Design: More Than Just Engineering

Alexandra Adkins-Daniel

Design is not usually the first thing most people think of when asked about engineering. Most people might say electrical or computer engineering, or perhaps mechanical. These fields undoubtedly hog the limelight, but Design is as important an aspect of engineering as any other. Design enables what has been engineered to interact with the world; it often even drives the product itself. If there is a need or problem that can be solved by an engineer, then that engineer is also a designer, determining the best way to fulfill that need or solve that problem. It's something we have a strong focus on here at Olin; enough so that many of our grads decide to follow it as a career path. I recently chatted with two of our alumniRyan Hubbard ('08) and Nikki Lee ('10) who have chosen to follow such a path.

Ryan, has been extremely busy within the design field the last several years. Most recently, he was at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D), which was, as Ryan put, "a school to teach user-centered design applied to social problems." The school is new, only a year old, but what Ryan did there holds great value. The project he worked on, Nudge, is a communication project that will ultimately allow ease of communication between a care provider and a patient. The care provider sends out batches of automated text messages to their patients, asking about their state of wellbeing and other relevant questions. Nudge organizes and feeds the responses back to the care provider, allowing them to track how their patients are feeling on a daily basis.

Ryan has since gone on to work for the Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). He is currently on a team working to improve the quality of life of people in late adulthood. When I discussed this project with Ryan he mentioned that it was a form of "project based problem-solving engineering." This "problem-solving" engineering involved interviewing patients to best understand their needs, then designing and implementing a solution. The work done here closely resembles a class taught at Olin, User-Oriented Collaborative Design, where the students venture out into the field, interview and really get to know the user group, investigate an issue, and attempt to design a solution. Ryan is currently speaking to people in the context of their lives and work, and a fascinating report on his progress can be found here.


Pam and Eddie, two of Ryan's clients.

Nikki, class of 2010, does "human centered design and engineering," in her own words. She is currently taking design classes at the University of Washington, as well as doing design research. Besides this, Nikki recently participated in a sponsor project where she and her team have essentially been hired to design and engineer an online magazine for expectant mothers. However, there is more to design than just engineering. Nikki is currently taking an interaction design class, which she calls "very speculative," something Nikki finds interesting. It is an interdisciplinary class, drawing students from many fields of expertise: art, software and programming, and several more. Nikki is also interviewing mothers and children about mementos parents keep as the children grow; she will use this information to develop software to help parents track developmental milestones for their children, something that should be watched carefully during children's formative years. Nikki's website and portfolio can be found here.


Posted in: Alumni Speak, Graduate School, Learning about Design