Working successfully with designers in engineering: a pragmatic approach

Anthony Haynes writes: Engineers frequently work in partnership with designers — for example, in the development of a product or building, but also in the creation of ancillary resources. Flyers, for example, or web pages.

It’s the ancillary stuff I’m most concerned with here.

Partnership can prove a productive process — but getting alignment between the two disciplines, so that engineer and designer work in harmony, can prove challenging.

Major obstacle

Frankly, a common problem is engineers overstepping the mark.

Consider the following scenario. An engineering company commissions a designer to produce a piece. The designer comes back with a draft. It’s here, when the engineer needs to provide the designer with some sort of response, that the problem arises: for commonly engineers at this stage frequently allow their personal aesthetics to intrude.

For example: “I don’t like the red”. Well, maybe not, but presumably the flyer (or whatever the piece is) is not aimed at the person who commissioned it — it’s aimed at the market.

Or the commissioner has a particular photographic image in mind — not because it represents optimal design, but — well, because they like it.

Personal sensibilities here  are beside the point: the question is, “What would be most effective for the target audience?”

Sometimes I’ve found myself watching a conversation between the disciplines and thinking, “If you think the role of the designer is to guess what design you have already in your brain and then just to fulfil it,” you’re probably making a mistake.

If the technical ability to realise a preconceived design using InDesign (or Adobe or whatever) is really the only means by which your designer can add value to your business, get a better designer.

A solution

NDDH coverA resource I’ve used for years to help solve this problem is Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Handbook (Peachpit Press).

The aim of the book is to help non-designers work in an intelligent and informed manner when partnering with designers, rather than fall back on one’s own aesthetic preferences.

To this end, it outlines four design principles. They are:

  1. contrast — for example, in terms of colour, shape, or font
  2. repetition — the creation of pattern and the achievement of consistency
  3. alignment — making the arrangement of components look professional by aligning them vertically or horizontally (or even diagonally)
  4. proximity — using space to indicate space by placing components that are related to each other in meaning close to each other

I’ve used the resource with many clients and found it is well received. The principles, which are clearly explained and very effectively illustrated with examples, are easy to understand, remember, and apply. That makes them invaluable when it comes to responding to draft designs.

As Williams himself acknowledges, one can hardly learn everything there is to know about design from learning just four principles. But his book isn’t designed to develop expertise: it’s a pragmatic resource design to enable partners from different disciplines to have a constructive conversation.

In my experience, it works brilliantly.



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