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Design is how it works. Engineering is how it’s built.

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 by those claiming to know a thing or two about design and its importance in product development. 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 much 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 has shared with the world, more than any product, is showing without doubt that good design is extremely valuable.


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? The inner workings of how a thing functions, or how a person interacts with a thing to make it function? Once more, is design concerned with how it works (how the user works it), or how its built, (how it works on the inside)? What if design is both?

I don’t believe its both. And I will tell you why. One time at work I said, “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, including 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 the biggest need companies have are software engineers, not software designers. In fact, there is no such thing as a software designer. The closest design term a software engineer gets is “software architect” when that engineer is very experienced. And designers when working in software, the closest technical title they get might be “UX Engineer,” which usually means a UX Designer who can code prototypes.

So if engineers figure out how to build things, was Steve and my designer friend wrong saying design is how it works? I don’t think so either, but the wording is not precise enough. The phrase “how it works” can mean different things to different people as we have already discussed. That’s why I looked deeper at the phrase in the previous paragraph, to better understand. Also, to answer my question, this is why I don’t believe design is both how it works and how it is built. 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.


Saying design is only how a person works the thing and not how its built may make designers unhappy. They want to believe they know and decide how a thing is built, but they don’t. Having worked with teams of designers and engineers, I can tell you designers often don’t have the fuzziest idea of the effort the engineers put to make a thing work. They don’t have a clue about edge cases, bugs, more bugs, 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 hardly ever understand color theory, typography, market research, user personas, wire framing, prototyping, and everything else that designers do to make compelling products.

This is actually a good thing; we need both designers and engineers. It lets people and teams specialize. It let’s people 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 things precisely because they are not concerned with all of the hard work 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 adapt and span across different platforms and devices. The engineer, meanwhile, cannot be bothered considering hundreds of different layout possibilities to make the best user interaction, he has to focus his energy on how to get the design spec to actually function as intended.

This distinction explains why when a designer is talking about architecture he is talking about the entire user experience of a product. Everything from how its made to how it will be recycled, or in the case of software, how it will be accessed, used, and at some point dismissed, must be considered. The software engineer’s architecture meanwhile, is all about the code. 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. He is thinking about scalability, testability, code clarity, security validation, and many other things necessary to support the product that users interact with.

All of these things go on invisibly to the designer. In fact, just like good design, good engineering is mostly invisible, and tragically, under appreciated. Just like users only notice “bad design” such as a confusing layout, designers only notice “bad engineering” when they cannot execute their ideas. They want all these features to work, and engineering just says it won’t work. The hardware is too slow, the SDK doesn’t support that approach, the data isn’t there. Yet they fail to see or value when the engineering is there, supporting them to design the product, and claim as designers they know how the product works. Designers should stop doing this, just like engineers should stop thinking designers only job is to pick out the color palette on a project. Engineers and designers must communicate often to create successful new things.

This is precisely why all of this matters and why I wrote this piece. Engineers and designers need to communicate with each other more often and with more understanding. Whether this means designers learning how to code or engineers sitting in on user feedback and persona creation can be up to the individual team, but better understanding is crucial. Ironically, a key component missing in teams is empathy for one another. Much talk in design is focused on empathy for the user, but it is often lost internally. Designers must lead the way and share this thinking with their engineering counterparts. Engineers must 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 worked much better with Jony, a designer, than even with Wozniak, an engineer, his 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.

Design is how it works. Engineering is how it’s built.
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