Design — Architect — Engineer

I’m talking about the verbs, not the nouns. To design. To architect. To engineer. These words are often conflated — a common source of despair for those of us in the related fields, misunderstood and misidentified.

This issue has been tackled by many people far more seasoned and insightful than me. But if I may be so bold as to offer up my distinction…

Design, v.

to plan the use of

Architect, v.

to plan the structure of

Engineer, v.

to plan the construction of

Experience designers plan the use of a system or service. Fashion designers plan the use of clothes and accessories. Interior designers plan the use of living or working space. Industrial designers plan the use of three-dimensional products.

Architects plan the structure of buildings. Information architects plan the structure of content. Landscape architects plan the structure of natural environments. Enterprise architects plan the structure of an organization.

Civil engineers plan the construction of public works. Environmental engineers plan the construction of sustainable processes and public systems. Electrical engineers plan the construction of electrically powered systems. Software engineers plan the construction of computer programs.

In order to go from ideation to creation, all three activities must occur concurrently. It may be that in some organizations one person is responsible for multiple roles — for instance, an interaction designer on a website project who both defines the structure of pages in the site as well as each page’s layout and functionality. The former is architecture, the latter is design.

What makes everything all the more confusing is when the finished product, system or environment is called “the design.” A beautiful dress, a bottle opener, the case of the MacBook Air, the iPhone, the NYC subway. When things work well, are pleasurable to experience and improve quality of life, they are praised for their high design. But we often neglect to recognize the necessary insight and craft of the architecture and engineering that makes it all a reality.

When the argument comes back around to “interaction design” versus “user experience” versus “information architecture” versus “usability engineering,” as it is wont to do in our industry, let’s remember that they are all just facets of the total work necessary to achieve our common goals: making life just a little bit easier, a little bit more productive, and a lot more fun.

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