“I don’t spend my time pontificating about high-concept things; I spend my time solving engineering and manufacturing problems.” ― Elon Musk
The contribution of engineers in our society is vast. From the electronics that we use to the quality of life that we enjoy, nothing remains untouched by the minds of engineers.
But often, we see engineering described as an analytical and logic-based subject.
We do not see it as being creative. The first image that comes to your mind of a creative person may be an artist, a sculptor, or a writer.
But engineers are creative too and they have a lot to teach us about the art of being creative.
What can engineers teach us about being creative in our lives?
“The engineer is a mediator between the philosopher and the working mechanic and, like an interpreter between two foreigners must understand the language of both, hence the absolute necessity of possessing both practical and theoretical knowledge.”― Henry Palmer
1. Taking Things Apart and Putting Things Back: Reverse Engineering
“When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.”― William Gibson, Zero History
One of the first traits of a great engineer is that they have a strong desire to take things apart and put them back together.
Be it a product that they are curious about or a problem that they need to solve, engineers train to break things up into little parts.
They are also trained to put things back together, often in new ways to improve upon a process, or to get a new solution.
One of the reasons that this is important because it reflects the curiosity that engineers have to see how things work.
They have to know how all the parts work and move together. They have to know how to refine and recalibrate a problem towards a solution.
1. Reverse engineer your creative projects and processes. Break down your project into small parts and put it back together in novel ways.
2. Look at the creativity and the creative process of other people in your field. Can you reverse engineer some of their systems and processes that enhance their effectiveness? Incorporate that into your own creative process.
This does not mean that you try to copy the process of others but look at what others are doing and adapt it to your own creative process.
Anthony Trollope, the prolific writer used to write for long hours in the morning till he had to go for his job as a postmaster.
By looking at his creative process and the novels he penned, we get a basic idea of the ways we can also be creative in our life if it works for us.
This is an example of a process to be creative. You can also look at the different styles of writing to form your own style. For this reason, most good writers are prolific readers.
3. Have a fascination for how things work like an engineer. This is the basis of a strong creative curiosity. Go ahead and get fascinated by your field.
4. Try to solve problems that others have not noticed yet by changing your perspective of the problem.
“A good engineer thinks in reverse and asks himself about the stylistic consequences of the components and systems he proposes.”― Helmut Jahn
2. Building a Better Mouse Trap and Quick Improvement
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”― John Cage
Engineers love to build the next best mouse trap.
Quick improvement and more continual improvement is a hallmark of good engineering. Better materials, better structures, and better processes are natural quests in engineering.
Imagine a world where engineers were content with not building the next better mouse trap.
Of course, I use the mouse trap as an example.
I remember the days when the first mobile phones and the first personal organizers were launched. The phones were a revolution but they were huge and bulky.
The Pda’s were monochrome and slow. They were revolutionary products for that day and age but imagine that engineers got content with the status quo.
1. Always seek “kaizen” or constant improvement in your creative projects.
2. Seek better products and seek better processes. Question the processes that you currently have. It is not that you have to change for the sake of it. But if the data suggests better processes and creative outcomes, by all means adapt.
3. Do not be afraid of change and improvement, instead, embrace it.
4. Sometimes “if it ain’t broke do not fix it” works. But your creative process gets enriched and exciting if you look for constant excellence and newer horizons.
“Normal people believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet.”― Scott Adams
3. Challenges are Problems to Solve
“Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems.”― Scott Adams
One of the important ways that engineers differ from others is in their perceived ideas and beliefs about failure and problems.
It is not that engineers do not have anxieties, but they train to seek problems. They train to fix, solve and enhance the reasons that problems exist in the first place.
So setbacks and failure are natural in engineering as they are in science research.
“Engineers have more words for screwing up than the Inuit have words for snow.”― Pierce Nichols
1. Embrace failure and setbacks as opportunities for growth.
2. Allow past mistakes and problems to build a better process and a better product like an engineer.
3. If you think like an engineer in your creative process, you will feel relief that problems are giving you forward momentum. And fixing them is part of the fun.
“Engineering stimulates the mind. Kids get bored easily. They have got to get out and get their hands dirty: make things, dismantle things, fix things. When the schools can offer that, you’ll have an engineer for life.”― Bruce Dickinson
4. The Art of Rapid Prototyping
“Manufacturing is more than just putting parts together. It’s coming up with ideas, testing principles and perfecting the engineering as well as final assembly.”― James Dyson
Engineers love to make quick prototypes and test them out in the real world for their effectiveness.
Let us take the example of James Dyson, the inventor of the famous cyclone vacuum cleaner. Dyson is known to have built 5127 prototypes before he came upon a successful one.
Yes, that is right. 5127!
Dyson’s approach to innovation and multiple iterations is unconventional and brilliant and he goes on to say:
“What I often do is just think of a completely obtuse thing to do, almost the wrong thing to do. That often works because you start a different approach, something no one has tried. You get a different perspective and view of (the problem).”
Wow! Imagine trying that for your creative process.
1. Build rapid prototypes and test them out in the field or do a real life test like engineers do. If you are a writer, you can release a short story to see how the public likes it and so on.
2. As you get real-time feedback, adapt your process to persevere or pivot. This idea comes from Eric Ries’s Lean Startup method.
In a nutshell, Ries encourages us to build a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and then release it. The Lean Startup encourages you to build, measure, and learn.
After you get feedback, you can decide to pivot or persevere in your creative product. Quick and real-time feedback that you take action on is important. Measure what you have accomplished by actual feedback from peers or customers.
3. Do not be afraid of many prototypes while perfecting your creative style and process like Dyson did with his vacuum cleaner.
“The history of engineering is really the history of breakages, and of learning from those breakages. I was taught at college ‘the engineer learns most on the scrapheap’.”― CA Claremont
5. Process and Systems Thinking
“It is a great profession. There is the satisfaction of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.”― Herbert Hoover
When you talk to an engineer, you will bump across:
- Process thinking.
- Systems thinking.
- The big picture.
- The working parts.
- Managing systems and processes.
- Understanding how systems work together.
As an engineer, you understand the importance of the process. You are encouraged to think in terms of systems.
Systems can be conceived as broken up into parts and the moving parts improved upon.
But the engineer has to focus into the great small details as she has to zoom out and look at the big picture.
Both the forest and the trees are essential for the engineer.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”― Antoine de Saint-Exupery
1. Understand the importance of the forest and the individual trees for your creative process.
2. Zoom into the great details or small parts of your creative process to refine it. But do not get so caught up in details that you neglect the forest for the trees.
3. Do not be so caught up in the final product that you do not pay attention to the details.
4. Think systems and processes like an engineer. It might be true that you may not be able to push creativity or inspiration. It is also a pipe dream to assume that you will be creative without the structures, habits, and processes in place.
5. Train yourself to recognize creative patterns and connections. See how everything fits together into a whole and how it breaks up into parts.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”― Buckminster Fuller
6. Form and Function
“Can one think that because we are engineers, beauty does not preoccupy us or that we do not try to build beautiful, as well as solid and long-lasting, structures? Aren’t the genuine functions of strength always in keeping with unwritten conditions of harmony?”― Gustave Eiffel
Both form and function are vital for engineers. They have to consider the aesthetic as they have to consider the moving parts.
Both form and function are equally important to them contrary to some popular beliefs.
While every team has its engineers and its artists, both teams have to cross-collaborate and fuse ideas to make things work.
Engineers cannot engineer without a basic understanding and awareness of the design aesthetic. And vice versa.
“The fewer moving parts, the better.” “Exactly. No truer words were ever spoken in the context of engineering.”― Christian Cantrell, Containment
1. Both form and function are essential for the creative process and product. This is similar to the engineering process.
2. Your creative team may include both form and function people. But, the close cross- collaboration and pollination of ideas between those people is essential.
In fact, having what IDEO calls T-shaped individuals is also key. A T-shapes individual has mastery in one field representing the vertical line of T.
They also have a keen interest in other diverse fields representing the horizontal line of T.
You will need people who think of both the form and the function like engineering and design teams.
3. Remember that deserting form or function for the other does not serve the creative process.
“Manufacturing, science and engineering are…incredibly creative. I’d venture to say more so than creative advertising agencies and things that are known as the creative industries.”― Sir James Dyson
7. The Power Of Visualizing and Imagineering
“We make the magic.” That’s our motto at Walt Disney Imagineering, and it’s a belief that permeates everything we do. From castles, mountains and mansions to fireworks spectaculars, Imagineers are the creative force behind the iconic Disney attractions and experiences that our guests have come to know and love.”- Walt Disney Imagineering statement on their website
Engineers are great at visualizing. They train their minds to simulate problem scenarios and try to come up with innovative solutions based on those problems.
I have previously written about the power of creative Imagineering. This idea of creative Imagineering was developed by the Alcoa aluminum company and adopted by the Walt Disney company.
In a nutshell, Disney calls Imagineering the ability to engage our imagination. And then take action on it to engineer it down to earth.
What are the nuts and bolts?
• Imagine, think and let your imagination soar.
• Design, develop and engineer based on your creative ideas.
• Combine, collect and engage and implement.
Here is my action list to become a good Imagineer that I wrote previously:
1. Identify an insurmountable problem.
2. Instead of stress and struggle, unleash your imagination. Let it come up with the possibilities that you have never dreamed of.
3. Mix, connect, combine and let things fall together in your imagination.
4. Look and imagine things from perspectives that you never thought you could assume. Allow your imagination to soar.
5. Allow the ideas to collide and give it down time to incubate in your imagination.
6. When you get an insight, capture the idea and then get to work on it.
7. Use the product of your imagination to build something new—a prototype.
8. Now imagine ways that your prototype can benefit people and how you can make it accessible to them.
“Engineering problems are under-defined, there are many solutions, good, bad and indifferent. The art is to arrive at a good solution. This is a creative activity, involving imagination, intuition and deliberate choice.”― Ove Arup
Now over to you dear reader. Let me know in the comments below if this post resonated with you.