Some Remarkable Similarities Between Art and Engineering

My wife, while reading one of my blog posts, said something I found surprising the other day. She said it was rather sad that I didn’t talk more about my engineering, on this site. In her view, I approach art with the mindset of an engineer, which she feels is both uncommon and interesting. She said that an engineering approach to art has some advantages and that I should write more about those.

Although it’s true that I am an engineer (electrical, electronics and computer engineering, by training, but also mechanical and industrial engineering design, out of personal interest), I hadn’t really thought about how that might affect my art. It just didn’t occur to me as being significant.

I inhabit the one mind, so to me there isn’t a hard distinction between how I feel when I make art and when I do engineering. They’re just different aspects of the same thought continuum, to me. On reflection, though, there must be something to my wife’s observation. Without my noticing it, there probably is something about my engineering and problem solving mind that influences my how I make and appreciate art. It’s probably equally true that my approach to art has an impact on my engineering.

Consequently, I sat down and brainstormed a list of the ways in which art and engineering are similar, at least the way I perceive it. Here is the list:

1. Both involve continuous learning. Learning how to make art and to do engineering are both very iterative process. To become good at either, it’s about suffering and patient mastery, while you continually run up against the limit of your knowledge and abilities. You always need to know more and gaining that knowledge is painstaking, in both fields.

2. Everyone thinks they’re a better artist/engineer than you are. They also think they could have made a better job of your work than you did. This may or may not be true, but these characters are inescapable whether you’re being an artist or an engineer. Everyone is, in reality, a work in progress.

3. Every one of your artistic/engineering rivals thinks they’re special and some of them really are!

4. Both art and engineering require creative, imaginative, inventive and innovative minds. You can get by in both by following the instructions, joining the dots and colouring between the lines, but to do good art or engineering, you have to apply your creative abilities.

5. It’s an alternative way of seeing. In both cases, you’re perceiving the world as it could be, not necessarily how it is and making progress toward realising that vision.

6. Artists and engineers are both acknowledged to be undervalued. People only miss it when it’s gone. While it’s there, people take it for granted.

7. You can be a starving engineer too – both struggle for resources. You can be just as stymied by lack of resources, time and materials in either pursuit.

8. Both fields involve hard work and you have to dig deep, courageously, to produce what you do.

9. Being excellent and fast is table stakes. Brilliance is expected. Journeymen artists and engineers aren’t well-tolerated. 

10. Having a hit is not guaranteed. There are as many “almost successful” and “almost popular” engineering outcomes as there are artistic ones.

11. Your work can be corrupted by commerce. In both cases, your original aims and goals can be subverted and buried by financial imperatives. In both cases, it’s hard to defend and adhere to your values and principles.

12. Your work can be fragile and ephemeral. Everything decays, they need constant maintenance and both artistic and engineering artefacts struggle to find love, when they get old. Archivists, restorers and curators of old engineering are about as rare as those that take care of old art.

13. Once created, you work takes on a life of its own. It is no longer under your sole control. You engineering and your art will find homes and be used in the most unpredictable ways.

14. Patrons think they’re getting ripped off, but are actually getting riches for peanuts. Even the people that fund you think you’re short-changing them, when the truth is that they are often being showered with manifestations of inestimable value. They just can’t see it, except perhaps with hindsight.

15. People who know nothing about it are happy to give you their judgemental critique. If you are an artist or an engineer, everybody is ready to tell you how badly you screwed up, from a position of ignorance and never having attempted to do what you’ve done. Armchair experts afflict both fields.

16. Both pursuits can be solitary and collaborative. Sometimes, you work best alone, realising your own artistic vision. At other times, what gets made wouldn’t be possible at all, unless there were collaborators working in concert.

17. Sometimes, you need to scrap it and start again. There are crucial points in both art and engineering where you have to have the intellectual honesty to admit the work you’re doing is unsalvageable and fit only for scrap. Bravery is required to cut your losses and start afresh.

18. Both artists and engineers are despised while alive; revered only when dead. I’ve never understood why.

19. You carry all the risk on your own shoulders, whether you’re engineering or making art. If you mess up, it’s all on you and your reputation will take the hit. On the other hand, if you create something great, there will be plenty of other people ready to take credit and a large share of the proceeds.

20. There is no substitute for persistence and practice. There are no short cuts to becoming a well-rounded artist or engineer. You’ll have to put in the hours and the sweat.

21. There are fads and fashions. You might imagine that engineering is immune to the vagaries of trends, but that’s not the case. There are definitely periods of time where some approaches and design aesthetics are favoured and others not. Being a practitioner of the out of favour artistic or engineering trend brings obscurity.

22. Too much work in progress is a bad thing. Whether you’re engineering or making art, starting too many projects without finishing them gets you nowhere. Finishing things is also the hard work.

23. Finishing and delivering to your audience trumps perfection. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be available. There are no rewards, other than perhaps the intrinsic ones of joy and mastery, for reworking your engineering and art until it is perfected. Better to ship it, even if a little flawed.

24. It’s hard to find your unique voice and even harder to become a household name. There aren’t many artists that everyone could name, for their sheer originality. That’s true for engineers too.

25. Choosing the right tools and materials is crucial. Working with the wrong stuff the wrong way takes much longer and results in poor artefacts. This is as true for engineering as it is for art.

26. Beauty, simplicity and elegance matter in both.

27. Aesthetic taste matters in both.

28. Both require prolonged deep focus and risky visionary thinking.

29. Both disciplines can be incredibly time consuming, yet immersive. That can make you both physically and emotionally unavailable a lot of the time, which can be very hard on partners, friends and family.

30. People will copy and steal your best ideas, despite the law. Protecting your ideas will break you emotionally and financially and take up all your waking, productive hours, while keeping you up all night fretting. Your best defence is to make something even better than the thing that was ripped off. Eventually, it becomes obvious where the good ideas are coming from.

31. Your very best ideas? You’ll have trouble selling people on them. Most people can’t tell a good idea from a bad one, even if it bites them. You will spend a great deal of time trying to convince doubters that you’ve made something excellent.

32. You can be fired on a whim. I thought there was job security in engineering, until a couple of start-ups I was in became finish-downs. I was also once fired on a whim, with no valid process or justification, though the law allowed it. The job security of an engineer is, in reality, little different to that of an artist.

33. Knowing how to draw well and write well (and touch type) are crucial to do well in both art and engineering. This is because you will, by necessity, spend a lot of time communicating and also because drawing is sometimes a more succinct and vivid way of communicating than the written word.

34. You play with abstract concepts a lot. Both art and engineering are about grappling with abstractions and turning those into something tangible. You construct a lot of your work in your head, first, before affixing it in some form of physical medium.

35. You have to drag your work out of your heart, guts and brains. Art and engineering come from the same places and nowhere else.

36. Being an artist makes you a better engineer and vice versa. I would say that, wouldn’t I? However, I think it’s true. Knowing how to construct helps your realise art. Knowing how to create beauty leads to better engineering.

37. You can’t pass off garbage as great work. If you can’t get most people to recognise great art or engineering, there is no hope for you with substandard output.

38. Your reputation is always on the line and remains so, even after you ship. You can never abrogate responsibility for what you have brought into the world or disown it. You made it. You did it. It represents you, like an immortal calling card.

39. Both fields are afflicted by an attitude of, “what have you done for me lately?” Employers and patrons alike are dismissive of your previous successes on their behalf. That’s why there are few old engineers and record companies don’t promote old bands. It doesn’t matter how much you made for them, or how big the pay day, you’re only as good and as valuable as your next creation.

40. Consequently, both fields are ageist. Regardless of skill, ability and success, old artists and old engineers are discriminated against.

41. Young hip dudes think they invented everything. They’re blind to the past. They have no idea that many of their fresh, new ideas are things that were made previously, by earlier generations of artists/engineers.

42. It becomes an obsession and takes over your life. Whether you’re an artist or an engineer, you can get so hooked on your own practice and work, that you inadvertently abandon the rest of your life. This is not healthy, but it’s very common. Once you realise the danger, it makes starting a new project feel dangerous and unpleasant, because you are aware that it may hijack your whole being once again.

43. Nobody cares about your struggles. Every day may be agonising, fighting the odds, your own limitations, your own fears and your own privations, to accomplish something in your art or your engineering, but that doesn’t make you special, sunshine. Nobody will be sympathetic to your plight.

44. You’re not permitted to have a bad day. Unless you are producing to the best of your ability, each and every day, you won’t hold down a commission or a job. Forgiveness for the occasional bad piece of work is virtually non-existent, once your quality bar has been established. They’ll want this standard each and every time, with no exceptions.

45. You get type-cast by your highest profile work. It doesn’t matter what else you make, as an artist or an engineer. Your reputation will be bound up with the piece of work you did that people know best. This popular work might not be the best thing you ever did, either.

46. Nobody trusts you to be as good as you are. There is doubt each and every time somebody engages you to make something for them. Whether you’re an artist or an engineer, recommendations and a solid track record are a requirement. Otherwise, the sponsor knows even less about what you’re capable of than their own senses tell them. Earlier, we established that while everyone thinks they know good art/engineering, the truth is that they’re clueless, unless they’ve done it themselves. For this reason, your credentials are vital.

47. Having a vision matters, but so does having an audience. Making art for nobody but yourself is pretty isolating. You need to have a compelling artistic or engineering vision for the things you are attempting to make, but this becomes futile, if nobody wants your products. OK, you might learn a lot and have a lot of fun playing, but this all costs time and money. There has to be some kind of pay-off somewhere down the track.

48. Artists and engineers are equally geeky about their specialist knowledge. Nobody understands or cares what you’re talking about, either. Both artists and engineers can bore an entire room, or bring a casual conversation to a shuddering halt, simply by going too deep into their highly specialised vocabulary and knowledge. However, what they know is cool and actually worth knowing.

49. It never turns out the way you envisioned it. No matter how clear and precise your vision, the finished work will never be a faithful reproduction of it. There will be compromises due to limitations of time and resources, or because your skills can’t realise what you imagine. This can be very equally frustrating, whether you’re an artist or an engineer.

50. People think artists and engineers are a dime a dozen, but great ones are exceedingly rare, valuable and precious. And nobody can tell great from ordinary, as previously mentioned.

51. You change the world routinely and deal with bringing the future into tangible, manifest being. Rather than predicting the future, you actually bring it into actuality. This is all in a day’s work.

52. When you start, you often don’t know if what you imagined can be done. The mind can easily conceive of objects that are impossible or exceedingly difficult to make. Finding a way to make them can turn out to be the bulk of the work and the hardest component of the project.

53. Starting is hard. Finishing is harder. You face the same dread of a blank sheet of paper as you do of a deadline to finish the work. Both take immense courage to overcome. I think that starting and finishing are a form of immovable object that can only be budged by a large force. Momentum is easily dissipated, too, so both fields involve constant resistance and friction. Once the ball is rolling, with a project, you have to keep applying yourself to keep it moving.

54. Blank canvases are equally scary to engineers and artists – making something out of nothing is terrifying. You literally have to bring something into being that never existed before, without the use of magic.

55. You only stick with it because you love it. God knows it isn’t for the money, the acclaim, the rewards or the fame. Remaining interested in making art or engineering products is the result of falling in love with making things. Otherwise, you go into venture capital, become a CEO or something else where art and engineering are not so important.

56. Burnout is a constant danger. You can find burnt out engineers and artists aplenty. They work so hard, for so little return, in such a focused and all-consuming way, that their emotional health can suffer. For their part, their employers will conclude that artists and engineers love staying up all night and working weekends to create for them, so they bully them into doing so (or take full advantage of their propensity to overwork, because of the charm of the work). They will believe that these overworked people are happy flogging themselves to death. It isn’t so.

57. Always do your best and when you know better, do better. You can never know enough, at any given moment of your development as an artist or engineer, but when you learn something new, you have a duty to apply it.

58. Imposter syndrome applies to both art and engineering. We all worry about being unmasked as a fraud, no matter how skilled and experienced we become. This is because both artists and engineers are aware there is always so much more to learn and to know.

59. People expect you to be eccentric and socially awkward. Both artists and engineers are poorly understood. When you demonstrate social graces or nuanced empathy, people tend to be shocked. That’s just their prejudice in action. I also suspect artists and engineers have played up to the stereotype for advantage.

60. Being temperamental is always an affectation and a displacement activity. Temperamental artists and engineers are worse than useless, because they stop others from being productive. It’s play acting, to fulfil the stereotype, because they can get away with it. Don’t fall for it.

61. You can actually start with very little, but excellence is costly. In both art and engineering, you can literally start with just pencil and paper. However, bring the creation to life can often be far costlier and involve resources you have no idea how to secure.

62. People that buy your work think they own it and that it makes them smart for owning it. They fail to acknowledge your role in its creation. It’s as if owning it was all it took.

63. Once you show somebody how to do what you do, they think they don’t need you any more, instead of appreciating there’s a lot more to it than they thought. Instead of seeing it’s just the tip of the iceberg, they think they have the whole thing in a single lesson. More fool them.

64. Everybody is self taught because nobody pays for your training. If you want to be either an artist or an engineer, you’re going to have to invest heavily in your own training and education, because nobody else will. They’ll all discriminate, as employers, on the basis of your personal development, but not contribute to it, if it costs money.

65. If you don’t take care of your tools, you lose the ability to work. You’re only capable of executing on your ideas if your tools are available and ready. Lose access to your tools and you can’t be an engineer or artist.

66. If you make a mess of the work, you need to start over. A lot of people are tempted to try to fix it, or disguise the mess they’ve made, but whether you are an artist or an engineer, if you’ve created a disaster, your best option is to destroy it and have another go.

67. You can’t turn a bad idea into a good piece of work, no matter how hard you polish. If you start with a flawed concept, exemplary execution won’t change its fundamental nature. A bad idea is a bad idea.

68. The prizes and profits go to those that sell your work on. Those in your distribution chain will have their hands out and capture most of the money. Some will even speculate on your products and make their profits that way. Being too far away from your paying customers is a bad position to be in. Artists and engineers need to find ways to go more directly to their customers.

69. Both are art and engineering are species of design, with both having emotional impact and often profound effects on humanity. What you make can have a big effect, shaping society and the zeitgeist. Be careful what you make.

70. Both actually require high levels of technical, intellectual and analytical skill. Some think that art is emotional and whimsical and engineering is not. In fact, the more analytical you are, the better you draw, for example. Also, delightful engineering needs to engage people emotionally. The technical versus artistic distinction is a false dichotomy.

71. If it doesn’t enhance life, it’s not worth doing – both art and engineering need purpose.

72. Story telling is a key skill in both art and engineering.

73. You fake it until you make it in both endeavours.

74. Arseholes and egos proliferate in both fields.

75. It’s not factory production line work. Whether you are an artist or an engineer, you constantly face new challenges and have to solve new problems. Employers try to manage/control both art and engineering with production line techniques and metrics, which unsurprisingly fail miserably. You’re not creating identical sausages. Both artists and engineers usually work on something for the first time, every time.

76. Failure is a requirement of learning, but is not tolerated by your funders/sponsors. Imagine that. You need to fail to get any better, but your sponsors won’t allow it. They require you to execute flawlessly, each and every time. The only way you can accomplish this is by taking no risks, meaning you stagnate. So employers want you to stagnate, but are constantly looking for somebody better than you. Is that weird and self-contradictory or what?

77. When you finish a work, you’re on to the next one. There is no rest and no time to appreciate what you’ve just made, fully. You almost have to forget the previous piece of work while you create the next one. It’s easy to lose sight of your accomplishments and development, this way.

78. You can see the flaws while others see perfection. No matter what you make, you are always painfully aware of its shortcomings and of the things you wish you could have done better. Fortunately, most other people are not.

79. Both art and engineering offer insight and visualisation, in the search for truth and what matters. Being this close to creation, you get to see what matters and what doesn’t and your training as an artist or engineer lets you see those things with clarity.

80. In both practices, open-mindedness and inquisitiveness are huge advantages.

81. Both artists and engineers learn to not fear the unknown, preferring leaps to incremental steps. Those leaps turn out to be incremental steps (just very big ones), but the point is you learn to jump into the void and explore the unknown.

82. Artists and engineers both like to make things. I suppose this is self-evident, at this point in the list, but making things is joyful, when done under the right circumstances. There is deep satisfaction to be obtained by creating things.

83. Individuals in both professions share high visual-spatial abilities. This skill turns out to be extraordinarily useful in both art and engineering.

84. You actually bring your whole self and identity to your occupation. There’s no separating your professional self from your private self. You aren’t two different people. I’m not one person at home and another at work. I’m the same person, all the time. In my case, that means I am always an engineer and an artist, as well as a father and husband. I’m not even just one kind of engineer or artist. I am several kinds of engineer and several kinds of artist. These are not disintegrated identities; they’re aspects of a single self. They are the whole me. It’s only employers and CVs that want me to tell the story of just one sliver of my identity, for the convenience of those trying to understand what I can do for them. The reality is that no matter what my role or job title, I bring all of these aspects of my being to the fore, all the time.

85. Whether you are an artist or an engineer (or both), the only way to really fail is to quit doing it. Sometimes, quitting has been very tempting.

So, there’s my list. What do you think?

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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