce work with little design insight or creativity have managed to astonish me with amazing design results within a year. And that’s after only occasional participation in Five Sketches™ design sessions.

So, yes, engineers can learn to participate in design, with success and predictability, though I would caution that Five Sketches™ works for engineers because it was developed for and with them, to meet their needs.

At Google, to bring about such a cultural change, Bowman would have needed the unwavering support of at least one senior executive. Even then, as Bowman himself acknowledged in his goodbye message, a company as large as Google does not change direction easily.

If you liked this post, read about how a company’s use of social media influences its corporate culture.

3 Replies to “Design and engineering culture”

  1. If engineers didn’t haggle over the specifics of pixel and point sizes, then they would be missing obvious personality traits common to most engineers! In all seriousness, I believe the problem is that computers trick us into working in manners opposite to our natural senses.

    Years ago, when I designed a left-brain friend’s business card, I moved elements so that they were visually centred, based on the (subjective) weight of positive and negative space. He altered my design by moving elements until the math lined up on top, even though the assumptions that math was based on didn’t take into account the visual weight of the elements.

    This also happens in the sound domain. Recently, I saw a demonstration of a recording interface that is built around a console mixer. The operator is given knobs to twist and sliders to manipulate, to find a balance of all the audio tracks, based on a (subjective) balance the audio tracks. Computer-based recording unwittingly encourages us to use our eyes to find the balance, and this interface design is meant to break that habit.

  2. I don’t think that Marissa Mayer, VP of User Experience at Google, is either indifferent to or ignorant about design. Take a look at some recent interviews: (interview with Lesley Stahl) (interview with Charlie Rose)

    Google is naturally going to want to be sure that any change is going to be a net positive.

    Bowman perhaps cannot give specifics. It’s hard to know if his creative vision was thwarted because of Google’s natural tendency to ensure it doesn’t harm its assets. What great ideas did he have that were stifled because he could not or would not provide data? Could he have allocated the data-management aspect to another data-oriented designer, and focused on the visionary aspects?

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