James Dyson on Engineering vs. Marketing


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The 20 Sep issue of The New Yorker has an interesting profile of inventor, designer, engineer and pitchman James Dyson, who is famous for creating the “dual cyclone”-powered Dyson vacuums — an ingenious bagless vacuum cleaner — and now the Dyson Air Multiplier — an ingenious blade-less fan. Beyond creating enormous businesses by obsolescing the conventionally indispensable components of household appliances, Sir James [corrected], as he is known in the United Kingdom, is trying to foment a new, 21st Century industrial revolution. His goal is to turn the tide on the increasingly tepid interest in engineering that plagues the U.K. In this regard, the United States fares little better, and Dyson contends that the two countries are more interested in selling things than making things — unfortunately it’s making things that’s the key to a successful society, he says.

The good folks at Condé Nast require you to buy a subscription in order to read this article at NewYorker.com, unfortunately, but it’s worth reading if you can get your hands on a copy. Of particular interest to me was this quote from Dyson about how he’s staffed his company:

“All of our engineers are designers and our designers are engineers. When you separate the two, you get the designers doing things for marketing purposes rather than functional reasons.”

That’s a great quote, and it puts a little bit of a sting to designers, like me, who could hardly qualify ourselves as engineers. I can console myself by saying that, if push came to shove, I could probably build a decent Web site on my very own, but I’m only an engineer in the broadest, most generous definition of the term. Neveretheless, it’s obvious to me that going forward, for all design professions, it’s only going to become more and more important to be able to build as well as to design.

  1. If Dyson were a web professional, he’d say web designers should be expected to code. The web profession is an interesting one in this regard since so many are living in the design/development gray area these days. Print came with its own engineering, such as print color formulas and substrate variations.

    Crossing over by just a little ads to your skill value. I’ve also found knowing the code required to make the presentation match your design specs ensures the final deliverable closely matches your design phase samples. You’re probably a more valuable and effective designer when you can be extra helpful in getting your designs into production.

  2. I am an engineer and like marketing-bashing as much as anyone, but it is important to realize there are two different sides to marketing. The first, and most important one, is being an advocate for users and understanding what they want. The other side, marcom, is less crucial, even though it is easier to measure and too often the only consideration given when hiring marketers.

    At its best, user-centric marketing that works in collaboration with engineering and design, can guide those efforts in a productive way. Think Steve Jobs. Some engineers like Dyson have that skill, but you do not require deep engineering or design skills to do it (again, Steve Jobs).

  3. “…it’s obvious to me that going forward, for all design professions, it’s only going to become more and more important to be able to build as well as to design.”

    It would be nice if you could explain why you think this is the case. At the very least, do you mean that designers should be *able* to build, or actually *do* the building too?

    I’m of the impression that those who support the latter stance either don’t know enough about the work of designers, or don’t know enough about the work of those who execute their designs. I can’t imagine you are of the first kind.

  4. Dysons remarks are referring to Industrial Designers, and their ability to communicate and interact / understand with Mechanic Engineers.

    I Have been practicing as an Industrial Designer since the mid 80’s, and the majority of the problems that I see other designers having on projects is with their inability to grasp the mechanical constraints involved in the product they are working on, and to then manipulate those constraints. Only when the Industrial Designer is working side by side with the Mechanical designer do these problems get resolved. I also work with a lot of EE’s (Electrical Engineers), and nobody would ever suggest that I need to have able to design the circuits and write the firmware that goes into a product that I design, but I do need to understand the building blocks that the EE’s work with and their physical and thermal constraints. The same is true for Web development. The designer needs to understand what the code is capable of doing, and what the constraints are. The ability to write some of the code is handy, but developing the algorithms that power the software is necessarily beyond the scope of most designers expertise or skill set.

  5. I think Dyson is quite correct, but the reverse is also true: when separated, engineers build marvelous contraptions as functional as they are unusable.

  6. @Nicholas Thanks for bringing some perspective to this. I think Vinh is repeating a pernicious myth about web design by taking the Dyson example out of context. The myth here is that bad web design is a result of an artificial or enforced split between the mind of designer and the mind of developer. Unite these minds in one person’s body and good design will naturally result. In the future, will all be Michelangelos.

    Unfortunately there appears to be no evidence that this approach actually works in the general context of producing commercial web sites and related digital works. Admittedly, there’s not much evidence that any other approach works much better, although what evidence we do have (er, Apple? Facebook?) is pretty supportive of specialisation rather than generalisation of roles. Indeed, Alan Cooper wrote The Lunatics partly in recognition of the fact that a technique (persona development) to bridge the gap between these minds was needed when specialisation could not be achieved.

    My tuppence on all this is that web design, like all industrialised design traditions before it, will acquire increasing role specialisation as technology advances. I’m sure there will be wonderful examples of genius designer/developers, but for the most part, the wheels of the industry in which they operate will turn differently. Just as they do in the construction of buildings, the healing of the sick, and the solving of crimes.

    We are merely in that “dawn age” of web technology when one man in their garage can change the world.

  7. Jonathan: if you disagree that’s fine, but in that case I wouldn’t call it “a pernicious myth” so much as an alternative point of view. Specialization is not dying, of course, but it’s my opinion that going forward, most fields of design will look more kindly on practitioners who can make as well as design. At the very least I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have.

  8. I take your point Khoi – and lo, we are indeed discussing something very worthwhile, so I thank you for that opportunity!

    I don’t doubt that people will look kindly on somebody who can design as well as build. The question is *why* they look kindly on it – and that is where the perniciousness lies.

    It’s quite obvious that one of the biggest problems designers face in most workplaces is an attitude on the part of non-designers that what designers do is easy. So easy in fact, they should have time left over for building their designs as well.

    Some even hold that to be a designer and not a developer is no less than fraudulent (somebody in the UK called Ryan Carson caused an immense row about this recently by saying just that). Consequently, there is a complete lack of seniority afforded to design roles in most companies. Designers at board level are almost unheard of. I would be prepared to say that this is why most websites are in fact just awful.

    That, I am sure, will change over time as mankind realises that it must meet the challenge of the information age. But until then, let’s be careful about what we say about designers.

    Incidentally, you don’t actually say why you think it’s going to become more important to be able to build as well as to design, so I may be jumping to conclusions – for which I apologise. It would help very much if you explained yourself.

  9. Jonathan: I’ve been a designer for a reasonably long amount of time, and one of the things I’ve learned is that designers can talk endlessly about how they are misunderstood and maltreated. That’s not to say it’s not true, but it’s not an argument that I want to get into.

    My reasoning for what I had to say about designers needing to become engineers has many different origins. First, I think it really helps designers to be able to make as well as to specify; I think that’s a fact.

    Second, I think design is becoming increasingly commoditized, and in the global marketplace that’s here today and in the one that’s coming (where a country like China might be turning out as many design graduates a year as there are working designers in the U.S. total), having every edge will help.

    And finally, I believe it’s important for designers to become engineers because engineering needs design help, design principles, and design smarts. Design is what’s needed to push everything forward.

    So my argument is not merely that designers need to learn to become engineers in order to justify their paychecks. That’s a part of it, yes. The bigger part is that the world needs design to become not just a single part of the process, but to become the whole process. Designers need to become engineers, yes. They also need to become product managers and CEOs too. Design needs to get bigger.

  10. Some very interesting points here. I fall into that strange no-man’s land between developer and designer: I came from an IT background, but realising I didn’t want to be a programmer, took a course on web design way back in 1997. Thing is, I’d been producing arty stuff with Photoshop for years, always doodling or drawing, and people considered me ‘creative.’

    Anyway, web design was the thing for me — I spent equal amounts of time creating in Photoshop then writing the HTML in Notepad.

    Over the years, I found that being able to do both the techy side of things and the creative side was to my advantage. By the time I got to an agency I stayed with for nearly four years (2003-2007), I was able to do basic database work, code HTML and PHP, design a site well enough for a client to approve it and then build it myself.

    The person I replaced was a programmer first and used to take designs from the graphic designers and then build them, but he didn’t worry too much about the accuracy. The designers found it frustrating that they might only see 70% of their vision make it to the final site. He didn’t care enough about the aesthetics, so long as it worked.

    I understood the design side of things and they were very happy once they found I could get the site to 95% or more of what they envisaged. By making sure that they involved me during the design process, they were able to produce designs which worked well, and we collaborated on some fun stuff. I enjoyed the challenges and they enjoyed seeing their ideas spring to life. We pushed each other further as they realised I could make their wilder ideas work, and I pushed their designs further as often as possible.

    Now a true graphic designer may scoff at my work, but it looks attractive enough for my customers. At the same time, I would fail a basic programming test, but I can still write small Flash/Flex apps that work, and throw together a CMS in PHP. The danger is, I suppose, being a Jack-of-all-trades but master of none. What keeps me happy is knowing that I have always satisfied the customers and met my own personal standards as often as possible.

    Here comes the ironic part: I moved to the USA from the UK and find your point of view sadly missing, Khoi. It seems the prevailing attitude in the USA is you’re either a developer or a designer, and you can’t be both.

    Most designers, even if they write HTML, don’t understand the development side of things, and when their code is passed on to the developers, they gut it and insert a whole bunch of tables and things which make us standards-lovers cringe.

    It seems that you must fit into a certain box and not stray outside of it. I often find myself being the only person who can talk to both developers and designers equally.

    I think this idea that a designer should be able to, to some extent, code (or at least understand code) and that a developer should be able to follow the reasoning for design choices, is very important. It can only make things better for the user, and I may one day find I’m not being asked whether I’m a designer or a developer when I interview for a job.

  11. “… the world needs design to become not just a single part of the process, but to become the whole process.”

    While I can’t fault you on that sentiment, I’m not at all sure how you come to the conclusion that in order to achieve that, we need to have less specialisation.

    I’ll put it another way: how does one person get enough hours in the day to both design and build without compromising on the quality of either? I’ve worked at large e-commerce and games development firms. With the best will in the world, doing the job of both a designer and technologist in those environments would have literally killed me, no matter how skilled I was.

    Either you are implying the one or other of these roles are exaggerated (or in some way a sham), or you are expecting us all to be working 24 hour days. If that’s the future of design – I’m out!

    But joking apart, what you’re saying is that designers need to know more about engineering. With that I would of course agree, but who wouldn’t? Everyone has always said that for as long as I can remember.

  12. Khoi and Jonathan:

    I’m just curious if either of you have any thoughts on whether some kind of design education should be included as part of a general education at some level, maybe undergraduate or even secondary school? My thinking behind the question, after reading both of your arguments, is that perhaps treating design as part of a general education would promote the idea that it should permeate the work of engineers, CEOs, product managers, etc., as Khoi would have it, but in a way that wouldn’t mean that the people who are doing design work fill those roles, avoiding the 24-hour word day that Jonathan imagines.

    I suppose another way to look at it is that perhaps we should be striving for more people to be designers in the sense of incorporating design thinking into how they approach their role, rather than thinking that the only designers on the team are the people who are fulfilling the role of designer. Maybe this is part of what you mean, Khoi, when you say “Design needs to get bigger.”

  13. An insightful realization, Khoi, and I completely agree.

    The crux of the issue is that design and development must have mutual empathy, and empathy is born from shared experience. Designers need to understand first-hand the medium they are attempting to manipulate, and the complexities of scale and maintainability. Developers need to understand first-hand the challenges in creating a unified, coherent user experience that defines a brand (this is absolutely no small task). Neither have to be experts in both, but there is no place in the web for either to be ignorant of the value and challenges of the other.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.