Who's Killing the Creativity

Today's Design Engineer?

You may think that, when it comes to applied creativity, you haven't missed a beat. But when was the last time you truly broke the mold?

Creative We assume a lot about ourselves. How often do we put these assumptions to the test? For instance, are you a good driver?

Chances are you think you are a good driver. Virtually everyone thinks they are a good driver and we all know how many knuckleheads are out there driving around! Well, as long as you're secure in the fact that youĂ­re not one of them. It is what's known as an assumed truth.

This is just one example of assumed truths-one of the hundreds or even thousands that you wake to on a daily basis. There's a problem with assumed truths. Yours is the only opinion that counts. As we all know, none of us are very objective when it comes to ourselves.

So, let's try a design engineer assumed truth. Are you creative? It's only natural that any engineer worth his salt is going to say "yes." After all, design is a creative pursuit. Thus those that do it are obviously creative people. Step outside yourself and apply that assumption to the benefit of any final product.

The True Test of Creativity

Creativity, when it comes to design engineering, is open to a lot of interesting definitions. In his article in Electronic Design, Rob Evans sets forth one standard: Creativity in engineering is something that has the power to make a product stand out in a sea of competition. It could be a totally new product or simply a new experience for the consumer. The end result is something so innovative that it delivers a true market advantage for the product. Now think back to the assumption posed earlier. Are you creative?

Let's muddy the waters even further by throwing in the variables design engineers encounter on a daily basis, the environment you work in and the methodology you use. Now let's ask some questions that have nothing to do with assumed truths.

Are you given the freedom to explore new ways of thinking? Is new technology being championed in the work place? Are you free to pursue the big "what ifs" that are a vital part of the design process? According to Evans, if you answered "no" to any of these questions you're simply throwing away good creative energy, instead of applying it. Innovation is driven by using the creativity we all possess, but it also requires a system that is right for its implementation.

In the wrong environment, not only are product strengths being muted, the individual eccentricities and value a certain designer brings to the project are lost as well. Combine this with a globalization of today's electronics industry and talented design engineers just became a whole lot more replaceable. With so much creativity being lost, there are now thousands of people capable of doing exactly the same thing. Maybe your designs aren't so unique or special after all?

What you know may give you an edge, but that advantage is quickly overrun. It's your creativity that truly makes you different, and valuable but only if you apply it. It's becoming increasingly evident that fewer and fewer engineers seem to be able to do that. Here's the kicker. The blame often falls on the technology that we rely on during the design process, not on any failure on the designers end.

Who's Killing Creativity?

Product design is nothing like it once was. We used to design almost solely off of the physical hardware. Today, we have a mixture of hardware, programmable hardware, software and mechanical design. Complexity just notched its belt. That complexity is leading to increases in segmentation along with the vice-like squeeze of managerial constraints, and it's all very necessary.

What that means is that creativity is being ripped apart from the inside. By segmenting and putting everything to process, we have destroyed creative opportunity and innovation. Today's engineering world has truly lost the value of creativity.

Alas, complexities aside, there are other factors working just as hard. Competition is growing fiercer. The pressure to get more products to market on tighter timelines is creating scheduling nightmares. For engineers, it makes thoughts towards creativity and innovation virtually impossible.

Change The System

As a design engineer, you have a need to be creative; it's in the way you're wired. We need to make sure that the opportunity to experiment, explore and even fail from time to time is still on the table. According to Evans, the system needs to change radically. This can only be done by looking at it from a bird's eye view. We have to see the product as not just a means to an end but a way to change the experience of the end user. What we do to get to that point all of a sudden becomes that much more important.

It opens things up. It breaks down boundaries. It reinvents the system to be more flexible in the way new designs are introduced. Is it even possible to pull off at this point? Evans believes it is.

Just like a gangrenous limb, the functional intelligence currently employed needs to be severed, or disconnected from its soft elements like hardware. Suddenly creativity and innovation are no longer constrained. The environment becomes conducive to risk-free creativity and ideas and vision are back in the drivers seat, right where they should have been all along.

A single-system with a high-level approach will free design engineers and allow them to develop and innovate, explore new ideas, while allowing engineers to reclaim their value, value that has been lost through so many constraints.

The beauty of it is that the end benefit isn't confined to engineers alone. In fact, it's critical to a product's market success. It's vital to our industry and the economy as a whole. Just don't assume that this is going to happen all by itself. Action needs to be at the forefront in order to create change.