Are engineers more creative than designers?

Both answers (“Yes they are!” and  “No they are not!”) are naive. It’s foolish to compare massive groups of people against each other especially around a sloppy word like creativity. Assuming you work in the making of products of some kind, we all likely know some engineers who are very creative and some who are not. We also know some designers who are very creative and some who are not. I can’t even imagine trying to average them out into two neat little piles and have the resulting comparison be of much use. But what then? Why can’t we have some fun? ok – FINE. Here we go.

Let’s start by ditching the word creative. It’s a romantic word and the wrong one. When someone hires an engineer or a designer they want a problem to be solved. The creative ability we’re talking about is to develop ideas that solve problems into working solutions. Do good engineers and designers both do this? YES. They might be different kinds of problems, and they may use different tools, but both show up at work with the intent to problem solve, not “problem create’ or “problem multiply” (although such people do seem to exist, unfortunately).

The first argument is usually an anecdote about how “all the designers/engineers I’ve worked with suck” and to that I say you might be right. You’ve probably never worked in a healthy, successful organization that respected both roles and hired talented people to play them. But they’ve always existed – look at the teams that made the best products you admire and I bet there was a team of both excellent engineers and designers working together. Until recently it was only in elite companies that these investments were made, but that’s changing.

The next argument is often someone pointing out that designers are really just planners, since they can’t actually build their plans themselves. They need an engineer to go and built them. But so what? Why is the ability to build something necessarily superior to the ability to conceive the plan? It might be superior, but it might be inferior. I don’t think Beethoven could play the trombone, but he could write the plan for what they (and dozens of other instruments) should do, and that’s why we know his name and not his trombone player.

But I’m not taking sides here. Not really. To succeed at solving problems you need both the plan and the ability to build it.  The hard part is that depending on what the problem is, it can be either conceiving the plan or the ability to build it that is more difficult. And people are bad at recognizing when the most important challenge is in a domain that isn’t theirs (“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Engineers are notorious for dismissing designers because of their own ignorance of what the customer’s true situation is (and the related potency of the designer’s plans), and designers are notorious for dismissing engineers because of their own ignorance of what the engineering constraints truly are.

The running sardonic joke in all this is designers and engineers tend to share more personality traits than not. Which include:

Which means many of the conflicts between designers and engineers are about bad management, the lack of a leader providing shared goals that unify these traits towards a common cause. Both trades are about problem-solving and when motivated can help each other with their individual tasks. Framed properly, and properly motivated, designers can have insights that help solve engineering problems and vice versa. All that’s required is some respect, shared goals and a curiosity to discover other ways to approach solving problems.

It’s useful to go back to a time when the distinction between designing something and engineering something didn’t exist. For most of the history of invention, people did it all themselves. When Archimedes or Archytas  invented the screw (which is a mind-boggling act of genius), was he designing or engineering? Would anyone at the time have cared in the slightest what label was given? John Roebling, the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, knew that to make something great required both great engineering and great design. He couldn’t build a beautiful, functional, enduring bridge without them both. He and his team would switch between thinking more like designers and more like engineers whenever necessary, as they were unconstrained by the strict delineations we’ve created for ourselves in modern times, and we should all consider doing the same.