Are engineers creative? Not all types of engineering require creativity. But engineering as a whole heavily relies on creativity.
Before we dive into this question any deeper, let’s define the following two terms:
- Engineering: using science and math to design and build things
- Creativity: using imagination or original ideas to create
So it’s clear that in engineering you need to use a lot of logic and theory. While creativity drives the application of logic and theory forward.
In other words, the goal of engineering is to solve greater and greater problems. Pretty much, working to make our lives even more awesome.
With that out of the way, we can better detail how engineering and creativity relate together.
Important Note: not all problem-solving is equally created. Some problem solving requires very little creativity.
For example, imagine a switch doesn’t work on a device you own. You take your device apart and find a mechanical piece broken inside.
You replace the piece and your device now works.
Now, you didn’t do anything inherently creative. You didn’t create anything novel. But you did use some level of imagination to troubleshoot.
How much creativity is in engineering, with the dependency on physical laws?
Everything you see around you was more times than not designed by an engineer. Here’s a shortlist of inventions you’re probably familiar with:
- Video games
- Prosthetic limbs
I can go on and on.
But the point is, these things didn’t exist before their invention. So, groups of very smart people “created” them.
Clearly, engineering has significantly shaped modern living today. We live comfortable lives because of the advances made in science and engineering.
Of course, engineering relies on your knowledge of physics and sound engineering principles. These are the tools you need to use to create.
Without these tools, you couldn’t bring any of your creative thoughts to life.
How would you build a plane when you have no understanding of the laws of physics? You can’t!
So yes, as an engineer you work around the confines of physical laws.
Even more, you’re constantly repurposing and iterating over existing designs. In other words, with each new discovery, you’re building off a series of past discoveries.
But, this is the case with any art too to some degree. For example, writing, painting, sculpting, are all highly derivative work.
In the end, original ideas still require a certain level of creativity. If they didn’t, we still would be rubbing two sticks together to create fire.
Engineering creativity compared to the art of music
The answer to, “are engineers creative?” hinges on how you define “creativity.”
I already know, not everyone will agree with my definition. And that’s totally okay.
So let’s take a stab at this question using another lens.
For example, many engineering solutions use already-made parts, products, and processes. So, there’s an established guideline and structure you follow to design a lot of the time.
You still need to choose the best parts to match together though. Also, you may need to figure out how to integrate the parts into an existing system.
Some don’t view this as being creative. Rather, you’re using logic and following a set of rules to choose and assemble parts together. Because for every scenario or action you need to take, there’s a rule you can follow.
But, this is actually not so much different than creating music.
I’ve been playing music since I was 8 years old. And I know when it comes to composing orchestral music, there’s a madness to the art.
You don’t just slap some notes on a page and you have a Mozart composition on your hands.
I remember one of my music teachers was a composer on the side. He’d meticulously study the different instruments using music theory.
After his analysis, he was able to find ways to best mix and match notes together. Clearly, there’s logic at play in composing music.
You’re doing a lot of problem-solving to find the best ways to make sounds fit together.
I could go as far as to argue a lot of music composers copy from past artists too. Or simply, a music artist tweaks an existing melody.
The myth surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s creative success
Let’s take this one step further. Growing up, we’re told composition came effortlessly to Mozart.
A flash of lightning struck him as he strolled through a park. He then had a full musical composition stored in his mind, ready to feverishly write on paper.
The truth is much different though.
Mozart worked around the clock perfecting his craft. He constantly iterated over his work, trying to optimize his music.
Also, he created many music sheet sketches, which were his music drafts. This helped him review his music, to fix and brainstorm subpar musical parts.
He even said a series of string quartets he composed was a “fruit of long and laborious effort.”
The process was far from easy. Mozart also said he wrote as he sat behind a piano.
He had to hear the musical notes as he worked. This helped him better piece together musical parts.
Mozart’s first composed concerto
What’s more, Mozart wrote his first piano concerto at age 11. He didn’t have a creative ‘ah-ha’ moment though.
Rather, it was later uncovered the music was a new interpretation of other existing songs. This certainly doesn’t strip away his child prodigy label.
Then moving forward, his first original concerto came at the age of 17. Still very young.
But, his dad, a composer himself, started training him at the young age of 3. Thus, he had 14 long years of practicing, honing his skills, and learning the ins and outs of good composition.
Mozart famously himself once said to a friend:
“People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to compositions as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”
All that said, Mozart is still a musical genius!
Mozart’s creativity compared to engineers
It’s all very similar.
In engineering, you learn and then learn some more to perfect your craft.
Then you take bits and pieces from the discoveries of other engineers, to form original ideas.
You do this all in the confines of the laws of physics. Similar to Mozart, who composed within the confines of the music theory he followed.
Of course, I’m not saying an average engineer rivals the intellect of Mozart.
Just like there are peak creative minds like Mozart in music. There are few exceptionally creative engineers in engineering.
Overall, the lines of thinking between an engineer and a musical artist may differ some. But they both display the same flavor of what we call “creativity.”
Engineering work scope and the relation to creativity
There are many fields of engineering, and position types you can choose from. These all factor into the level of creativity you’ll need to use in your job.
For example, aerospace engineers at SpaceX work on the bleeding edge of tech. They’re trying to solve the following types of problems:
- Reduce the cost of rocket launches to allow for more constant space flight
- Make rocket launches safer for human travel to Mars and beyond
- Improve energy efficiency to allow for deep space travel
These are problems engineers haven’t solved and they require original ideas. Hence, the creativity requirement.
There are countless other engineers who work on the bleeding edge of tech too. As well as engineers who build around the elements of the real world.
For instance, designing and building the Golden Gate Bridge. This required a tremendous level of creativity.
So much so, I outlined the challenges of designing and building the Golden Gate Bridge. I wrote this in my 7 steps in how to be a creative engineer.
Now for sure, these engineering positions are the cream of the crop. I’d go as far as to classify them as glamorous engineering positions.
But it’s important to note, not all engineers fall under this glamorous category. Even if all engineers try to paint themselves in this light.
Engineers are people too. In other words, some engineers build themselves up to be more than who they really are.
Not all engineers are equally creative
In basketball, the most difficult position to play is the point guard.
The point guard, the playmaker, creates plays by dissecting the defense in his mind. Point guards need to quickly find creative ways for their team to score.
At the same time, other players spot up on the three-point line waiting for the ball to be passed to them. Once they get the ball, they just launch a three.
So not all players on an NBA court are playmakers. And some players simply don’t have the ‘it’ factor to ever become an NBA-level point guard.
No different than how I couldn’t ever compose any level of music like Mozart no matter how much I practiced. I could try to learn to play his music though.
This is all similar to engineering.
Usually, one or two engineers do all the heavy creative lifting. While the other engineers provide support work that involves very little creativity.
Sure, a lot depends on the type of project you’re working on. But from project to project, I find this to be the case. You can better spot this delineation as projects become more complex.
Even more, certain types of engineering work involve very little “technical creativity.” This is the case in the following types of work:
- Choosing the best fastener for products
- Running analysis on computers by inputting project parameters
- Selling products to customers as a sales engineer
- Teaching customers about products as a product engineer
Keep in mind, being an engineer by default doesn’t mean you’re a creative genius.
It may just mean you’re great at math. Or, you can effectively analyze parameters and then recycle solutions from other engineers.
In short, many engineering positions don’t require a high level of creativity.
If given the opportunity, I’m sure many engineers can ratchet up their level of creativity.
Elon musk states,
“I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.”
But as we discussed, a ceiling does exist for engineering creativity. Creativity in engineering hinges on the following qualities, which differs from person to person:
- Rapid spatial reasoning
- Memory capacity
- Pattern recognition
On that note, I’ve discussed 20 tips on how engineers can become more creative. This will help you improve your creativity level.
“Are engineers creative?” wrap up
This is a broad question, as engineering is a huge field. Plus, people define “creativity” differently.
But one thing is clear, engineers solve problems. You’re given a list of constraints and conditions.
You then use creativity to solve the problem.
Yes, the end goal is clear, but the process is far from straightforward.
Of course, the climb, the challenge, differs for each engineering project. So some engineers climb a 10-foot hill, while others need to scale Mount Everest.
In the end, we all greatly depend on the imagination and original ideas of engineers. Without engineers, we wouldn’t have the amazing lives we live today.
So no matter how you define “creativity,” engineering has unlocked human potential. We’ve moved out from caves, and into a technological world through “creative” thoughts.
Do you think engineers are creative? Which profession do you think showcases the highest level of creativity?
Featured Image Photo Credit: Johann Nepomuk della Croce (image cropped)
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.