Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.




The Last Word by David E. Goldberg (PRISM, April 2008, page 68) struck a vibrant chord with me. I have long advocated that design be a substantial part of all years in any engineering curriculum. Yet this contribution needs some clarification.

We must distinguish between “design” as a noun, describing the results of what has been done in the past, and in what ways it operates, and “design” as a verb, the actions and processes of designing. Both aspects are important for design engineering. Students need exposure to typical existing technical systems. They also need practice in performing design processes, from simple, intuitive and routine to more complex and innovative. They need to understand the societal and industrial context of design engineering, including the human, tools and equipment, environment, information and management influences. Both aspects, technical systems and the engineering design processes, also need their theories.

For existing technical systems, the engineering sciences with their analytical tools are essential – they provide the necessary analytical basis of theory for individual phenomena. But more important, the phenomena need to be understood by “feel” and in their interactions – the basis for qualitative thinking (QualT).

For design processes, we must also distinguish the “artistic” forms of designing from “design engineering.” Artistic forms can readily use studio techniques – the emphasis is mainly on human interactions, including appearance and aesthetic impressions, ergonomic displays and controls, and overall functionality. A studio experience may be of some use for engineering students; it may be necessary, but it is by no means sufficient.

Design engineering requires a more formal procedure of modeling of technical systems and their constructional parts, and qualitative understanding of physical processes and objects that operate to provide the functionality. Designing, especially in engineering, needs a wide-ranging search for plausible solutions, using qualitative and intuitive thinking together with a systematic and methodical approach, and subsequent analysis to select the most promising of these for further processing. Design engineering also needs a formal way of transmitting the information about what needs to be made. This was the traditional role of engineering drawings, now partially replaced by computer-transmitted models. See the article “Beyond the Blueprint” (PRISM, April 2008, pages 38-41).

Compared to artistic designing, design engineering has far more restrictions, due to the need for the technical system to perform its functions in a safe, economical, ethical, culturally acceptable way.

Design engineering also has far more opportunities. Technical systems can be modeled and investigated in several more abstract fashions, including the structures of its operational process, its technologies, its internal and cross-boundary functions, its organs and its constructional parts (at several levels of configuration and parameterization). Alternative solutions at each of these abstraction levels can be proposed, developed and selected in a more rational set of procedures. Such procedures, and their underlying theories, have been under development since the mid-1960s in Europe. They have been found useful for innovative and complex design engineering projects. These theories and procedures should be learned at the latest by junior and senior students, before they are placed in positions where they need to use them on a serious problem.

Perhaps we can now start to teach qualitative thinking (QualT) skills with a theoretical foundation and justification, and bring our engineering students out of the Cold War age into creative action.

W. Ernst Eder
Professor Emeritus
Royal Military College of Canada

Care to Comment on a Prism article? Write to

Submissions may be edited for brevity and clarity.




© Copyright 2008
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500