Steve Jobs famously once said, “Design is how it works” and Apple subsequently changed the world with its exceptionally designed products. As such, this line is often quoted but what does it really mean? And was Steve right?

The most important thing about this phrase, and what Steve was saying, is that design is more than skin deep. It’s much more than how it looks. It’s more than just aesthetics or pretty lights or symmetry. Design is useful, practical, intricate, and important. Design is how it works. Perhaps the best thing Steve Job’s Apple declared to the world, more than any product, is that good design is extremely lucrative. The success of Apple has shown the value of human centered design.


This is great, but I want to dig deeper. What is design? Is design how the thing works internally, or how the user works with the thing? Both of these are very important, but these are two different things. Which was Steve talking about? And more importantly, which should designers be concerned about? What if design is both?

At work one time I made the comment, “Design is figuring out what to build, and engineering is figuring out how to build it.” My designer friend frowned, and said, “No, design is more than that, it is how it works.” I wasn’t sure if I agreed or not. I like the Steve Jobs quote, but if my friend is right and design is how it works, how to build it, then what does engineering do?

It’s certainly not just manufacturing a large quantity of things. Look at software, there is no manufacturing, yet it requires many engineers. Now if the engineers are making the software, what are the designers doing? They are working on something else. They are working on the experience, and the software enables that experience.

So if designers don’t do both things and the engineers figure out how to build things, was Steve and my designer friend wrong in saying design is how it works? No, but the wording is not precise enough. The phrase “how it works” can mean different things to different people. I believe design is how someone works with a thing and engineering is how a thing is built. Those together, are two essential parts to how a thing “works.” You need both engineering and design to fulfill the Steve Jobs quote.


Having worked with teams of designers and engineers, I have observed designers often don’t have a good understanding of the effort to make a software product work. They just aren’t aware of edge cases, refinements, patches, work arounds, algorithms, code architecture, server scaling, and everything else that goes into a modern software project. They may know the words, they may have coded small prototypes in the past, they may understand the general idea, but they don’t know all the details.

Likewise, engineers usually don’t understand color theory, typography, market research, user personas, wire framing, prototyping, and everything else that designers do to make compelling products. They are unaware of the detailed and thorough process to bring the design to life in the first place.

The good news is one is not more important than the other. We need both designers and engineers. It lets people and teams specialize. It lets us focus on two different but equally important problems. What we should build, and how we should build it.

Designers are free to think about the user facing experience precisely because they are not concerned with all of the technical details the engineers are doing. While the designer must be technical enough to know what’s possible, it’s actually crucial that he doesn’t have to concern himself with the ”how” which lets him free his mind to think creatively. This also lets his designs push what’s possible and span across different platforms and devices.

The engineer, meanwhile, cannot spend time considering every possible layout, he needs to focus his energy to get the given design spec to function as intended. He is thinking about scalability, testability, code clarity, security validation, and many other things necessary to support the product that users interact with. The user is nowhere in sight. Not because the engineer doesn’t care about the user, but because he needs the code to work. That’s how he cares for the user, code that works.

All of these things go on invisibly to the designer. In fact, just like good design, good engineering is mostly invisible. What is tragic is often this invisibility causes both good design and good engineering to go unnoticed even across disciplines. This can cause friction between teams, as misunderstandings lead to accusations. The designer may assume the engineer is lazy for refusing his or her idea and the engineer may assume all a designer does is pick pretty colors.

This is precisely why all of this matters. We need more understanding of what each other does, to better communicate and prevent these stereotypes. There are many of you who already know this. You work well in multi-disciplinary teams, and may have been bristling at my gross generalizations. We need more of you. While we still need specialists, we need those who can work across disciplines. We also need generalists, we need them to fortify those communication bridges.

Tragically, a key component missing in teams can be empathy for one another. Much talk in design is focused on empathy for the user, what about teammates in other departments? Designers should lead the way and share this thinking with their engineering counterparts. Engineers should not think they know everything but rather receive valuable insights from the designers. There needs to be a healthy tension between the two, where they challenge each other to do better work, and this happens through better understanding.

It’s no surprise Steve didn’t elaborate on the role engineers play in the creative process, he was not an engineer. That is not a criticism as much as it is an observation: Steve may have been an entrepreneur but he thought like a designer. According to the biography “Becoming Steve Jobs” he found a kindred spirit and worked much better with Jony Ive than even with Wozniak, his original co-founder. What exactly Steve meant by what he said, “design is how it works” we may never know, but we know he was right to value engineering, design, and communication between them, to deliver outstanding products. We should try to do the same, and let each team thrive in their specialty while working together to craft insanely great things.