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An Engineer's Imagination: Creativity in Engineering

November 30, 2017

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Imagination. It’s brought us cars, medicine, electricity, and many of the other modern things we take for granted each day. Behind every innovative idea is an engineer. So, why then, don’t many people relate creativity and imagination to the profession of engineering?

When we think of engineering, we often think of a rational, methodical process. Both important traits, but what about creativity? Engineering is often a process of problem-solving and reverse engineering. It requires an ability to think outside the box and visualise a number of alternative solutions and scenarios. What attracts many people to a career in engineering in the first place is a fascination for how things work. In fact, according to new academic research, creativity in the workplace is one of the most desirable attributes sought by engineering students around the world.

With tough problems facing our society, such as how to provide everyone with adequate food, housing and medical care, or how to build a transport system that isn’t detrimental to the environment, it’s more important than ever to ensure that we’re developing engineers to have that innovation and a creative spark to produce new solutions. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing an increase in the number of educational institutions that offer design alongside engineering.

Why do Engineers Need Imagination?

A creative person is arguably someone who does things that have never been done before. Imagination is the ability to form mental images or concepts of what is not present to the senses. It relates to a certain resourcefulness, which is a vital skill when it comes to engineering.

Imagination can enabled engineers to:

  • Think outside the box
  • Visualise a number of alternative solutions
  • Create innovative ideas using solutions that don’t already exist
  • Utilise critical thinking

Creativity in Engineering

In the history of humankind, there have been plenty of innovative ideas in science and technology that have changed the way we do things. Here are just a few examples of creativity in modern engineering:

  • Bullet trains: Japan’s high-speed bullet train, or Shinkansen, is earthquake proof and the maximum operating speed is 200 miles per hour, an idea that once would have been implausible. To exist, it required someone to imagine a new possibility not yet invented and even drew inspiration on the composition of a kingfisher bird to reduce the noise it created.
  • Bagless vacuum cleaners. It may seem normal now, but it was only in 1991 that James Dyson began to investigate the standard vacuum cleaner and look for a new solution that would prevent the bags getting clogged and causing the machine to lose suction. Dyson created a brand new solution that hadn’t yet been thought of.

Every new product has a team of engineers behind it, creating, researching and designing services that impact the physical world. It’s a wonder that some people have a problem perceiving engineering as being a creative industry.

Exercises to stretch your creativity

So, as an engineer, what can you do to improve your imagination and test your creative thinking skills? Here are some quick exercises you can include in your weekly routine to keep your creative brain active.

  • Zachtronics games - you may be familiar with Minecraft, the building game aimed children. Minecraft was developed by Zach Barth, lead designer of Zachtronic games who produces engineering puzzle games. Barth studied computer systems engineering and has turned his engineering knowledge to building these challenging, engineering-focused games.
  • Sudoku puzzles - they are about problem-solving and being able to think a number of steps ahead. Exercise your strategic thinking with a game of number sudoku.
  • Crosswords - although focused on words, crosswords require you to think outside the box and re-think riddles. Test your ability to think of alternative solutions to problems.

Become an Imaginative Engineer

The ability to identify problems and recognise multiple solutions, or even brand new solutions, is an essential part of an engineer’s job. By creating a generation of engineers that have both creativity and imagination, perhaps we can continue to address the challenges faced today.


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