Engineering vs Art

Value diagram

Product design is about applying engineering and arts in creating or improving function, usability, ergonomics or aesthetics, to make products more marketable or their production more efficient. For purpose of illustrating the engineering and art domains’ contributions to the customer perceived value, we are for a moment taking liberty in adapting Kano’s work into a value diagram containing a Maslow self-actualisation need. It serves to illustrate relativity between engineering and arts.

Origin of value diagram

There are similarities between Maslow’s needs pyramid[1] and Kano’s needs model[2]. Both define a hierarchy where basic needs have lower value, in a product economic sense, but are essential must-be prerequisites for everything else. Maslow says that self-actualisation, realising one’s own growth potential and become the most we can, is a climbing moving target. Similarly, Kano identifies that excitement needs fades over time. Where they differ, in my opinion, is that Kano’s temporary excitement needs have a somewhat materialistic feel, whereas Maslow’s equivalent self-actualisation is of a higher, nearer spiritualistic order and is actually something that stays with us forever. I have therefore labelled it as permanent.

The experience that we take away from a relatively ordinary travel product, when buying a holiday visit to a foreign land, for example, contains Maslow’s self-actualisation attributes. Some of these attributes have a temporary fulfilment effect. The initial high excitement from the first time we experience new foods or smells will diminish the longer we stay in the foreign place; and over time they would become normal to us. However, we will learn things on our travel, about food, language and culture, which widen our horizon and grow us as beings. The holiday will come to an end, but the resulting change in our person that we have gained from it will stay with us and be valued for life. The same can be said for a university degree course, for example. Not always exciting, but high in persistent value. This mechanism is not well represented by the Kano model – although it should be noted that the translation of Kano’s work from Japanese into English will likely have lost something.

If we for a moment try taking a materialistic view on the art world, where $50 worth of materials plus 50 hours of work can sometimes sell for $100,000+, even though the product has no utility or necessity function, then we realise that we should not neglect any opportunity to design excitement and ‘being needs’ fulfilment into our products – where it is possible, within our skills and where the customer can afford it.

People are paying good money for products such as university courses and skydiving. These are products that improve esteem, but also move us towards self-actualisation.

Art is defined as “a deliberate arrangement that excites or influences the senses, intellect or emotions”. Engineering is defined as “a discipline for acquiring and applying science”, where science is “systematic knowledge gained through study”. Pure science is about deducing new scientific knowledge. Applied science is about adopting pre-existing scientific knowledge for solving practical problems. Although good engineering can be beautiful to the intellect – i.e. an art – it is in the vast majority of products concerned with the nuts and bolts hidden from view. Engineering based on pure science has greater potential for value creation than applied science has; but it still remains value-limited compared to the arts.

In the top diagram, I have draw an imaginary boundary line below which the needs fulfilment is mostly about finding engineering solutions to basic and performance needs. Above the line, activities are mostly about finding art solutions for creating temporary excitement and permanent self-actualisation values. In the main, good engineering is essential to assuring the foundation for product value – i.e. to avoid devaluation by insufficiency or failure. However, it is the art contents that create the higher levels of product value. Products that grow or widen the horizons of the self-actualising customer are of the highest long-term value.

A decade ago, I worked on a technology research project within an Intensive Care Unit in a newly build UK university hospital. Having previously managed a company manufacturing life-support ventilators, I had a good understanding of product costs and sales margins. Within a year of ending this project, I happened to do some work with a specialist ironmonger, manufacturing bespoke door handles, locks and fittings. They happened to have supplied the architectural ironmongery to the very same hospital. It surprised me to learn that the ironmonger had managed to obtain a margin (profit) that was 4 times higher than the intensive care equipment manufacturer. The 2 products are equally niche and the hospital made a significant – not too dissimilar – investment in both types.

My initial thought was that if I was to be admitted to this hospital with, say, a heart attack, then I would value the intensive care equipment far more than the style of door handles. How could the hospital architects possible justify this high-end door handle specification and premium price purchase?  On second thought, I recognise that for every 1 person being rolled into the hospital with a heart attack, there will be more than 1,000 people forming their perception of the hospital quality from interfacing with its door handles. I can see why the architect would have said: “I must have them, at whatever the price”.

Thinking further about the 2 product groups, I would judge the particular door handle design to consist of 30% engineering and 70% art contents. The advanced life-support equipment on the other hand consists of 90% engineering and just 10% art contents. The developers’ knowledge domains in the two products clearly impact on users in different ways. Evidently, even when making adjustment for the product total life-cycle revenue, the door handle manufacturer in this case, supplying a simpler product with a proportionally greater art contents, has obtain the bigger reward.

What I have explained here is unsurprising to industrial designers, but I find that even the best design engineers will occasionally need reminding. Don’t forget that your design should also appeal to the senses, intellect or emotions and help grow the horizons of self-actualising customers.


[1] Maslow, A. H. (1968). “Toward a Psychology of Being”. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
[2] Kano, N., Nobuhiku, S., Fumio, T., Shin-ichi, T., “Attractive quality and must-be quality”. Hinshitsu (Journal), Vol.14, No.2: 39–48, April 1984