Mythologist Joseph Campbell studied Biology and Mathematics at Dartmouth College.

Interview with a Mechanical Designer

Joseph Deiss "My Hopper"

NAME:  Joseph Deiss

JOB TITLE:  Senior Mechanical Designer (retired 2011)

PROFESSION / INDUSTRY:  Construction Design

EDUCATION:   Music major, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA (1961 – 19650; B.A. in Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, CA (1970); Photography, Art Center of Design, Los Angeles, CA (1971 – 1972); B.A. in Printmaking, California State University, Northridge, CA (1976); Oregon Secondary Teaching Credentials, Portland State University (1976)

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST: Music, Fine Art Photographer (large format, antique processes)


What is your educational background, specific to your profession?

All of my education is pertinent to my profession… I began college as a physics major, and before a year was out, I was a music major,and after 4 years left UC Santa Barbara for UC Berkeley where I received my BA in Architecture in 1970. I then attended Art Center of Design (Photography) for a year-and-a-half, and worked in photographic advertising for another two years before I began an art program at California State University, Northridge where I received a BA in Art (printmaking) in 1976, as well as Secondary Teaching Credentials. I taught math, art & photography for 4 years before I started working in the construction industry.

What was your most valuable experience, that gave you the tools and insight to working in construction design?

Those experiences that were most valuable to the career I’ve spent the last 34 years pursuing had very little to do with the design of fire protection, plumbing and piping systems in the industrial world. It was through the study of music, architecture, art, and a life-long pursuit of photography, that I gained my skills in problem solving. In fact, the only reason I could exist and stay in this field (outside of the pay) was that every project I took on, I treated as a visual problem to solve… That’s not a difficult approach, especially when pen is put to paper (and that’s actually quite literal – all of my work prior to the early 1990’s was ink on paper, vellum, or plastic). One has to have an actual, visible goal before the ink goes down on the medium. That’s not to say that there are not technical problems. Systems have to work properly – fluids flow through pipe in a fairly predictable way (ruled by physics and math); and then there are the other (often irrational) rules to deal with; codes, standards, client needs, and barriers in the physical world. My early mentors in the visual field were Howard Warshaw, William Garnett, Walter Gabrielson, and Robert Heineken. Whether it was picking up a camera to make an image, taking charcoal to paper, carving tool to wood or linoleum, or drafting pen to vellum (or as I near retirement, operate a mouse and keyboard), the solution to any construction problem comes to me in a visual form and then I make sure that the solution is supported by the physical world, local codes, industry standards, Insurance companies and the client’s needs. There is never an “Ah, ha!” moment. I’m given a task that I turn into a visual study followed by supporting information (I have a very large technical library – I do not want to clutter my mind – I just need to know where to find that supporting data). All of my problem solving is a slow, thoughtful process, moving through time… I have often, throughout my career, fallen back on remembered discussions (often heated) with my mentors about how the visual world impacts all of us.

As a working professional, what changes have you seen in your industry that have significantly affected how you work?

It seems that the duration of projects have decreased in time (time is money). Often construction is started before the design process is hardly begun – I’m finishing laying out underground piping before the upper floors are begun. The size of the projects have increased exponentially. I’m currently working on the largest construction project in the US (measured in many billions of dollars), which will the largest chip manufacturing facility in the world when finished. Because of the speed of the projects, the pressure for accuracy and finished, successful, solutions is very high.

With regards to the new generation of talent/workers/employees, what are the skill sets that you are seeing?

One of the most visible skills is that of computer programming, or the use of many and varied programs that make engineering so much easier when calculations had to be made with pencil and paper (and slide rule!). Most of the young engineers I work with have a very high level of understanding of the theory of their chosen profession. But so much problem solving is rote! Right out of a book… Very few can look at a problem as something creative with a life of its’ own on the way to a solution – but this is, perhaps, viewed from a lifetime of experience with so many and varied challenges. One of the most delightful things I do is mentor young engineers and help them along this path…

What would your advice be to young professionals &/or to the institutions and instructors that are providing them with the education & “tools” to enter the design field for construction projects?

Some time between their penultimate and last year, take time out to work for an industrial design organization; see how things work, watch experienced designers & engineers perform their tasks. CH2MHIll has programs with several universities where we take students between their junior and senior year and mentor them (as much as I dislike the work I do, mentoring is a small joy and keeps me going).

*Prior to retirement, the company that Joseph was working for had him mentoring three (3) individuals who would subsequently take over his responsibilities as Senior Mechanical Designer.

“Whether a single image, or a series of images, my concerns are about those events that take place in a (possibly unending) period of time. “Narrative” may or may not apply – my interests are less narrative and more about changing states…

I’m fascinated by uncertainty; in the process of transitioning from one space in time to another… and in the moment of hesitation before action… Photographic images, in a sense, have never existed and have always existed.

I, as a photographer, by asking a particular set of questions, have predetermined the answers I will find (have found) in the images…” —Joseph Deiss

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