Designers are engineers

Dirk Knemeyer on the changing role of design in emerging technology.


The discipline of design is morphing. Designers’ roles and responsibilities are expanding at a tremendous pace. Jonathan Follett, editor of Designing for Emerging Technologies recently sat down with Dirk Knemeyer, founder of Involution Studios, who contributed to the book. Knemeyer discusses the changing role of design and designers in emerging technology.

Changing roles: Designers as engineers

Knemeyer explains the morphing role of designers as technologies advance and disciplines overlap. Designers are expected to have skills or working knowledge of topics well outside design, including programming and industrial design:

“We’re already seeing a convergence of engineering and design. We’ve been talking about it for a decade, that designers need to know how to code. Designers get it, and they’re out there and they’re learning to code. To remain relevant, to remain a meaningful part of the creationary process in these more complicated contexts, that’s only going to accelerate. Designers are going to need to see themselves as engineers, maybe as much, if not more, than as designers in order to be relevant in participating in the design and creation processes within the world of emerging technologies.”

Engineers as scientists: Changing places

Designing for sensor-based experiences is complex. In order to address this complexity, teams of designers, engineers, programmers, and subject matter experts need to collaborate to craft new products and services. Knemeyer suggests that each member of the team will need to learn how to look at their craft through their counterpart’s eyes:

“Engineers are going to be forced to get into the hard sciences at a pretty crunchy level, not at the level of the paragon genetics expert, but certainly at a level beyond a 100 level class, if they’re going to be creating in these really complicated contexts. Again, I talked about how a decade ago we were saying to designers, ‘Look, you’ve got to learn how to code.’ Designers were kind of digging in their heels; that’s not how they saw themselves. Only over time, as they saw how technology was changing and the real imperative for them to have literacy and fluency and capability in terms of engineering technologies, did they get on board.

“I think the same sort of thing is going to happen to engineers in an emerging technology context, where if you want to play, if you want to create the most leading-edge, wild, amazing, exciting, crazy things, you’re going to have to go back to school; not necessarily formally, but you’re going to have to get some real legitimate expertise in these highly complicated scientific contexts. At the end of it, however all of this shakes out, the engineers might be calling themselves scientists more than engineers as they see the evolution and the relationship between knowledge and understanding to creation and manifestation.”

Design manages complexity

The devices, products, and services that are being created today require a high level of expertise and shared responsibility across scientists, designers, engineers, and programmers. Knemeyer notes designing for the physical world is fascinating and challenging for product teams:

“What’s really daunting and exciting about the emerging technologies that are coming forward is they are layering pretty meaty and complex and disparate, really scientific aspects into the things that are being done. Two of those that I like to talk about the most are genetics and synthetic biology. You have devices that are ultimately hardware that are integrating with, and even into, our bodies — let’s talk about implantables, which are not mainstream at the moment but it’s pretty close down the road that they will be. They have to fit in with human biology and physiology and the material science. All that stuff has to work together, but if you then also bring the genetic aspect into it and make those implantables really optimized for my specific genetic code and makeup, the comparison of complexity of that digital product to this product, lifecycle management software, which itself took massive teams of people to design and engineer, it’s orders of magnitude more complex. That puts a tremendous onus on — and challenge to — designers and the design and creationary process all the way through.”

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player below or on our SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

Cropped image on article and category pages by qthomasbower on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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