Am I the Pragmatist or the Optimist?
In this one, we’re going to learn the difference between being a pragmatist and an optimist in the context of design engineering.
In order to understand why you could consider there to be two “types” of Design Engineer (DE), it’s important to first understand why this role has been inherently hard to hire for and why it’s rare still now in most organisations.
One of the biggest things I’ve both seen and heard regarding Design Engineers is “where do they sit within a typical product organisation structure?” and “but who will be the hiring manager and who is responsible for them?”. This is totally understandable. The title describes this role well, in that it’s a 50/50 split of two different areas of a product organisation. So if the role is split, then who is responsible for them?
The truth is, it actually doesn’t matter. It’s organisational chess. The very fact that a DE can be more predominantly Designer or Engineer, means that they are—or should be—naturally comfortable in both organisational structures. Obviously one of the biggest gaps and hardest parts for a manager to handle here will be progression pathways, but we’ll save that for future discussion.
Pragmatist vs. Optimist
In Design Engineering, there’s often two kinds of roles that one can play depending on which team they belong to. Note that this doesn’t account for when DEs sit inside Design Systems teams as these are a different beast altogether and the very nature of that type of team is inherently more cross-functional.
When within a Design function, DEs typically take on more of a more Pragmatist role. They focus on realistic feasibility of an idea given technological constraints and tooling. When they sit within an Engineering function, DEs are usually more of an Optimist. They’ll focus on trying to push the approach Engineers take forwards, and maybe explore territory less well trodden.
Neither is more or less important than the other, they’ll often converge somewhere in the middle anyway, but its important to understand how this role can differ depending on the greater functional team as it might influence your decisions if you’re considering hiring this role into your organisation.
Design-first Design Engineers: The Pragmatist
Design Engineers are often considered the pragmatists of a design team, responsible for ensuring that the design is feasible, practical, and can be built within budget and time constraints. They focus on the customer-focused aspects of the design, such as experience, interface, and interaction, and are responsible for testing and validating the design to ensure that it meets the required specifications.
Taking a pragmatic approach in product design is crucial to ensure that complex and heavily creative designs can be transformed into a realistic and shippable product. This is where the role of a design engineer comes in. Design engineers work closely with other members of the product team, such as product managers, developers, and UX designers, to ensure that the design is aligned with the product vision and meets the needs of all stakeholders.
Because DEs that are part of the design function will typically be tasked with shipping more explorative ideas, it’d be easy to assume they’ll just take their own path to delivering an idea. But in reality, they’ll usually work within a playground of prototypes built on top of the real-world tech stack. By being a pragmatist, they’ll still push the boundaries of what’s possible within the organisational and functional constraints, but they’ll typically keep a pragmatic viewpoint on what gets shipped by constraining themselves to the existing tech stack.
Engineer-first Design Engineers: The Optimist
When placed within an Engineering team, Design Engineers often bring a unique perspective to the design process. They are responsible for creating innovative solutions to design challenges and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. They can be considered the optimists of a design project, as they are always looking for ways to improve the design and make it more functional and aesthetically pleasing within the bounds of the technical delivery.
In order to achieve this, design engineers must have a strong understanding of the latest technologies and trends in their field. They must be able to identify emerging technologies that can be used to enhance the design process and improve the final product.
Additionally, they must be able to communicate effectively with other members of the design team, including designers, product managers, and the other developers within the function, to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals. By staying up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies, design engineers can help ensure that their designs are innovative, effective, and successful. They also ensure that they push the boundaries of what the Engineering might normally be willing to ship, taking an optimistic and design-led approach.
The messy middle
However, it's important to note that sometimes you can be somewhere in the middle, and that's okay. Being a design engineer on the design team doesn't mean that you can't be creative, and being part of the engineering team doesn't mean that you can't be practical. In fact, the best teams are those that have a healthy mix of pragmatists and optimists.
Pragmatic design and optimistic engineering can lead to a happy middle ground that works for everyone. By combining the technical expertise of design engineers with the creative vision of design teams, and technical execution of engineering teams, a design project can achieve both functionality and aesthetics. This approach can also lead to more efficient, quickly-delivered and cost-effective design projects, as the technical feasibility of the design is considered from the outset.
The concept of Default it or Design it, as mentioned in my friend Pat Morgan's post, is also relevant here. Defaulting it means taking the pragmatic approach and using existing solutions without considering alternatives. Designing it means taking a more creative and innovative approach to problem-solving. By defaulting it, you may miss out on opportunities to push the boundaries of the design, while by designing it, you may end up with a design that is not as feasible or practical in the given constraints. The key is to find a balance between defaulting it and designing it, and this is where the combination of pragmatism and optimism can be beneficial.
In conclusion, being a pragmatist or an optimist in design engineering is not a binary choice. It's possible to be both, and in fact, it's often desirable to have a mix of both on a design team. By combining technical expertise with creative vision, a design project can achieve both functionality and aesthetics, leading to a successful outcomes.
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