Sunday, February 17, 2013

Engineering Visual Thinking

Engineering needs to go back to the drawing board in the area of visual thinking.  The computer and CAD has disconnected engineering from the collaboration of perceiving and thinking.  Visual thinking is a key skill required for engineers.  It is the cognitive foundation of our ability to see the world, ask the right questions, and develop appropriate solutions.  By "cognitive" I mean all the mental operations involved in receiving, storing, and processing  of information - sensory perception, memory, thinking, learning.

Historically, engineering educators and practitioners have understood that visual perception is visual thinking.  Lately, engineering has started to venture down a path that splits seeing from thinking.  This is unfortunate because engineering and great design is a function of passive reception and active perceiving.  Engineering is a profession dominated by the visual experience.  It is a profession that needs feet on the ground.  Too often engineering has become an abstraction - - too much code and too much computer.  Abstaction takes engineering down a path of withdrawal from direct experience.  Abstraction without vision and critical thinking is empty engineering and design.  This should be a grave warning to engineering.

On your next project or proposal, learn about and work with several visual tools.  These include storytelling (idea generation, exploring possible options, and describing ideas), storyboarding (defining customer needs, defining basic product functions, and selling product or projects to future stakeholders) and abstract prototyping (defining detailed product functions, communicating product to future stakeholders, and testing product with future users).  The idea is to take real world user experiences and turn them into a visual experience.

Mapping, storytelling, storyboading - - all of these tools and techniques are the engineering dialogue between the mind and the visual.  Understanding  the user experience is Rule #1 in engineering.  The visual, from a photograph to a sketch, helps engineers get the design right, and the right design.  The role of design is to find the right design.  The role of usability is to get the design right.  Understanding the connection between the visual and the mind helps explore designs to find the right design.

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