Have Designers Lost The Ability To Be Creative?

In the global economy of outsourcing, design knowledge is slowly become a commodity. Low wage workers in third world countries will eventually learn your know-hows and technical skills. The only want to stay competitive is be creative. That’s what really set excellence apart from the mediocre.

by Rob Evans – ED Online – May 28, 2009
You can’t assume that you’re playing at the top of your game. Take an honest look at your own work and ask if it’s the best you can do.

Life if full of unassailable assumed truths, and it’s an often disturbing but always constructive exercise to challenge them. Let’s start by questioning an easy one from everyday life: are you a good driver?

Your instinctive answer is undoubtedly yes, and you would receive the same answer from anyone else you ask. But there are obviously loads of hopeless drivers on the roads. It just so happens that you, or anyone that’s asked, isn’t one of them—supposedly. It’s a self-reassuring assumed truth.

You can challenge yourself with lots of assumed truths. Do you treat people fairly? Are you broad-minded? Does the West dominate innovation? Again, the instinctive answer to them all is yes. But your lack of an objective view should create doubt. The last one is a trap, though you get the idea.

Here’s another: are you creative? Most of us have sufficient self belief to say yes. If you’re an electronics design engineer, it’s unquestionably true, because design is a creative process by definition. The real and challenging question, though, is if you apply that creativity to the benefit of the final product being developed. Watch out for the instinctive “yes” answer here, because that assumed truth needs scrutiny.

What Creativity Really Means

Creative engineering that adds value to a product isn’t the beautiful sweep of a cluster of bus tracks on a printed-circuit board (PCB), nor is it a succinct chunk of code that’s stunning in its simplistic elegance. This design panache might make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but it’s only creative from the focused world of the individual design domains. And, frankly, it doesn’t influence the success of the final product.

Creativity in engineering has profound and tangible value when it makes a product unique among its competitors. It might manifest itself as a total new genre of product or a groundbreaking new experience for the end user. But either way, it’s when innovation through creativity has delivered a sustainable market advantage to a product as a whole.

With this higher-level, real-world definition of engineering creativity that counts, consider again if you deliver that benefit to the final product. Chances are you can’t because of the restrictions imposed by the electronics design environment and methodology you use.

Now we get down to direct questions that aren’t clouded by assumed truths. Do you have the opportunity to explore new ideas, experiment with new technology, and pursue “what if” questions as part of the design process? Innovation is the process of harnessing and applying creativity, but the right design systems and approach need to be in place to allow it to happen. If this isn’t the case, then your creative potential is being squandered.

It’s not only the benefits that design creativity brings to a product that are lost. It’s also the very factor that makes you as a design engineer unique and valuable. In an increasingly globalized electronics industry where design knowledge has become a commodity, there are now millions of engineers around the globe that can do your job. Perhaps there is another dubious assumed truth here: “Of course my designs are special and unique.”

Acquiring and building engineering knowledge is only a temporary advantage—others will quickly learn. Your creative ability is what can set you apart from the rest, but only if you apply it. And it appears, today, most engineers can’t. A large part of the blame for this lies squarely at the feet of the very electronics technology we employ in designs.

Where Did Creativity Go?

The rapid evolution of device technologies means that where we once developed designs based exclusively on physical hardware, a product design now involves a complex mix of hardware, software, programmable hardware, and mechanical design. The result is an explosion in the complexity of the design process and a matching increase in the segmentation and constraints applied to manage that complexity.

From an engineer’s perspective, this course of isolating and bolting down the design processes has destroyed the opportunities for creativity, and therefore the path to true innovation in product design. To make matters worse, it also removes the ability to distinguish your unique value as an electronics engineer.

Other factors are at play as well. The increasing competition imposed by a global electronics design industry has ramped up the pressure to get products to market quickly. Although time-to-market is only a temporary advantage, it nonetheless squeezes the engineering schedules to a point where exploring new concepts and accepting their associated risk is untenable.

A New View

Design engineers need the opportunity to experiment, explore, and even productively fail. This is the font of design creativity and the innovative products it can deliver. To reach this point, we need to change our approach to electronics design and the systems we use to apply that methodology. This means standing back and taking a high-level, holistic view of the design process. It considers the product development in its entirety and focuses on the end user’s sustained experience with that product and the company itself.

Such an approach pulls back the view of design from a blinkered, domain-specific tactic to one that fosters collaborative product design as one task and one process. Creativity can leapfrog an insular perspective and be redirected at the product experience itself and how it hooks into broader ecosystems.

With the current segmented and constrained design systems (the conventional divide and conquer methodology), this new open approach to product design isn’t possible. It requires many of the existing boundaries within electronics design to be broken down and new, flexible ways to design to be reintroduced.

Engineering project teams are ultimately designing one product and should use a single design environment that encompasses the entire design process. Product design can then be tackled with high-level processes as a single task, starting with the concepts and functionality that are defined in the soft domain, while hardware is “plugged in” to suit when needed.

By effectively “disconnecting” the functional intelligence of a design (defined by its soft elements) from the hardware it resides on, creative innovation is no longer limited by predefined hardware constraints. The single design environment allows creative ideas to permeate through all domains without risk, freeing all engineers to explore their ideas and visions with a clear view to the final product.

When such a system is in place, applying this high-level approach to electronics design will free your engineering creativity to develop the next generation of connected electronic products. True innovation in electronics design comes from engineering creativity and the opportunity to explore ideas. And we’re all familiar with it, because it’s built in. It’s the unique “aha!” moment, the moment when the right combination of synapses fires in your frontal lobe, and in practice, when you have pursued the right “what if” questions.

It’s also critical to a product’s ability to compete in the market and to your survival as an engineer in an increasingly globalized electronics design industry and a troubled economy. Here’s one last assumed truth to consider: “Everything will really be okay in the end. I just need to ride it out.” It won’t, you know. Now is the time to act.

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