Design is defined as the previous process of mental configuration, “prefiguration”, in the search for a solution in any field. It is commonly applied in the context of industry, engineering, architecture, communication and other disciplines that require creativity. The design involves varied dimensions that go beyond appearance, shape and color, also encompassing the function of an object and its interaction with the user. The functionality, operability, efficiency and service life of the design object must also be taken into account during the process.
A design is therefore the expression of an idea that innovatively solves a specific problem and serves as a guide to put it into practice, that is, to build and evaluate it.
Of all the branches of engineering, blueprints are the most popular expression of design. Over time they have reached a good level of accessibility and many people without technical training can understand them without further explanation.
The same is not true in all branches of engineering. To a greater or lesser degree it is possible to move directly from analysis to construction without having a well-specified design.
It’s probably because the engineer is a practical person who is passionate about solving a problem as soon as he finishes considering it. This passion, however, can play against efficiency in the process and even put the whole project at risk.
The most critical case is computer systems engineering, where often in fact some of the analysis is barely covered and passed directly to the coding, which here is equivalent to construction.
A university professor summed it up in this way “their design was the code” or “their design was the code”, as if trying to say that they had simply started to code without any design.
The disadvantages of working without design are many: lack of adequate guidance for the team, as each member can have different ideas about what you want to build; you can go a long way in construction and have to throw it all away for lack of consistency or because you simply assumed something that is then incorrect; too much time is devoted to aspects of the problem and others of equal or greater importance are neglected; there is no way to assess whether what has been advanced corresponds in time and effort to what would have been expected; and a long et cetera.
Again, there are failures in the engineering university training that promote this vice. To begin with, many teachers encourage students to start work without requiring a design to be done first. They simply assume that it is not necessary, that there will already be another course where they are taught that or that for the particular case it does not apply.
Designs can take many forms: prototypes, mockups, paper sketches, diagrams, drawings, storyboards (drawing sequences that show how the finished artifact will work). In systems engineering UML diagrams are very popular but although they are an excellent tool in no way can be considered sufficient, especially for interactive systems involving users. In these it is very necessary to go to sketches, paper prototypes, and other forms of modeling, to give the end user opportunity to review whether what they expect from the system is actually what is being built.
Designing involves making decisions. You choose an option and remove the other possibilities, to define the specific design. These decisions involve judgment, commitment and responsibility. Criteria because they cannot be taken simply for their own taste or convenience. Commitment because the decision made must accompany the entire engineering cycle until the final evaluation, being prepared to receive questions if necessary. Responsibility because the decisions made will affect not only the work built but all those involved, including end users.
At a lecture by Dr. Fernando Cajas I heard him say that more than mathematics and physics – very traditional subjects in engineering schools – what he had to teach was how to design.
Designing in engineering is to devise an artifact that solves a particular problem – as opposed to a general problem, which would be more research-related. Focusing too much on the numerical skills and abstract problems presented by mathematics and physics only confines students to a very restricted realm of the universe of situations that engineers face as professionals. The worst thing that could happen is for them to think that’s what engineering is all about.
Of course it has a lot to do with math and physics, but it definitely goes much further.