It’s fascinating to see old cell phones in movies from the 80s and 90s. I’m amazed not just at the obnoxious sizes of the devices, but also at the lack of elegance in the designs. That’s not to berate the designers who crafted the phones, but it shows how much the art of design has come to the forefront in engineering today. Steve Jobs famously employed design to move technology forward. With his passing, many of us are asking, “Who is going to lead that charge now?”
Certainly the advances in 3D CAD and additive manufacturing have given engineers much more latitude in what they can do and experiment with in the design and prototyping phases.
And, to be sure, consumer preferences have moved design to the forefront of how products must be constructed. Apple is probably the poster child for technology and design coming together. From its sleek laptops like the MacBook Air to the graceful curvature of the iPhone and even the sexiness of its graphical interfaces, the Cupertino, Calif. company has long been a leader in this area.
However, design is increasingly visible in other places. Twenty years ago, who would have imagined vacuum cleaners to be sexy? Yet Dyson has changed people’s minds about that, with a fascinating mixture of design and engineering that they openly tout on their commercials and in their ads. The company isn’t simply about vacuums, though. You’ve probably seen their sexy hand driers in a convention center or airport recently. And their bladeless fans are fascinating to lay people and engineers alike. I’ve watched people just marvel at them in department stores. (And I have, too!)
Look at the newest commercial airplane, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Though beset by a variety of delays (a whole other story), the plane has graceful lines both inside and out. People want to get from point A to B quickly and cheaply—but style and comfort are starting to play a role, as well. Or so Boeing is betting.
Walk through a Target store these days and you’ll be amazed at the products that were merely functional a generation ago but have some panache today. Wine openers. Hair dryers. Coffee makers. Razors. Toasters. Even the packaging of many products has been taken up a notch. Rectangular orange juice cartons now compete with sleek, carafe-like plastic containers. Even something as boring as hand soap can now be found in very elegant dispensers that you might be loathe to throw away.
Whether this makes much headway into the componentry we engineers deal with on the average day is doubtful—but it reminds us that we need to challenge ourselves in the products and machinery that we are designing. And we need to keep the art of design in the equation now more than ever.