Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Engineering Artistry

The world of the engineer consists of that which is relatively measurable and that which is relatively un-measurable. One part requires a quantitative approach that entails making measurement using well-defined tools. At the other end of the spectrum, our sensory system is the primary source through which the qualitative environment is experienced. Qualitative relationships result in qualities like coherence, harmony and expressivity - - none of which the engineer can measure. This world of experiencing qualitative relationships and making judgments; recognition that form and context are usually inextricable; and understanding that not everything knowable can be articulated in propositional form - - is the intersecting world of engineering and the Arts.

Engineering and art both have paths where paying attention to qualities is a mode of thought that can be applied to all things made. From how a story is composed in the context of the language arts, to the degree of wetness of the paper when painting with watercolors, to the complexity of designing a bridge - - all three forms of making something profit from attention to the way the elements are configured.

Consider the case of watercolor painting. From paper, brush, and paint - - the variables are so numerous and complex. There are no formulas to employ that will guarantee a rightness of fit - - success is a function of immersed engagement. As with painting, the trained engineer becomes increasingly competent with his or her ability to deal effectively with multiple demands simultaneously. In learning to engage in painting or engineering - - perception is refined, imagination stimulated, judgment is fostered and technical skills are developed. For those who work hard enough, artistry can be achieved.

In many respects, engineering is closer to the Arts than say mathematics. Both the Arts and engineering must deal with the fact that very often there is more than one answer to a question and more than one solution to a problem. This is far different from the world of mathematics with a focus on converging on a single, quantifiably-correct answer. Another lesson from the Arts is understanding that the way something is formed matters. The Apple iPod is a great example of where getting it right means creating a form whose content is right for some purpose. During your next presentation, remember the lesson that actors and performance artists have learned. What is said cannot be neatly separated from how something is said - - form and content interpenetrate.

In engineering, like art, it is important to understand that seeing is an achievement, not merely a task. Both endeavors need individuals willing to embrace the idea that to really see is to accomplish something. Seeing in the context of engineering is not separate from cognition - - it is part of what one becomes cognizant of, and the goal is to develop your sensibilities in a given domain to enable you to see what might otherwise go unseen. That is the why the great engineering connoisseurs of our times can walk into a building, or look inside a computer, or fly an airplane and see things that many of us would miss.

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