What science can teach designers

For too long, we have talked of the sciences and the arts as separate fields that demand different sides of our brains. But it wasn’t always this way — consider the Renaissance, when the arts seemed nearly inseparable from the sciences, with the work of Leonardo da Vinci arguably epitomizing this culture of integration. Today, the communication arts have never been more obviously interdisciplinary than ever before: Designers collaborate with writers, engineers, data analysts, business leaders, and more. While it may not be very useful for a designer to know how to extract compounds from a plant leaf, many skills taught in the sciences are extremely relevant and even critically valuable for designers today.

Mona Lisa, a daughter of science and art

Scientific research has always been iterative. A scientist observes, identifies a question or problem, formulates a hypothesis, and tests for an answer. Much of the time, something unexpected occurs, and the experiment is repeated — or it runs without glitches and is repeated to check for reliability. The tools may be different, but this workflow is not unlike that of a UX engineer or a graphic designer who views design not as decoration, but as visual problem-solving.

More critically, though, the soft skills that drive the sciences forward are essential to the development of a graphic designer. Maintaining an open mind. Developing an eye for detail, a keen perception for patterns, and a knack for detecting subtle relationships. Prioritizing a desire to understand what drives interactions. Practicing courageous curiosity for testing and analyzing one’s own work. Harboring vast amounts of patience and dedication. Communicating and collaborating effectively with others from diverse backgrounds. Tactfully challenging colleagues’ ideas without destroying relationships. Staying humble enough to start with a blank slate over and over again, and to acknowledge the helping hands along the way. And grit, grit, grit. The hardest of the soft skills.

Do we work — and live — for love or for money?

Of the many challenges to working in the sciences today, two are outstanding: funding and pressure to publish. Some scientists are faced with moral dilemmas when reporting their data because of their funding sources, while others must work on a study system only because more grants are available for it. And all the while, the scientific community is monitoring their publication output — for frequency and the impact rating of the publishing journals. Rejection letters full of criticism add pressure. The feedback can be as unsupportive as, “We want to see more replication of these results.” It can take grit of all types — physical, mental, and emotional — to confront these realities day after day.

Interestingly, money and output also two of the most glaring pressures that designers today face. The question of love versus money is similar. Countless designers design “to order,” inwardly disagreeing with the product but performing for the carrot of a paycheck. Innumerable designers find themselves considering lucrative opportunities to design for an organization or company that is at odds with their personal interests or values. And all the while, they feel the eyes of the design community on their portfolios, checking for new content and the shininess of their clients. Rejection notes also come with criticism, but unlike in the academic sciences, the reviews are not always by peers trained in the same profession. The feedback can be as vague as, “We can’t describe what we want, but it’s not this. Can you just give it some oomph?”

The grit to get up and go on under these conditions is really the same for scientists and designers, and it takes time to develop this skill. And grit is a skill. In her bestselling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Dr. Angela Duckworth outlines several ways to cultivate grit. She suggests practice, along with fostering interest, purpose, and a growth mindset.

Ambidextrous thinking is valuable as the sciences and arts merge.

What a scientific training offers to designers are skills immediately applicable to the challenges of working in visual storytelling and problem solving. This is not to say that a PhD in biochemistry would make a better designer than someone who went exclusively to art schools. One could argue that the soft skills just described would be formed by staying on a path in the arts, and this may be true, as most of the greatest designers today (and in history) don’t have science degrees.

But to early stage designers today, the scientific method is pressingly relevant to the development of design thinking that meets the upcoming demands of our globalized design community. Designers are now colleagues with nearly everyone; the sciences and the arts have never been so close and so mutually influential. New fields of study, such as the area of Transition Design conceived in 2012 at Carnegie Mellon University, recognize the importance of integrating the perspectives offered by the sciences with design in solving societal issues. It’s time to stop thinking of the arts and the sciences as vastly separate disciplines. Our work inevitably overlaps.

So it’s also important to see where they diverge. While designers may have the option to test their assumptions behind their work and opt out of another round of iterations before launch, the scientific method demands a certain level of objectiveness and replicability. And so, a training in science — no matter how brief or cursory — ultimately is a training in open-mindedness, humility, and grit. Perhaps da Vinci would have agreed.


This article has been reposted on LinkedIn.