Engineers are from Mars, Designers are from Venus

Any product is the outcome of both the work of engineers and industrial designers. There aren’t many products that can be designed solely by engineers without designers, and vice versa. In a product design project, the engineers and the designers work shoulder to shoulder, and they both responsible for designing the product, but do they see the design work eye to eye?

Engineers are from Mars and designers are from Venus; they do not share the same background, and they do not speak the same language. They even think differently. They see products in very different ways and tend to misunderstand each other’s perspectives. Engineers see designers as unrealistic visionaries and designers see engineers as shortsighted technocrats. I made these two lists to help engineers and designers to close the gaps between the two disciplines and to cooperate better as a design team in a product design project.

What engineers should know about design

  1. A product is not measured solely by its performance. Today, a product’s soft-attributes act (in many cases) as the product’s USP (Unique Selling Point).
  2. Users evaluate design quality much (much) faster than engineering quality. When the design is not good enough, even the best engineering will not even reach the user’s engineering evaluation stage.
  3. Design is holistic. There is no such thing as a partially good design.
  4. Design is not a science. There is no way to “calculate” or objectively test the quality of a design or user experience. Sometimes there is no other reference aside from following the designer’s proficiency.
  5. Engineering provides the infrastructure that enables designers to design more attractive products with better user experiences. In other words, (in most cases) engineers should serve the designers.
  6. Fulfilling a designer’s dreams means harder (and more) engineering work, but it’s also a great opportunity for innovation and enhanced engineering.

What designers should know about engineering

  1. Engineering and product performance are the product’s basics. There is no such thing as good design with bad engineering. You cannot create great user experience with moderate product performance.
  2. Even the best engineer cannot bend the laws of physics. Engineering is based on physics’ laws and mathematical formulas, which cannot be modified just because we try harder.
  3. There is no such thing as easy and quick product improvement. Every little engineering upgrade requires professional work and takes time. Good engineering does not take shortcuts.
  4. Engineering quality is tested under extreme conditions and over time. The product’s performance is not always as it seems (here and now).
  5. In many aspects, engineering is binary – it’s either working or not working, has passed the tests or failed the tests, and there is no in-between.
  6. Engineering and product performance have their limitations. These limitations normally narrow the design possibilities, but they also can become a great design opportunity.


The Tower of Babel project failed when workers couldn’t speak the same language any longer. Fluent communication is a necessary condition in any team. Engineers and designers must learn each other’s languages and rules. Engineers should have some basic understanding of design, and designers should have basic engineering capabilities. Furthermore, they both should respect, encourage, and challenge the other for the benefit of the product design process and the product design.


On my next post, I’ll discuss the position of marketing managers in a product design project – what is their contribution to the product design strategy, how to cooperate with them, and the risk of a wrong R&D – Marketing collaboration. Get notification for this coming post.

  • MichaelSmythe

    In his 1992 memoir about his time at Fisher & Paykel – “Stuff it up the First Time” – design
    engineer Frank Shacklock wrote:

    ‘Industrial designers are employed to argue with engineers, or so anyone overhearing a design discussion would think …’

    In the epilogue of my 2011 book ‘New Zealand by Design’ I wrote:

    ‘New Zealand does not have any more brilliant designers per square metre that any other country, … Our secret weapon is our capacity for interdisciplinary teamwork. … our talent for teamwork requires an evolution of the Kiwi culture — we need to learn how to have really good arguments. We need to enjoy exploring all relevant perspectives as a means of creating conciliated progress rather than a one-sided victory or, heaven forbid, settling for compromise. Design process and design thinking offer the inclusive and integrative platform required to make interdisciplinary teamwork succeed.’

    • Yariv Sade

      I love your quote and your writing. The idea that designers should argue with engineers teaches us that engineering is older than design and that engineering is the infrastructure for design. You are so right about this approach (or culture) of teamwork professional conciliated arguments. That’s the best practice to get down to the details of all aspects and to achieve better results. Not only for product development process but for anything. Thanks for sharing.

      • MichaelSmythe

        Engineering older than design? Are you trying to start a ‘really good argument?’
        If we define design as the imaginative process of devising form to meet needs and wants then it dates back to the year dot. The people who painted the cave walls to create an environment in which the hunter was empowered by visualising and preparing for a future encounter with a beast were the first to be exempted from menial tasks – so design is the oldest profession! See more at:

        • Yariv Sade

          The earliest man-made tools we found are 2.5M years old. These tools were made to extend our ancestor’s physical abilities – to improve their abilities for fighting, hunting, eating, carrying and so forth. The tool-maker of these tools considered only the function and performance of the tools. He didn’t pay any attention to the ‘product’s soft attributes’ – to the emotional aspects of the tools. (see The earliest artwork (wall painting) we found is about 50K years old. It’s the first evidence of a man-made work that is not function or performance oriented.
          As I see it, this is the (huge) time difference between product engineering that considers only hard-attributes, and product design that considers both the product’s hard and soft attributes. And yes, engineering is, after all, a kind of design. (

          However, in my article I didn’t go that far, when I said that engineering is older than design, I meant for the post industrial revolution era.

          • MichaelSmythe

            Fair enough – though there may have been an emotional response to
            discovering what the tool could do! Can we generalise about primitive

            Animist cultures imbued some organic and inanimate
            objects with soul and they became living things. For some the mana or
            prestige of a tool grew as it was used for important activities or by
            significant people. Then there were amulets, tokens and apparel with
            ‘soft attributes’ of spiritual properties – some the earliest would have
            been made of materials that did not last long enough to be discovered
            by archaeologists.

  • Eric Ward

    Yes, the inclination trends towards ‘opposing’ languages when the whole is about ‘complimentary intermixing of disciplines. Yet, there is expectation that designers need to be much more technically astute as an engineer, much more so than engineers need to understand the organic and intuitive aspects of design. One is quantifiable like digital’s 0′s and 1′s…the other perceived as ‘touchy-feely’ and speaks of qualities that defy quantitative analysis… More times, than not, evidence the lopsided VC(Venture Capital) chase of tech over design, thus far, the quantifiable is heavily valued over the intuitive… Business likes its spreadsheets and schematics…even though those are changing over towards intuitive graphics and the abstract diagrams of late in some cases…hmmmm?

    • Yariv Sade

      I believe we are moving from an engineering and performance oriented word to a design and user-experience oriented world. 15 Years ago, design considered as nice-to-have, decoration, or romantics. Today, it’s very different, more and more people understand that design can contribute to the business. A British research from 2004 showed that the average ROI of industrial-design is 1:19. This is much, much better than engineering. Yet, engineering is (and always will be) the product’s basics. Engineering is also much easier to measure and test, therefore easier to comprehend. As I see it, the “power” of design is increasing.

  • Onkar Kulkarni

    There should be a third planet to represent business side of a product. Not everything that is well designed and engineered is saleable.

    • Yariv Sade

      That’s right Onkar, this is my coming post subject – marketing as part of the product development process. You are most welcome to follow –

  • Brian Durance

    Make it sexy, brains and body. Consumers are smarter than ever and they want it all. Let’s give into them.

  • Joe Barkai

    The “us vs. them” argument is fundamentally flawed. In today’s complex product design, engineering, manufacturing, selling and servicing, there are many parties with goals and constraints that can be at odds with each other. For instance, cost vs. quality, manufacturability vs. compliance, modularity vs. serviceability, and many others.

    Successful products are a result of multidisciplinary optimization, which is far more complex than establishing a “common language”. Today’s process tends to optimize for “local” constraints, that is, designers optimize to meet their goals and constraint, but by doing so may not allow engineers to meet their objectives, and vice versa. In a process that is fundamentally linear forward feeding, this will result in an overall sub-optimization of design, supply chain, manufacturing and service.

    Mature product companies don’t use hierarchical structures that dictate who serves whom. They focus on frontloading decisions of all disciplines and harmonize the conflicting drivers throughout the product lifecycle.

    • Yariv Sade

      Joe, thanks for sharing. You are well describing the modern way of working in general and for product development, in particular. Unfortunately, most businesses are still working in the ‘old way’ – where there are differences between engineering and design. These businesses wouldn’t change their culture and methods over night. I hope my article will help and guide them moving towards today’s methods.

  • Shawn Wilton

    Design is not a science? I have to disagree. Usability engineers calculate and objectively test the quality of a design or user experience all the time. In this case the designer is the customer of the engineer. If you are relying on a designers proficiency / ego you maybe making a mistake.

  • Jon Seisa

    In some of my past experiences in toy product design I encountered extremely rigid and visionless engineers; they tend to dwell in the known-now of pragmatism, rather than in what can be, the unknown possibilities for innovation. And they seem to sabotage the designer at critical meetings when their abilities are challenged to think beyond the known-now.

    Once, I was presenting to Senior Management at Mattel Toys a collection of girls’ activity toys under the Barbie Brand; one design was a flat fold-up rubber hopscotch matte, which folded up into a carry-case mode with a handle. I said to the crowd in the presentation gallery, “…and under each matte will be embossed icon graphics of lovely flowers, hearts and butterflies…” Suddenly to my surprise and without warning, the engineer sprang up on his feet and exclaimed, “That will be impossible! The rubber will be extruded…” You could hear a pin drop as an heavy air of castigation flooded the chamber with a thick suffocating uneasiness that could have been sliced with a butcher knife.

    And then I calmly continued, “So as a result, the lovely flowers, hearts and butterflies will be——– extremely linear.” The gallery crowd roared into uncontrollable laughter. When you’re given lemons you make lemonade.

    But my point is, rather than use this as an opportunity to actually innovate and try to actually produced the desired result, the engineer sabotaged the design possibilities with a “business as usual” mentality.

    • Yariv Sade

      Jon, thanks for sharing your inspiring story.