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Turning a Blind Eye to the Creativity in Engineering

A few months ago, I wrote a post here at engineering-matters that talked to multiple intelligences and how they relate to the engineering field. That topic struck me as important because it acknowledges the fact that engineering requires multiple types of technical skills and knowledge. It’s not all just about book smarts or visualization. A successful engineer needs to be some myriad combination of them. I still feel strongly that is an accurate picture of today’s intelligence demands on engineers. However, I recently saw a presentation that made me think that view is incomplete. Read on and I’ll explain.

Yet Another Aspect of Engineering

The presenter was Saul Griffith from Otherlab and he was presenting during the Creativity 2.0 – Making Design Personal Again track of Autodesk University’s Innovation Forum. He’s a fascinating guy doing some highly innovative work. His presentation, which mainly focused on different examples of his work, was a pleasure to attend. I’m very glad I caught it. Core77 has a three part series of interviews with Saul (part 1, part 2 and part 3) if you’d like to read, see and hear more.

Now, as interesting as Saul’s presentation was for me, that’s not why I’m mentioning it now. Instead, my biggest takeaway was someone else that Saul quoted at the end of his presentation. Now I don’t have that exact quote, so I’ll do my best to paraphrase it. And by the way, if someone does have a link off to the person and quote that Seth quoted, please leave it in the comments.

A musician woke in the middle of the night from a nightmare and conveyed it to his wife. He dreamed that young students in music were forced to drudgingly memorize the works of past musicians until they were well into adulthood. The constraint on creativity horrified the musician.

Likewise, a artist was startled from sleep the same night. He too was terrified by a dream where young artists were made to recreate works of arts that came before them, never being able to explore their own creativity.

Sadly, this is the strategy behind engineering education today.

Creativity in Engineering

I’m an advocate for change in engineering education. Believe me. But the main reason I’m writing about this today is for another somewhat related reason. For me, this quote speaks to the creativity inherently necessary in an engineer. And it made me think: there’s not much of an acknowledgement of that. Now, acknowledgement really isn’t a problem in and of itself. However, the real issue, as I see it, is the lack of development and continued nurturing of creativity in engineering. Most engineering educational curriculums focus almost exclusively on technical topics. Most ongoing career certifications, professional development and ongoing educational programs focus on much of the same.

Is this really a problem? Some old-school engineers might dismiss this issue out of hand with a “you have it or you don’t” type of attitude. But in fact, different aspects of product development are changing in the way that creativity, which some would say is a pseudonym of innovation, is fostered. There has been an explosion of interested in the “front end of innovation” with a plethora of software applications, processes and methodologies. Some company’s corporate strategy has innovation as a central tenant.

So where am I going with all of this? Here it is: fostering creativity is different and separate from imparting technical knowledge or developing different types of intelligences. Yet there is little structure, either from engineering education or continued professional development programs, that focus on creativity.


Well, I’ve laid out my thoughts. I’d like to get your perspective. Have you seen any programs, in engineering education or otherwise, that focus on nurturing the creativity of engineers? Do you know of any innovation programs targeted at engineers? Sound off. Let us know what you think.

Oh. If anyone knows who Seth was quoting and can even link off to the original, I would be most grateful. I searched but came up with nothing.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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