How do Science, Engineering, Design and Art Connect with Each Other?
Imagine this image as a clock…
Begin your journey at 12:00 and move clockwise through the graphic.
Science turns information into knowledge.
Engineering turns knowledge into utility.
Design builds a bridge between utility and behavior.
Art influences behavior to inspire thoughts and questions.
Questions are then answered by gathering information through science, and the cycle repeats.
Season 2, episode 2 of the Netflix documentary series, ‘Abstract’ introduces and explains this graphic as part of their story on Neri Oxman, a professor at MIT who’s “focus is designing new materials for, with, and by nature.” Oxman is currently an Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab which was founded in 1985 to focus on the integration of science and culture. It is a multidisciplinary laboratory with many different research groups. The group led by Oxman, Mediated Matter, “explores alternative ways to build and manufacture that are aligned with nature’s way.”
“Designing for, with, and by nature”
Neri Oxman coined the term and pioneered the field of Material Ecology. This area of study considers computation, fabrication, and the material itself as inseparable dimensions of design. Material Ecology is based on the idea of integrating science and engineering with design and art, and Oxman uses the graphic above to explain how they conceptualize this integration.
“…leveraging the best that technology has to offer, and connecting technology back to the social and the human.”
What process allows for the creation of unconventional but revolutionary products like Apple’s iPhone or Tesla’s Cybertruck which integrate modern culture and technology? Let’s take a more detailed look into what this graphic means and how it can be used to frame the creative process.
1. Science turns information into knowledge.
At 12:00, we start with a question. In order to answer the question, we can use the scientific method to perform experiments and conduct research to gather the information needed. Once we have enough verified information, we can answer the question to create knowledge.
The right side of the graphic is labeled “Nature.” It is important to note that nature in this context refers to the physical and natural world, and how each functions based on our understanding of them, aka, science and engineering.
As an example, let’s look at one of the projects in Oxman’s research group. The question they may have started with was that if silkworms can naturally spin their own silk, what else can they do? Many questions arise from this in order to gather all of the relevant information. How do they produce silk? How much do they produce? What conditions do they need to produce the most silk? What kinds of structures do they build? After answering these questions, they were ready to move on to the engineering phase.
2. Engineering turns knowledge into utility.
Science is theory, engineering is application. With the knowledge acquired in part 1, we move into the bottom half of the graphic: from perception into production. Applying scientific knowledge to produce something physical and functional is the process of engineering. As humans, we can use engineering to solve problems and answer questions in a physical space in order to create useful tools that improve our natural world.
Once all of the knowledge on silkworms had been acquired, the group began to apply it in the physical world. They started to apply the silk production abilities of silkworms on different materials and compositions, eventually coming up with a way to successfully get silkworms to spin silk over certain structures.
3. Design builds a bridge between utility and behavior.
This is where it starts to get interesting. Now that we have a useful tool, it is time to cross over to the left side of the graphic: Culture. In this context, culture is referring to human behavior. Although we may have something useful from the engineering section, it might be difficult for humans to understand or use. Design builds a bridge between utility and behavior by optimizing the tool to fit human behavior. Humans are very visual, have advanced fine motor skills and have certain cultural and aesthetic preferences. Design serves to use the behavior of humans as a guide for taking a robust tool and refining it to fit natural and cultural human behavior.
Moving into the cultural side of the graphic, the group designed Silk Pavilion as a functional work that is relevant to human behavior. Humans build shelters, shades, and enclosures constantly in order to thrive in the natural environment. Silkworms do this as well, but on a much smaller scale. Silk Pavilion was designed as an enclosure that is large enough for humans to potentially use or interact with; it was designed to connect the engineering to the human experience.
4. Art influences behavior to inspire thoughts and questions.
This is where it gets Abstract (pun intended). The definition of art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination in a variety of different mediums. Expressing science, engineering, and design through art serves to remove the functionality and focus purely on the cultural perception of the work. Art thrives in the audience’s interpretation, feelings, and thoughts in regard to a piece. Art forces humans to think about and question the world around us. The spark in the imagination that happens when we consume a work of art brings us back to the starting point, a question.
Silk Pavilion was displayed as an art piece at MIT. Viewers watched as the silkworms covered the dome with silk in real time. Although the dome was designed as something “functional,” making it an art piece forces people to think and question the meaning and motivation behind it. A natural question someone might come up with is “What else can silkworms build?”
Questions are then answered by gathering information through science and engineering, and the cycle repeats.
Science, engineering, design and art are distinct fields which are often isolated from each other. Traditionally, science and engineering are kept separate from design and art; nature is separated from culture. The key to understanding the integration lies in the realization that our culture is very much a product of our nature as humans, and the only way to advance science or art is by integrating the human experience instead of compartmentalizing it.
By Adam Higelin
Adam Higelin is a University of California, Berkeley graduate with a BA degree in Integrative Biology. He is a passionate writer with a love for the environment, botany and music. A special focus on research based, scientific writing has allowed Adam to pursue his dream of educating and inspiring people to better themselves and the lives of others.