An artist’s impression of engineering

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

Do you look at the details or the big picture? Probably both, but what can you learn from artists about training your brain to be more creative in its thinking and reasoning?

Innovation is something every engineer is tasked with, but what exactly is it? Many would put it down as some kind change to a design or process that adds more value than cost. But isn’t innovation about solving problems better today than you did yesterday?

Broadly speaking, there are two overarching methods to solving problems. Some are more analytical and look for steady improvement, while others are more creative and try to find more revolutionary step change ideas. Everyone is different, of course, and usually these approaches are moulded together in different ratios that are unique to the individual and problem in hand.

First though, let’s delve a little deeper into the mind. The brain is split in to a right and left side. The right side is emotional, imaginative and tends to look at problems as one big picture. The left side of the brain, by contrast, is analytical, logical, and is all about breaking problems down by looking at the details.

Now, many prospective engineers indulge the left side of the brain in their formative years by learning about maths and science, and perhaps the process of making things in lessons like design and technology. But, these individuals are not usually met with advice like, ‘you should do some creative subjects, like art, if you want to be an engineer’. So should they?

Many engineers have had to cultivate and nurture a creative problem solving skill once reasonably established in a career. So what is it to, ‘think outside the box’ and what makes great innovators?

Artist’s view on engineering

Artist turned robotics engineer Phillip Norman is perhaps as well known for his magazine and newspaper caricatures as he is for his modular robotics platform. As a trained painter and sculptor he recalls seeing engineers at university as geeky anoraks. His initial view falls in line with the general perception that engineering is less about creativity, and more about applying logic, science and maths.

“I’ve changed that view,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of brilliant engineers and they are all hugely creative people. Great engineering projects are every bit as creative as anything an artist might create.”

Disequilibrium between the right and left

Creating unbalance between the right and left side of brain is something we all do on a daily basis, often without ever really knowing it. This can be in the shower, talking a walk, exercising or listening to music. Archimedes' apparently achieved his breakthrough by taking a bath.

“To lead a balanced well-adjusted life we need the left and right sides of the brain to constantly communicate and live in equilibrium” said Norman. “But actually, a bit of disequilibrium between the two can be a useful thing. It allows the creative side more freedom to do just that, create.”

It is the classic technique of taking a step away from a problem, and distracting yourself in an activity that let’s your creative mind wonder. These seeming epiphany moments occur when the proverbial cognitive pressure is released, and the calculating left hand side of the brain takes a break and allows the right to inject some big picture thinking. It can be on a subconscious level, but taking a walk with the problem in mind is never a bad idea when you come up against a design brick wall.

Staying creative

There are a number of other techniques that help in the creative process, either as an individual or in a team setting. The first is that nothing should be off limits, or laughed at. Don’t constrain yourself to things that are necessarily logical. Be open minded if colleagues suggest things that seem off the wall. Even if these are to be dismissed, they can set a path towards a more creative and abstract solution that is a preferred outcome.

Software giant Autodesk regularly does work with artists for exactly this reason. Maurice Conti, director of applied research at Autodesk, said: “We do a lot of work with artists as they approach problems in a completely different way to engineers. Artists tend to be driven by creativity, not logic, so the way they use equipment and approach design is different, and that can produce really interesting and results that we can feedback to engineers, as it can be a better way of doing things that we would never have thought of.”

The power of positivity is also something that helps incubate creativity. If you are happy at work it’s more likely you will bring better ideas to the table. So, have fun with what you do, and with those you work with.

The pressure and competitive nature of business is a reality when approaching a design and engineering challenge, but it can be a hindrance especially if it harbours a negative working environment. This can lead to pessimistic project goals, lead to a preoccupation to criticise or defend suggestions, which robs the right side of its creative power. Feeling comfortable in a team, being positive and having fun has a number of benefits – better design is one of them.

Another cliché is that a good team is more than the sum of its parts. It is cliché because it is true. Surround yourself with brilliant people that love what they do, are positive and passionate. Being around people that can tap in to their right hand side of the brain easily can help you learn to better reframe problems, and make adjustments around how you approach problems.

A similar point to above, is to allow skills to intermingle and cross-pollinate. Having a ‘not my department’ philosophy acts as a roadblock, where as a more open collaborative approach has shown to be hugely valuable. Understanding different parts of a product or process can give a peripheral design vision to engineers, that improves how the product comes together as a whole.

Art meets engineering

Like engineers, artist have their fair share of tricks and shortcuts to make life easier, and give the final piece as big an impact as possible. So what are some of Philip Norman’s turn-to techniques?

“I think carefully about composition in industrial design,” he said. “Ask yourself, what is felicitous in terms of proportions. Every design, like works of art, needs to have integrity and clarity in what it is communicating.”

This is a key point, as being creative is not all about going off on a tangent unchecked. After all, you work for a business that needs to make money. So a good way of managing the two is to give creative thoughts a platform on which to build.

“For me, a reliable structure was the Golden Mean,” he explained. “When I was working on the modular system of the robot, it is scaled on the Golden Mean. I started looking at the spiral and how it evolves through squares and creates proportions and sizes that are 61.8% apart. So when I built the modular parts, there is a 61.8% difference in proportion.

“These kinds of number relations such as perfect numbers, Fibonacci and the Golden mean, are design principles I hold in my head when I’m working. It provides a proven foundation rather than conjecture. What is liberating is that then the right hand side of the brain can go off with a great deal of confidence.”

Engineering is a creative industry

Today, engineering is a creative industry, and this is a trend only set to increase as much of the technical burden is being removed, allowing the solution and design to be the priority, and not the calculations. Both are vital, of course, but the pendulum is definitely swinging towards giving more thought to the abstract to produce innovation.

So are engineers driven by the right or left side of the brain, and does this need to change?

“It is a very cliché categorisation that has gone now,” said Norman. “I don’t really think about being an artist or engineer. One thing I would say is that engineers are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met, but also the most well rounded. They tend to be very stable people and are much less volatile and emotional than many artists. They seem to have stability in left and right hand side of their brains. They also tend to be fulfilled people that live interesting and content lives.”

About Ross Robotics

Instead of producing robots with single task in mind, where tools and sensors are permanently installed, Artist turned engineer Philip Norman decided to bring about a flexible, robust and cost effective modular robotic platform.

The development of its modular platform allows robots to be easily re-configured to carry a wide range of instruments for different applications. It also allows hardware upgrades to be easily attached via a plug and play connection, so only the module needs to be purchased rather than the entire robot.

Philip Norman is the originator of the Robosynthesis modular robotic platform and is had his Eureka moment when, “I started looking at my children’s construction toys and wondering why so many parts were needed to create not that many constructions,” he said.

The robots have been deployed in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.

The creative checklist
  • Take regular steps away from a problem, particularly if you get stuck. Distract yourself with activities like going for a walk.
  • Be open minded and supportive. Even if colleagues suggest things that seem off the wall, these can set a path towards a more creative and abstract solutions.
  • Surround yourself with brilliant people that love what they do, are positive and passionate.
  • Try to reframe problems and look at them from a different perspective.
  • Collaborate! Having a ‘Not my department’ philosophy acts a roadblock, but understanding different technical needs gives a peripheral design vision to improve how the product comes together as a whole.
  • Keep your creative side in check by providing a platform on which to build.

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