Design, Creativity, and Innovation in Engineering

The recent INCOSE International Symposium in Edinburgh, Scotland featured a challenging and thought-provoking keynote address by Professor Larry Leifer of Stanford University. Taking an unorthodox approach to engineering design, Professor Leifer challenged symposium delegates to incorporate thinking from the world of art and design into their engineering problem-solving processes.

This goes against the grain of traditional paradigms in the engineering arena.  Most often engineers are about optimizing processes, measuring outcomes, and following best practices. The idea of teams collaborating in unstructured environments using untried and often unformed approaches brings an allergic reaction from many engineers.

Rather than prescribing processes and structuring the design environment, Leifer advocated loosening the reins and “letting” project teams think and design. This means allowing them to pursue novel paths and explore a variety of solution spaces as they do what he described as “hunt the future.”

As an example of this paradigm in action, Professor Leifer discussed the efforts of a team of graduate students to find a way to work on preconfigured satellites in order to fix them or tailor them to their use. He pointed out that the satellites were assembled and then shipped to users who found it necessary to test them and reconfigure them for use in space. This was difficult because the satellites were large and had to be held erect in large frames. Often parts that needed adjustment or replacement were inaccessible to the teams working on their configuration except by ladders or lifts which required intricate work to be performed from an awkward perch. The graduate students tackled this problem by constructing the satellites as groups of parts arranged on “boards” that were bolted together in the upright positions that formed the sides of the satellites.

The working crews were then able to maneuver the end of a workbench – whose length approximated that of the vertical boards – to a junction at the bottom of the board. When the top of the board was unbolted and attached to a cable and pulley the workbench junction allowed the board to swivel down and away from the satellite coming to rest on the work bench.

At that point the board was lying flat across the workbench surface with all of its parts readily accessible for repair, adjustment, or replacement. When that work was done the board could be rotated back into its vertical position on the side of the satellite. This eliminated the climbing into position to work the satellite components offering instead the opportunity to work at normal bench height.

This unorthodox but effective solution was created using collaboration across a team of students unfettered by the usual design process constraints. They capitalized on their own diversity to produce novel ideas.

As noted in a previous blog Diversity and Systems Engineering, the presence of diversity enriches the solution set by increasing ideas that come from an expansion of the possible relationships available. Leifer emphasized the importance of diversity to the creative process and the importance of the creative process to engineering design.

This was the concept around which Leifer challenged a predominantly engineering audience. Too often engineers shy away from or even dismiss creativity. It can be seen as too undisciplined and unstructured to be seriously considered a part of a “real” engineering process.

And yet, novel and complex problems call for creative approaches. Engineers must widen their nets and draw their solutions from a larger catch. Creativity is a critical component of the solution-seeking process in our dynamic and complex environment.

It is a mistake to see creativity as an amorphous, undisciplined area devoid of discipline and process. Much research is being conducted in this fascinating subject, and the literature is replete with reports of how to foster and improve creative thinking in groups and individuals. In the design context, creativity is often discussed as design thinking.

Leifer recommended the book Frame Innovation by Kees Dorst which describes the implementation of design thinking in organizations faced with the new brand of “open, complex, dynamic, and networked” problems. There is nothing amorphous or undisciplined about the approaches advocated by Leifer or Dorst.

There are a number of other good resources which introduce various aspects of the creative thinking subject and are well worth reading by all those charged with tackling the problems of today’s complex and dynamic world. A partial list of such resources includes:

  • Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson
  • A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young
  • The Thinkers Toolkit, Morgan Jones
  • Inside the Box, Boyd and Goldenberg


The list is in no way comprehensive but offers a number of different approaches to introducing creativity into the problem solving processes. As engineers, we would all do well to listen to and understand the voices of people like Professor Leifer who are pointing the way to a new, higher plane for problem solving.

Leave a Reply