What Engineers Can Learn From Steve Jobs

Of the many things Steve Jobs will be remembered for, his view on how design aesthetics, creativity, and technology should be closely interwoven has particular resonance for engineers.

In expounding upon how the arts and humanities were closely bound to the technical engineering demands at Apple, Jobs emphasized the foundational attainment of innovation through the balance of technological mastery with design mastery. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple co-founder, Jobs shared this insight:

“Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There’s something magical about that place…I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musician on the side…. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor.”

Engineers may be the stonecutters of the modern era, but also knowledgeable in the molecular makeup of stone, the patterns of the stone, the resulting effects when some structures are made from particular types of stone. But it will take crossing comfortably and copiously over the boundaries between science and the arts to realize this: There is no boundary.

Mathematicians speak of elegant solutions versus a snarled mash of force-fitted derivations. Computer engineers and programmers speak of elegance in how a particular algorithm is composed and articulated versus the jagged methods of brute force coding. In seeking the humane, engineers also seek out elegance in how problems of society can be improved or altogether reinvented by the engineering aesthetic. There is beauty in the harmony resulting from the integrated equations, structures, and functionalities in a work of engineering.

Struggles with maintaining the equal converging flowrates of the humanities and the sciences continue to exist to this day. Engineering is present at the design phase, but also in the unknown, unseen execution phase. Take an Apple iPod or MacBook as examples of such a convergence of the engineering and design aesthetic.

The end user may notice the physical, minimalistic beauty in an iPod’s form and color or the intuitive fashion in which menus and playlists are navigated. To bring that industrial design icon to life also requires the software design underlying its inner workings, the CNC machines used to shape its metallic shell, the programming constructed just right in the CAD software. Consider also the assembly line upon which the components of that iPod were built, incubated. Consider that same assembly line’s deliberate orchestration of programmable logic controllers, quality engineering, and mechanical engineering. Consider even beyond that, the graphic design, the novels, the plays, the business plans composed upon a MacBook’s keyboard when such an aesthetic is itself used recursively as a tool propagating further creation. It is on account of all these forces and more—design, engineering, art and beyond working collaboratively—that the cumulative elegance of the device is ferried from its inception as a Platonic ideal into a domain of tangible reality.

Anecdotes of Jobs taking long walks with individuals to discuss ideas are part of Silicon Valley legend. Such a means of peripatetic thinking out loud, debating, discussing, creating, was Jobs’s preferred mode of expounding his creative vision on the world around him and with the creators he partnered with.

Perhaps it is on these well worn foot-trails in the Palo Alto hills where we may also be able to walk—engineering, science, art, and design, all in step.

Perhaps we will discover someplace new

Published December 15, 2011 by Austin Lin

Filed under: invention, innovation, thinking engineers, problem solving,


One should only read Daniel Pink's "A Whole New Mind" to additionally understand how engineering should develop in the right brain of the enginner, as well as the left brain.  In today's world, engineering without are, is really no engineering.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 11:43 AM by Bill Turner

Thanks for your comment, Bill. Absolutely agree--the model of the brain itself is a symbol in and of itself--while one's neurological process may drift from right to left brained thinking, the brain still functions as one continuous whole.  The "partitions" between the humanities and the sciences are our own creations.   Pink references how the traditionally deemed artistic thoughts are just as relevant in the engineering sciences as they are in those disciplines more commonly perceived as being pure creative arts.

Or to summon one of my favorite sciences-and-the-arts-as-one quotes by Norton Juster in the children's book The Phantom Tollbooth:

"Words and numbers are of equal value, for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other, woof.  It is no more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars."

Wednesday, January 04, 2012 11:30 AM by Austin S. Lin

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