Priyamvada: Why do you think Engineering Design is not included in what is commonly known as “design”?

Prayas: The “design world” is presently driven by personalities, egos and mythical concepts like “talent”. It does not appreciate the fact that imagining any system and translating it into a functional or tangible form is not as “objective” a process as it is understood to be. “Imagination” is a key concept in the above process and most practitioners who identify as designers are not familiar with the role of this concept in the coming-to-life of engineered systems, it is conventionally not even understood to be designed.

Prayas: When an Engineering Design practitioner imagines a system, what does the process involve?

Priyamvada: The process of Engineering Design is similar to any other design process up to a certain point but there are also differences. It starts with a design brief, which comes from different ends in a varied engineering design practice. First, the brief and requirements are studied. Second, the limitations of the project application scenario are reviewed. Third, systems that fit the requirements are chosen. Then, lots of different possibilities are iterated upon. One unique aspect of this process is that in Engineering Design, results of the iterations can be measured and tested for their efficiency whereas, in a conventional design process, they are largely assessed only by the designer’s perspective.

There is a common perception that every designer has a different process. This holds true for Engineering Design too, but the chances of unexplained decisions over clearly articulated and outcome-oriented ones are far lesser. This design needs to pass quite a few calculations and tests. So, it is very difficult to be random in this context.

Priyamvada: How do you think we can measure design in fields like architecture, fashion, furniture and others?

Prayas: The effectiveness of a design can only be measured against its own claims. If a design does not claim very much, it can also mean that it does not do very much.

But the measurement of a design against its own claims can also be challenging – because the experience of a designed entity is often understood to happen in a subjective space. Shifting our focus from a subjective experience to our understanding of an entity’s objective experience first needs a coherent set of parameters to be designed. Only with a set of coherent parameters can we compare the experience that a singular designed entity offers to multiple individuals.

This framing of parameters is often difficult to do when the designed entity is being viewed from an aesthetic perspective. Beyond a point, only the functional perspectives of a designed entity can be parametrised and so we depend on critique to be able to evaluate the aesthetic layer of designed entities. Critique is a language that leverages humanistic philosophy, ethics and history of our civilisation to weave a narrative that finds it very easy to be ambivalent. This makes it almost impossible for us to honestly measure design in architecture, fashion or furniture and we have to rely only on critical appraisals and these are often not even honest and fair, to begin with.

Prayas: You say that engineering design has measurable outcomes and so is consistent in quality but if this were the case than the quality of engineering across countries, cultures and times should have remained consistent. But this is not the case. How would you explain this?

Priyamvada: I say that engineering design has outcomes that can be measured for its efficiency but not its consistency.

Quality of engineering has a lot to do with the implementation/execution of the design and less with the process of designing it itself. But that just means that designing has a very limited role to play in the eventual quality.

Imagine a structural engineer who needs to design a column, which needs to be designed for a particular load. The structural engineer can use calculations to verify whether the structural design of the column he has imagined would withstand the load under all forces. S/he can calculate the deterioration rate and using the can know the time period for which the column could stand without posing any threat.

Here, the quality will depend on how strictly the design specifications given by the structural designer were followed. The designer can be insincere too and can recommend a design that does not fully implement the recommendations of the structural designer. This phenomenon is called “under-designed” in structural engineering. The inconsistent quality of Engineering Design projects is either due to under, over designing or poor quality of the material.

If one is designing a mechanism for a factory, the measurable and desirable outcome is that either it works for the operational scenario. The implementing body might ignore and leave unmeasured is its longevity, energy consumption and other basic but important qualitative constraints. This is where your concern about inconsistency becomes relevant.

There’s room for mistakes even here. But when the mistake is exposed and made visible, it might be too late and expensive to rectify the mistakes.

In other fields, like you said if critical validation has been rewarded, one might never know what went wrong.

Priyamvada: The way we at Storyflock are trying to bridge the commonly known “design fields” and Engineering Design, how do you think this bridging will affect the larger design world?

Prayas: When we manage to bridge Engineering Design with mainstream design practice, it will disrupt both the perception as well as the practice of design in quite a significant way. This disruption will happen in the following ways:

A design will not be perceived as a non-essential and soft layer of human effort anymore. The practice will be commonly understood to be a mix of technical and aesthetic concerns which even if it is at present, it is not in the general conception of the practice. In the general conception of design practice, the aesthetic and the pragmatic of the aesthetic are divorced from each other. The two bubbles do not intersect and aesthetic practitioners do not understand the rigours of the way their imagination will sustain in the real world and so are not able to internalise it.

With this change in the perception and conception of the practice, practitioners will have to push themselves to change the nature of how they imagine and the rigour of how they bring their imagination to life. They will have to deal with a certain learning deficit for the time that they absorb a new set of principles and constraints. In my understanding, this process will only enrich the nature of everyday design practice as the indulgence and haphazard nature of a what-becomes-a purely visual endeavour will get some flesh and bones – it will get some solidity.