The Engineer and the Artist
This is a story about my maternal grandfather, Walter Clifford Dix. Born in 1918 and grew up near and around the Ohio area. He eventually ended up serving in the army until 1943, and after that, went on to earn a degree in engineering from USC. He then spent the lump-sum of his career working as an industrial engineer at Rockwell International1 in Downey, CA contributing to the Apollo space program. He was a precise and intelligent engineer. I’m told he designed and wired control panels for the spacecraft.
When he wasn’t working though, he would sketch, draw, paint, and doodle. On almost anything and everything. We still have his notebooks, loads of notebooks, filled with all these little sketches. In my mind he was truly the meeting point of an engineer and an artist.
As a young boy, I have a clear memory about my grandfather teaching me how to draw. I have this distinct image in my mind of his little house that he lived in for 50+ years, with those half-drawn curtains and the way light came through, and that distinct musty old-man smell. I remember knowing that he could draw and paint, and I would ask him to draw a pictures of me; little 6-or-younger-year-old me. It was like a magic trick. He would move his hand across his notepad, with no effort. And with anticipation, I would wait for that moment when he would flip his page around, and show me what his pencil markings had made. I was always mesmerized and it made me determined to learn to draw.
His line work was shaky, not just because of his age, but it was his style. He would gesturally move the pencil over, across, down, and around the page, almost in a tentative sense, in order to layer with light pencil strokes. He was trying to mirror what he was seeing with his eyes on the page. It was each of those combined movements, that would fashion the figure he was seeing.
Back then, my drawing trouble area with drawing people was always the human mouth. I mean it’s essentially just two tube-like things stacked, right? Nope! This lesson always stuck with me, he told me, “Look at the light … the upper lip is always shadowed, and the lower lip is always lighter.” His lesson to me wasn’t to teach me to draw shapes, he was teaching me to draw the shadows responding to the light. No more would I draw the mouth as two side-ways banana-like shapes, with a bunch of little chunky teeth. It’s the light that shapes everything, and drawing is a matter of seeing the light and the space around it. I didn’t know it then, but he was teaching light logic to a 6-year-old. I love that.
I can point back to these moments as a child and fully recognize them as my point of origin as a designer and an artist. These lessons laid a foundation for who I am.
He was an engineer and an artist, which means he had to think very logically, but he had an equal capacity to be imaginative. Those two had a meeting point, and an overlap in what he did. I think the virtue is the same for designers. A designer must, at once, be an artist and an engineer. The artist is open to the multiplicity of directions, welcoming to the subjective. The artist is an emotional intellectual, and for them there are no bad ideas, just a sea of ideas. The engineer is deliberate and objective. Always pursuing and hounding out a material understanding of the governing laws and ideas surrounding the artifact they are creating.
When these two paths of thought meet, they are lanes on a highway of thinking that function like a binary. The slowing of one lane means you can switch the opposite side, and continue solving the problem at hand.
Whenever I talk about design or vocation, I’m always led back here to this dichotomy of the designer. It’s the meaning behind Object & Subject. I love it because it wraps what I do in a nice mystery, and doesn’t allow it to be boxed in, rather it give me highways of thought that I can always tap into. And I’d like to think it all started back there with grandpa, learning how to draw. He may have passed away when I was young, but part of him moves forward within me.
Here is to you grandpa. 🍻