Visual Impact in Engineering Applications

By Sriram BS

This base paper sets out to put in perspective the need for creative graphic design in present day engineering applications from the point of view of a graphics designer. Steering clear of technological aspects since the subject is so vast and the objective of this document is to only create awareness.

Any computing device, however primitive or modern has the same basic architecture – of Processing Unit; Storage Device; Input Device and OUTPUT DEVICE.

The display system has gone through a world of change since the advent of Cathode Ray Tube, nearly half a century ago. From the amber / green monitor to soft white to color to high resolution of 1024 x 768 / 1280 x 1024 / 1600 x 1200 in LCD and higher resolutions in LED screens. Then we had Flat Panel Active Plasma Displays, which are much larger in size than it was ever thought of in the days of ‘Mimic Diagrams’ with LED displays, the visuals are as good as real life photographs, or more like movies.

Apart from the large screens, there is also the world of miniature displays used in handheld TVs to personal portable DVDs & POS to mobile phones and so on.

Application areas:

Almost all applications require visual outputs from all types of computing devices. To enumerate a list of predominantly used applications, following are the examples:   

Industrial Automation:

Automation of processes has gained acceptance in all walks of life.

To give a little insight in to the process automation system usage, the complete process flow of a manufacturing ‘shop floor’, containing various machines for various functions, in a sequential process. The complete workings of the system and its current status of functionality must be available to monitor in real-time – in a graphically presented image, including the physical parameters represented by function as well as engineering values. The visual interface gets more important when more than one, or rather, several parameters have to be depicted, simultaneously, that too with reference and co-relation to each of the measured parameters. This is where the skills of a highly proficient graphic designer become essential when he/she has to take care of factors such as:

  • ease of use – as in UI design - UX (user experience);
  • ergonomically presented visuals;
  • uncluttered look and feel;
  • - help the operator in:
  • taking quick & intuitive decisions;
  • be able to control certain operations rapidly in emergency situations;
  • depict malfunctions with a high degree of impact, visually, even though it is augmented by audible alarms;
  • be able to view the overall system of all functional units taking a ‘birds-eye-view’ as in a dash-board
  • be able to zoom in to the point of interest or malfunction for a view of greater detail, in one smooth flow of operation

Colors play a vital role in such mission-critical environment. The colors and the visual components are designed and developed considering a myriad of factors. Among those, some of the important aspects are the psychological attribution of mind’s ability to relate the visuals to certain physical parameters, viz., high temperature with red or deep orange, water flow or level indication could be various hues of blue, a spinning motor could be actually shown with a moving fan-blades / turbine image and so on. The entire process plant operation is simulated in two-dimensional surface of the operator console screen, with its limited view area.

That is the challenge. This activity is called the design & development of MMI (Man-Machine Interface) or HMI (Human Machine Interface)


All aspects of design & development of graphical representation of the functionalities the whole system – which in this case is an aircraft – is theoretically the same but requires a much higher level of understanding of the psyche of the ‘operator’ – the Pilot. The product range is completely different in terms of speed, accuracy and endurance. The ‘real estate’ of the display is highly limited and it has to play multiple roles of displaying various types of completely different visuals, viz., instrument panel to radar screen to moving map display to communication panel, all within a perceivable instantaneousness. All this, in conjunction with the actual instrument panel / instrument faces and the all-important HUD – Head-Up Display. This was developed in consonance with the evolution of higher flying-speed designs to such a great extent that the attention span of the pilot kept dwindling to fractions of seconds to assimilate the displayed information – all of them equally important and critical to take split second decisions – more so in case of combat aircrafts. This is the most dynamic of all Human–Machine Interfaces, which functions almost like a ‘living being’ reaching the level of ‘intuitive’ control.

Hand Held Devices

The most popular of all, the mobile ‘smart’ phone, now has to do multiple roles. It is not a mere voice communication device anymore. It is telephone, calendar, diary, dictionary, email browser, messenger, internet browser, it accesses all types of data from the all-pervasive internet, news-paper, portable television, gaming device, music store and whatever else you can think of. The list of functions and applications is almost endless.

All this needs to be made functional by visibly looking at various screens, again in a much more limited visible ‘real estate’. Also, not withstanding the fact that it has to be user friendly and the information has to be legibly laid out. Here the ‘operator’ is just about anybody. The whole bandwidth of idiosyncrasies has to be considered while designing the visual interface.