Comparing Engineering and Design


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In an earlier post I wrote about the similarities between engineering and design. After discussing the concepts with a few engineers and designers, I thought it would be helpful to explore the differences between the two disciplines.

a crushed empty soda bottle on the ground
Photo by Roberto Sorin on Unsplash

Known solution versus unknown solution

In the introductory chapter of Designing Your Life, the authors point out the most salient different between engineering and design problems.

… [E]ngineering is a good approach to solving a problem when you can get a great deal of data and you’re sure there is one best solution.

Designing Your Life (Evans and Burnett, 2016)

They position design problems as not having a known single best solution.

[Creating the first laptop with a built-in mouse] was a design problem. There was no precedent to design toward, there was no fixed or predetermined outcome; there were plenty of ideas … but nothing was working.

Designing Your Life (Evans and Burnett, 2016)

In other words, engineering explores a problem space with a clear well-defined solution, while design explores a problem space without a well-defined solution.


A professor introduced me to the idea of asking whether a problem is “solvable by design” or not. This is a question a designer should ask when identifying a problem to solve. I found it incredibly helpful to break out of an engineering mindset. I was in the early stages of a project, exploring a problem space and being a bit overwhelmed at all the different facets of a large and complicated situation. My process was to try and create a framework for understanding the entire problem space, and then using that framework to come up with “the solution”. The framework was helpful – it provided a way to organize my group’s thoughts and gave us a common language to talk about the different facets of the problem space. But it did not point to a “solution” – instead it made clear that the tree of problems we were looking at had a root problem that was simply not solvable by design. The best we could do is mitigate some of the effects of the problem and provide a tool designed to help the people affected cope.

I’m not sure that engineering has such concept as “not solvable by engineering”. Certainly there are problems that aren’t, but I don’t recall that being part of any engineering course or discussion I ever participated in. It is perhaps a blind spot in the way engineering is practiced. Or perhaps such problems are dismissed as “not solvable by engineering yet“.

Tensions versus Trade-offs

Engineering is completely about trade-offs. The engineering Iron Triangle is a well-known diagram explaining the relationships between quality, time, and cost. Many physical parameters result in trade-offs – current through a device versus the amount of heat which can be dissipated or the range an aircraft varies as you trade off the weight of fuel and cargo. A trade-off is well-defined, often to the point of a precise mathematical relationship.

Tensions are similar to trade-offs but are not well defined. When a worker is remote, there is a tension between the amount of freedom a worker experiences by being “more remote” pulling against the connectedness they feel with their coworkers as a result of in-person experiences together. There is no precise amount of one or the other which is traded. Someone in a hybrid remote/in-person job experiences both, in a complex and continuous relationship. It is not possible to create a rule between the two, other than that in general and for most people having more of one will tend to have less of the other.

In both, two desirable properties cannot be completely fulfilled.

Avoiding the wrong methodology

I ended my earlier post saying that the two fields could learn from each other’s methods, and I don’t feel like the above differences refute that.

Instead my suggestion is to identify which kind of problem you are solving and avoiding the wrong manner of solution you seek. Solving a design problem with an engineering methodology leads to the collapse of an unknown solution space into a known solution space, often by reducing the problem to simply “Can this be done?” or “Can we do this?”. These can be a dangerous questions to solve because they do not consider if something should be done or not.

From a personal perspective, I believe that engineering-oriented organizations not coming to terms with whether they should be creating something or not has resulted in many negative consequences for society. Understand your problem space and choose carefully.