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This article describes the design of highly complex physical instruments by using a canonical genetic algorithm (GA). The procedure can be applied to all instrument designs where performance goals can be quantified. It is particularly suited to the optimization of instrument design where local optima in the performance figure of merit are prevalent. Here, a GA is used to evolve the design of the neutron spin-echo spectrometer WASP which is presently being constructed at the Institut Laue-Langevin, Grenoble, France. A comparison is made between this artificial intelligence approach and the traditional manual design methods. We demonstrate that the search of parameter space is more efficient when applying the genetic algorithm, and the GA produces a significantly better instrument design. Furthermore, it is found that the GA increases flexibility, by facilitating the reoptimization of the design after changes in boundary conditions during the design phase. The GA also allows the exploration of “nonstandard” magnet coil geometries. We conclude that this technique constitutes a powerful complementary tool for the design and optimization of complex scientific apparatus, without replacing the careful thought processes employed in traditional design methods.