Design Creativity and Design Thinking for Engineers

Design Creativity and Design Thinking for Engineers

The global competitiveness has necessitated new skills in various aspects [5]. Design thinking is one of the crucial skills that is essential in the production and development of innovation [1, 2]. Design is an indispensable aspect for any engineers. Engineers are often required to develop effective solutions to problems to improve social life. In the development of the designs, engineers are required to apply scientific principles to the design process in a creative way [2]. Cooperrider states that creativity is an essential component of the design’s concept phase. Design thinking refers to a creative process of conducting experimentation, evaluation of the experiment and redesigning an entity [1]. Therefore, an inference can be made that relates design thinking to creativity. Design thinking has become an integral part of engineering.

This paper provides a review of design creativity and thinking regarding engineering. In evaluating design creative and thinking for engineers, the paper considers the design process and the nature of creative thinking. The paper then considers the connection between creativity and engineering. Moreover, the paper considers some of the approaches used in improving creativity among engineers.

The Design Process

Cooperrider [1] categorizes the simplest design process is the Express-Test-Cycle. The express stage involves generation of concept using various activities such as ideation, problem definition, sketching, and brainstorming. The Test stage involves vetting and testing of the generated ideas using a specific criterion. The Cycle stage is involved in the improvement of the ideas upon their testing as new issues arise after its implementation. Creativity is of pivot role in the express stage. Gero, Jiang and Williams [3] explain that this phase involves creative activities used in the generation of alternatives aiming to meet a particular design’s requirement. Divergent thinking is required in this phase and hence the high level of design thinking that is characterized by creativity [9].

The design process entails multistep that constitute design thinking [8]. Design thinking entails a combination of various factors that relate to a given problem in the process of problem-solving. It requires obtaining relevant knowledge about a problem, employ empathy with users, identification of target customers and the creation of prototypes. The last stage of this step involves the testing of the prototypes. The process of design thinking helps engineers to have insights that are essential for creativity.

Design Creativity and Thinking

Davidson and Sternberg explain that creativity is a product of both conative and cognitive factors [ 4]. The environment plays a critical role in shaping these factors [11]. Design creativity and thinking involve synthetic and analytic abilities of a person. Various factors affect the creativity of an individual. One such factor involves social intelligence of an individual. Social intelligence is essential in ensuring that the presentation of an idea receives acceptance from the society.

Knowledge is essential in creativity [11]. For an individual to be creative, they are required to have a particular level of knowledge. Such knowledge prevents the reinvention of ideas and forms the base for creativity, that is, knowledge provides the base for solving new or poorly understood problems. Cognitive styles also influence creativity. Cognitive style refers to the various methods of perception, organization and information processing [4]. The ability of an individual to employ various cognitive styles promotes creativity.

Cognitive styles and knowledge are essential for creativity. However, either if these two can obscure creativity. For instance, preferences to any cognitive style may result in the failure of switching from one cognitive style to another can obscure creativity. Moreover, knowledge may be a source of mental rigidity [4] that causes hindrance to creativity.

Relationship between Creativity and Engineering

As earlier mentioned, design is an essential component for engineering [2]. Several aspects of engineering design are related to creativity. These aspects are those in the conceptual design phase involved in idea generation. Such aspects include brainstorming, teaming and design notebooks.

During the process of designing, the express stage requires divergent thinking to generate various alternatives to solve a given problem [2]. Brainstorming is an example of a tool for divergent thinking [10]. Brainstorming, though effective in the generation of alternative methods of problem-solving, may be detrimental to creativity. Cooperrider [2] observed that brainstorming was resulting to lower level of creativity than in cases of individual assessment. Engineers use notebooks to keep their thoughts, ideas, and notes. Notebooks can help to improve creativity in individuals.

Approaches for facilitating and improving creativity

Several aspects have been suggested to improve creativity engineering. Gero, Jiang and Williams [3] gives three concepts of improving creativity. These concepts include the theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), morphological analysis, and brainstorming. These approaches can help to improve creativity among engineers. Moreover, attribute listing [7] and random stimulation [12] as approaches can be used to improve creativity in engineering. This paper considers morphological analysis, brainstorming and TRIZ as applied in engineering briefly.

The concept of brainstorming is as earlier considered. Gero, Jiang and Williams [3] states that brainstorming involves generating creativity using teamwork. It involves generation of as many ideas as possible and aims at removing mental blocks [10]. During the process of idea generation using this process, criticism and judgment are eliminated to allow generation of the highest number of ideas. The process involves random generation of ideas through exploration of large solution space.

Morphological analysis approach can help to improve creativity. It uses a similar approach to brainstorming in that it involves stimulation of unconscious thought [3]. However, this approach uses a defined direction of problem-solving. It involves two steps that involve evaluation of the functionality of a product and the formulation of a complex problem. The problem is then decomposed, and solutions for various sub-problems are generated.

The TRIZ approach is one of the most researched methods. Genrich Altshuller [3, 5] formulated this approach. Dobrusskin [5] states that this approach is involved in the retrieval of information stored in the long-term memory. Various tools of TRIZ have been hypothesized. One such tool is systemized Substance-Field Analysis (Su-Field) [5, 6]. This tool helps an individual to retrieve knowledge systematically to ensure its holistic exploitation. Su-Field has received accreditation by both students and professionals. Su-Field helps individuals to separate themselves with the problem when solving it [5]. The problem is broken down into triads that are then used to solve the problem in an indirect way [6]. It involves solving a problem using a five-step model. The five steps are used to solve the problem through the interaction of eights fields of Mechanical, Acoustic, Thermal, Chemical, Electrical, Magnetic, Intermolecular and Biological. These are fields referred to as MATCEMIB.  Su-Field has been shown to improve creativeness in engineers who use it.

Another TRIZ tool is the Method of the Ideal Results (MIR) [6]. This tool stems from TRIZ’s Ideal Ultimate Result notion. MIR tool allows reframing of a problem by engineers by formulating IUR. The engineer then determines barriers to the occurrence of IUR using the principles of Physics. In the course of these activities, the problem is reframed. MIR helps engineers to develop a mobile crash barrier.


Design creativity and thinking are essential components [12] of engineering. Engineers are supposed to be creative problem solvers to ensure progressive improvement of designs. As earlier stated, creativity is based on knowledge. Knowledge retrieval process may hinder the process of relating various branches of knowledge and their implementation during the design process. Knowledge retrieval is often hampered by short-term storage of the human though due to its unstructured nature [6]. Such hindrances incur adverse effects to creativity during idea generation.

Barriers to information retrieval are detrimental to designing by engineers and prevents them from adjusting  their ideas to meet certain needs. Therefore, there is need to develop mechanisms to overcome this barrier of design thinking and creativity. Such need has seen the formulation of various concept generation creativity techniques such as brainstorming, morphological analysis and TRIZ. The discussion above reveals that various tools of TRIZ method help to overcome the barrier to information retrieval during design thinking by engineers. Consequently, it facilitates divergent thinking during design thinking.

This article provides relevant information for understanding the relationship between design creativity and thinking and engineering. Moreover, the article provides a brief discussion of concept generation techniques during design thinking. An emphasis is given to TRIZ method due to its prevalence among engineers covering various tools and its use during idea generation.




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