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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics


Making Art with Engineering Benjamin Miller

Adafuit Gemma, a tiny microcontroller for wearable projects. (https://learn.adafruit.com/introducing-gemma/introduction)

This past semester I took an embedded systems course where my lab partner and I had to design a video game system, from the game software to the controls. When we were finished, the breadboard we were working with was an absolute mess. I was perfectly happy with it simply working. My partner, however, insisted that we clean it up and 3D print an enclosure for it, like a true video game. We compromised by zip-tying the wires together, giving our system some semblance of order. His attention to detail, as pedantic as I thought it was at the time, made me feel like what we had engineered was worth something more than a jumble of wires with a processor and a screen. To engineers and consumers alike, the aesthetics of an electronic design can add sense of worth that is very lacking in a bare printed circuit board. This lesson has been proven before, with far-reaching impact.

 

The original Apple Macintosh was originally meant to be a simpler version of the Apple II, but Steve Jobs was set on making a work of art. He envisioned a machine that felt friendly to the user, from the contours of the casing and the shape of the windows to the way that the chips on the motherboard lined up. He drove his team crazy with details that they felt were insignificant. But when the Macintosh was finally ready for release, Jobs established a material meaning to all of that meticulous work done by his long-suffering team; he had their signatures engraved on the inside of the computer’s case, stating “real artists sign their work.” These signatures stayed in the Mac’s case for half a decade, but the influence of the Mac team lived even longer. Steve Jobs, a man driven by the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, saw the computer as a form of expression and he knew that consumers would respond to his efforts. Say what you want about Apple, but their design philosophy has greatly influenced the aesthetics of modern technology, evident by the examples on the TV Tropes page “Everything Is an iPod in the Future”.

 

Inside the Macintosh Casing By Carlos Pérez Ruiz - originally posted to Flickr as Apple Macintosh 128Kb naked, CC BY-SA 2.0, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10397868)

 

The Mac would have worked fine without rounded edges, but Steve Jobs and Apple showed the world of technology that science and art can and should be mixed freely. Engineers often focus on functionality, but beauty has a big place in design. I met an integrated circuit designer who had a degree in architecture (not microarchitecture either), and he told me that he was hired for his intuition of proper spacing and order. Even software can be beautiful. Spaghetti code might be functional, but developers must keep an eye on the structure of their software. Code that is neatly structured works better for everyone. Computer code and circuit design can be just as much an art as a tool. The key to this is a belief that what you are creating is new and special, an expression of your own intellect and creativity.

 

An example of an LED matrix that is a kind of “dynamic art display.” (http://diyhacking.com/arduino-led-matrix/)

Today’s young makers and engineers understand this concept well. My lab partner is far from the only engineer with a mind for design; 3D printed-casings and LED matrices are common in maker projects. Some people are using technology simply to make art, which is why the Arduino is so easy to use and code, while Adafruit has a wearable microprocessor for clothing applications, the Gemma. Whether you are an engineer applying aesthetics to a system or you are an artist using tech as a new tool of expression, you should keep the art and the engineering close at hand.

 



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Benjamin Miller is an Electrical Engineering junior at the University of Texas at Austin and Mouser's Technical Marketing intern for the summer. He plays guitar with the Mansfield rock band MP3. During the school year he can be found playing with electronics or doing homework outside of the Cactus Cafe, where he works as a doorman.


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