Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The art of engineering

The advert ends with the line, "The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds."

There are a couple of ways to interpret the catch line and it really depends on how you view art and engineering (surprise, surprise). I would say the way that the advertising company wants you to interpret that statement is that BMW have highly engineered cars with wonderful aesthetics. My interpretation? Well, maybe less obvious and possibly more true to the artist's feelings.

Let us start by looking at the word "art". Here are two definitions from Dictionary.com,

art (n) :
1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. skill in conducting any human activity: a master at the art of conversation.

So we have two (of many) definitions, one focussing on aesthetics (the "typical" association with art) and another focussing on skill at doing something. I am going to diverge a little to tell you a story about my wife and the dentist - yes maybe you think that is strange, but bear with me for a bit...

My wife really dislikes the dentist (is that applause I hear in the back row?) - until she met a lady dentist in Pretoria. Now the first thing that my wife normally tells a dentist when she sits down in the chair is how much she does not like them and how she does not understand why anyone would like to become a dentist. Luckily this tends to break the ice and lead to a good relationship :). So when the topic of, "Why would anyone want to become a dentist?" came up with this particular dentist she responded by saying that for her it was a form of art. She really took pride in how she did her work so that it would be both aesthetically pleasing and functional. Obviously it requires a skillful dentist to do this well.

So who of you would have said that a dentist was an artist? (that is, other than a torture artist ;) )

Maybe the question that needs to be asked is how far apart art and engineering actually are. In general it seems that people put them at opposite sides of the spectrum with art being all about creativity and engineering all logical and scientific. I think that what Joe Average does not realise is the degree of creativity that engineering requires and that is most likely due to engineers lack of ability to explain what we do (see my previous post on this).

For me the art of engineering is so much more than just creativity - it is something that goes to the core of function, aesthetics, and problem solving. I believe that we as engineers need to create solutions that actually enhance people's lives. The point where all of this comes together is the point were we as engineers can start to be artists.

It is more than function and more than beauty - true engineering art should take your breath away and change the way you see the world. That is the kind of art that I want to create.

I've just realised that I can't think of something off the top of my head that embodies those principals. I'm going to have to go scratch around and find some examples of what I think encompasses the art of engineering (I see a "Top Ten" post coming on). Do you have anything that you think stands out as an amazingly engineered product? Let me know by posting a comment!

A final thought - take the time to be an artist at what you do. This will enhance the lives of the people around you, and most importantly your own life, and the ripple effect of that is huge.

PS. If you're looking for a great dentist in Pretoria (or Tshwane, or whatever you want to call it), try Dr. Cornel Cronje (drop me a line if you want her contact details).

PPS. I've added a "Current Reading" section to the links on the right so that you can check out what I'm (hopefully) enjoying at the moment. The link will take you through to the Exclusive Books website (I'm an affiliate) where you can buy books and have them delivered for free to your nearest Exclusive Books.

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