feature article
Subscribe Now

Engineering as Art Form

Creating Things has Always Been About More than Functionality

“Is there in truth no beauty?” – Star Trek episode 60

Vacuum tubes? Seriously? This is 2018.

My newsfeed lately has been filled with advertisements for tiny little headphone amplifiers sporting two shiny little vacuum tubes. You’ve probably seen them: little one-channel audio amplifiers that are supposed to improve the sound quality of your PC or smartphone. I can see the need for improving on cheap little earphones, but vacuum tubes? I thought we’d abandoned those in the 1950s, along with Philco television sets and console radios. Who thought bringing back tubes was a good idea?

And yet… those little tube amps do look pretty cool, a kind of steampunk mix of old technology and polished new sheet metal. I’m not quite ready to buy one, but I do admire the design. Evidently they’re attracting lots of buyers, if the number and variety of similar mini-amplifier ads is any indication.

But we’re engineers, dammit. We’re supposed to be above this. What advantage could a tube amp possibly have over a modern semiconductor alternative? Vacuum tubes are fragile; they’re hard to replace; they’re bulky; they get hot; they’re energy-inefficient. And they don’t even sound all that great. Aren’t these all problems we solved a long time ago? What’s up with the retro-electro-design?

Could it be that we’re not that rational after all?

The original Porsche 911 was also a terrible engineering design, cursed at birth with insurmountable handicaps. It’s completely backwards, and early models were well-nigh uncontrollable at high speed. The weird H-shaped engine hangs out over the back, creating a large (and terrifying) polar moment; it’s air-cooled instead of using water; the foot pedals hinge from the bottom, which feels funny; and the whole thing is cramped, egg-shaped, and peculiar in every way. Hunter S. Thompson derided it as an “ass-engined Nazi slot car.”

Yet the 911 is among the most successful and longest-lived vehicles ever made. Now in its 55th year of production, it’s fast, desirable, docile to drive, and as reliable as a paperclip. It still looks funny, but that’s deliberate, and every other characteristic has improved immeasurably over the decades – all despite its inherent design flaws. Porsche nearly killed off the 911 decades ago, but its allure proved too enduring.

You can also buy old-timey mechanical keyboards that look like they’ve been sliced off the front of a Remington typewriter and will connect (via USB, natch) to your modern, quad-core, titanium-bodied laptop.

The fact is, engineering has always been about more than mere functionality. It’s design, in the broader sense. We’re designers and creators, and some product designs sport a little more flair than others. One phone’s baseband performance may be just as good as another’s, but the design of the GUI, the case, or even the box it came in can sway the deal. These aren’t cheats or cynical shortcuts to spur customer demand. They’re integral to what we do.

Architects do what we do, designing functional buildings that are also – one hopes – pleasing to the eye. We remember iconic buildings not because the plumbing works and the doorknobs are all the same height but because they’re beautiful to behold or because they break new ground (as it were) in construction techniques, height, ornamentation, or audacity.

Eighteenth-century architect Louis Sullivan’s “form follows function” credo left little room for decoration or adornment; his Modernist office buildings were basic, functional, and utilitarian. “Ugly” might be too strong a word, but we remember them today for their austerity, not their beauty. The Empire State Building and the palace at Versailles get a lot more visitors than the Wainwright State Office Building, and for good reason. The rents are higher, too.

Gustave Eiffel’s eponymous tower was widely considered a hideous monstrosity as it was being built, a blight on the lovely Paris skyline. Eiffel’s genius was in turning heavy iron beams into a delicate, curving, structure that looks like it would bend in the wind (it does). Structural engineering, meet aesthetic design.

Almost nobody rides horses or yaks or camels anymore for transport; they’ve all been made obsolete by various mechanical means: the airplane, the automobile, the Ninebot. Those animals are now kept as pets, if they’re kept at all, a nostalgic reminder of times past. Will we preserve old laptops, smartphones, or hard drives as sentimental souvenirs? In the case of tube amplifiers, it looks like we’ve already reached that stage.  

In a previous life, I was obsessively tidy about drawing schematics. Signal lines had to run parallel; data always flowed from left to right on the page; components were numbered sequentially, with no missing numbers to confuse future troubleshooters. I may have rearranged connector pinouts just to tidy up their appearance on the schematic. The finished product didn’t always function perfectly, but the design documents were ship-shape and Bristol fashion.

It’s easy to go too far in either extreme, of course, and design a shiny new product that looks great in the promotional glamour shots but goes up in smoke when you plug it in. Many of us have been party to that kind of project, where the marketing department had maybe a little too much influence on the product design, with not enough attention paid to engineering practicality.

But the opposite method – all function, no form – is just as bad. When we design products, write code, or polish a UI, we’re doing it for somebody. Like good architecture, it needs to be useful as well as likeable. If art is all about suffering, your customer shouldn’t be the one getting tortured. It’s okay to be beautiful.

One thought on “Engineering as Art Form”

  1. How a thing looks has always made a statement about how it will work. Just in our area, Apple with Jony Ive, (sorry – Sir Jonathan) blew apart ideas of how computers, including the graphical user interfaces, should look. The IBM Selectric, or golf ball, typewriter (for those old enough to remember) changed the office desk and was a delight to use. In these cases, the design was an integral part of the development process.
    On a personal note – Inmos had two fabs. The one in the US was designed as an attractive shell and then things were fitted into it. I vividly remember the view across Colorado Springs from one of the men’s rooms and the liftshaft against the outside wall, as well as large windowless cube farms. The one in the UK was designed after a study of the different work and materials flows, and is still regarded, even after nearly 40 years of service as an attractive building. I don’t know how it functions internally but, certainly for the first five years, it was fine.
    What good design should not be is some afterthought. Architects sometimes use the phrase “Lipstick on a pig” and we have all seen examples where this applies.
    Engineers may be good industrial designers, but they may not be. There are people, like Ive, who have been trained to build on a natural design instinct and can be involved in a project from the start. It might cost more but should pay off in increased usability and long-term sales.

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Oct 21, 2020
We'€™re concluding the Online Training Deep Dive blog series, which has been taking the top 15 Online Training courses among students and professors and breaking them down into their different... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community site. ...
Oct 20, 2020
In 2020, mobile traffic has skyrocketed everywhere as our planet battles a pandemic. Samtec.com saw nearly double the mobile traffic in the first two quarters than it normally sees. While these levels have dropped off from their peaks in the spring, they have not returned to ...
Oct 19, 2020
Have you ever wondered if there may another world hidden behind the facade of the one we know and love? If so, would you like to go there for a visit?...
Oct 16, 2020
[From the last episode: We put together many of the ideas we'€™ve been describing to show the basics of how in-memory compute works.] I'€™m going to take a sec for some commentary before we continue with the last few steps of in-memory compute. The whole point of this web...

featured video

Demo: Inuitive NU4000 SoC with ARC EV Processor Running SLAM and CNN

Sponsored by Synopsys

Autonomous vehicles, robotics, augmented and virtual reality all require simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) to build a map of the surroundings. Combining SLAM with a neural network engine adds intelligence, allowing the system to identify objects and make decisions. In this demo, Synopsys ARC EV processor’s vision engine (VPU) accelerates KudanSLAM algorithms by up to 40% while running object detection on its CNN engine.

Click here for more information about DesignWare ARC EV Processors for Embedded Vision

Featured Paper

The Cryptography Handbook

Sponsored by Maxim Integrated

The Cryptography Handbook is designed to be a quick study guide for a product development engineer, taking an engineering rather than theoretical approach. In this series, we start with a general overview and then define the characteristics of a secure cryptographic system. We then describe various cryptographic concepts and provide an implementation-centric explanation of physically unclonable function (PUF) technology. We hope that this approach will give the busy engineer a quick understanding of the basic concepts of cryptography and provide a relatively fast way to integrate security in his/her design.

Click here to download the whitepaper

Featured Chalk Talk

Magnetics for High Voltage

Sponsored by Mouser Electronics and Bourns

With today’s trend toward ever-increasing voltages in energy systems, choosing the right transformer for the job has become an engineering challenge. High voltages demand careful attention to insulation, clearance, and creepage. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Cathal Sheehan of Bourns about choosing magnetics for high-voltage applications.

More information about Bourns Magnetics for High Voltage Applications