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Opinion Piece: Engineers and Design Thinking

– Article by Sheetal Sohoni.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” -Albert Einstein

I am a designer with experience of over 20 years as a student, faculty, and a professional consultant. My first brush with design came, when I joined an architecture program in India. Until the start of the formal training at the architecture school, design to me was limited to patterns/images on my dress or rangolis made by my mom. I had no reference of creativity, because till 12th grade, I was busy with mugging up formulas for Physics and Chemistry and
solving differential equations in Math class. Architecture brought me close to exploring my own creativity, and thus my journey with design started. I changed my career path from designing buildings and interiors to designing multimedia, and now finally to designing user experiences. My design education continued in the USA with degrees in graphic design, web design, and user experience design. The design education in different fields from different countries helped in strengthening and developing my design philosophy.

As a teacher, I took responsibility of teaching young budding designers to learn creative thinking and visualizing
design. One common question that every new batch asks me is, is everyone creative? My answer is, yes. I truly believe that all of us are creative. The difference lies in how we perceive things and how we define and present them. Creativity is the reason that a single question regarding direction, can be answered in multiple ways. A simple math equation can be solved in multiple ways. We don’t realize, but we inadvertently use our creativity to present or project ideas. On a lighter note, making excuses for not delivering work is another form of creativity.

The next question that I always encounter is, whether designing and creativity are limited to designers. This is one of the major reasons for me to have written this article. I have seen creativity in housewives (my mom was one), in young kids, in faculty members, in doctors, and of course engineers. All of us in one form or other design our day, our future, and our life. I truly feel that engineers are a creative lot, because they are able to visualize the needs of the future and design remarkable solutions. Electricity, steam engines, cars, telephones, and computers are some of the many creative products of engineers’ minds.

I believe that like any other form of education, design thinking, and creative thinking can be taught. Creative thinking is one of the essential skills in today’s world where nothing is certain. No wonder lots of universities are offering design thinking and creative thinking courses along with engineering degrees. According to Owen Daly-Jones, vice president and global head of Sutherland labs, Design Thinking and Engineering are complimentary disciplines, but have very different cultures. Where engineering aims for perfection, designing values imperfection. There are lots of examples of sound engineering products that failed in the real world because engineers were not able to gauge and include people’s aspirations for new products. Instead of building a different kind of horse-drawn carriage, engineers built a car. Instead of an improved portable CD player, engineers designed the iPod and smart phones.

Designing is a collaborative and human centric process, where users play an important role in defining the problem, ideating solutions, and selecting the appropriate solution. IDEAO is a design based global company started in San Francisco, California. The IDEAO design team comprises of engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. The team has been involved in designing solutions from the digital space to the physical space. Some of the products developed by IDEAO team are computer mouse for Apple, video games to strengthen kids’ emotional strength, futuristic kitchens, grocery cart, and designing a scalable restaurant to create awareness about Indian food. IDEAO is a great example where engineers are using their technical knowledge along with their design thinking to provide solutions for future.

As a designer, one process that I always try to follow, is that I focus on the problem statement rather than solution. By doing so I am not restricting myself from ideating multiple options. The great physicist, Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” We tend to focus on finding a perfect solution for a problem and thus lose a chance to come up with effective and creative solutions.