Are engineers creative? Not all types of engineering require creativity. But engineering as a whole heavily relies on creativity.
Before we dive deeper into this question, 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
It goes without saying, in engineering you need to use a mix of logic and theory. But creativity drives the application of logic and theory forward. It’s a yin and yang situation.
This now creates the foundation for our discussion.
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. So you take the device apart and find a mechanical part broken inside. You replace the part and the device now works.
The work wasn’t inherently creative. You didn’t invent something unique. But you did use some level of imagination to troubleshoot.
How much creativity is in engineering, given the dependency on physical laws?
Almost everything you see around you was “created” by engineers. The following is a shortlist of designs you’re probably familiar with:
- Video games
- Prosthetic limbs
For all these designs, engineers depended on their knowledge of physical laws. It’s not a far stretch to then say physical laws are an engineer’s most important tool.
Without this tool, you couldn’t bring your creative thoughts to life. How would you build a plane when you lack understanding over Bernoulli’s Principle? You couldn’t!
So yes, as an engineer you work around the confines of physical laws. BUT at the same time, you constantly repurpose and iterate over existing designs. Because the goal is to always improve over existing designs.
Imagine a car. The core function operation of a car has not changed for decades. But through part creativity, cars are constantly becoming faster, lighter, and more comfortable. Such improvements require imagination, to iterate over past designs.
And here is where we circle to art. Most forms of art such as writing, painting, and sculpting, are all highly derivative work. Meaning, every form of art feeds off past work to some degree.
Let’s now take what we learned one step further.
Engineering creativity compared to the art of music
Many engineering solutions use already-made parts, products, and processes. So a lot of the time, there’s an established design guideline and structure to follow.
But, you still need to choose the best parts to mate together. This includes integration of parts into existing systems.
Some don’t view this as creativity. Rather, you’re using logic and following a set of rules. Because for every scenario or action, there’s a rule to follow.
This process is actually not much different than creating music though.
I’ve been playing music since I was 8 years old. I know when it comes to composing orchestral music, there’s a madness to the art. You don’t just slap some notes on paper and you have a Mozart composition on your hands.
To elucidate, I had a music teacher who was a established composer as well. He’d meticulously study the different instruments using music theory. Then through his analysis, he found how best to mix and match notes together.
He always said there’s clear logic at play in composing music. You do a lot of problem-solving to best fit sounds together. Then you could go as far as to say music composers copy from past artists too. Recycling and tweaking melody architectures from music theory.
This recycling of music was even found done by one of greatest composers in history.
The myth surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s creative success
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 far from 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 over subpar musical parts.
He even said a series of string quartets he composed was a “fruit of long and laborious effort.” All the while, he wrote as he sat behind a piano. He had to hear the musical notes as he attempted to compose.
Mozart’s first composed concerto
Mozart wrote his first piano concerto at the very young age of 11. Again, he didn’t have a creative ‘ah-ha’ moment.
Rather, it was uncovered his music was a new interpretation of existing songs. This certainly doesn’t strip away his child prodigy label. Especially given his first original concerto came at the age of 17. But it does show the derivative copy-cat nature of music composition.
Even more, his dad, a composer himself, started training Mozart at the young age of 3. So, he had 14 long years of practicing, and honing of skills, before writing his original concerto.
Mozart famously 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.”
Mozart’s creativity compared to engineers
In engineering, you learn and then learn some more to perfect your craft. Then you take bits and pieces from other engineers’ discoveries, to form original ideas. You do this all in the confines of the laws of physics.
Similarly, Mozart endlessly practiced. He then composed within the confines of the music theory he followed.
Now of course, I’m not saying an average engineer rivals the intellect of Mozart. But like Mozart who is the pinnacle of great composers, similar exceptional engineers exist.
Overall, there are many similarities between engineers and musical artists. I find both ventures display the same flavor of what we define as “creativity.”
Engineering work scope and the relation to creativity
There are many fields of engineering, and varying positions to choose from. Your position choice factors into the amount of creativity you’ll use.
For example, some engineers at SpaceX work on the bleeding edge of tech. They try to solve the following types of problems:
- Reduce the cost of rocket launches to allow for more space flights
- 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, which require original ideas. Hence, the creativity requirement.
Then there are many completed engineering projects too, where engineers used endless creativity. Look no further than the creative design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can read about it in my 7 steps in how to be a creative engineer.
To point out, these engineering positions are the cream of the crop. I’d go as far as to classify them as glamorous engineering positions. Like Mozart, only a select few engineers are able to flex their creativity muscle to such degrees.
Not all engineers are equally creative
In basketball, the most difficult position to play is 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. All the while, other players simply go in their set positions waiting for a pass.
Clearly, not all NBA players are playmakers. Some don’t have the physical abilities, while others lack the creative mind. This is all similar to engineering.
Usually, one or two engineers do all the heavy creative lifting in projects. While the other engineers provide support work, requiring little to no creativity. This is typically the case, especially as project complexity grows.
It’s important to realize, being an engineer doesn’t instantly mean you’re creative. It may just mean you’re great at math. Or, you can effectively analyze project parameters and then recycle solutions from others.
If given the opportunity though, I’m sure many engineers can crank up their creativity.
Elon musk states,
“I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.”
But, a ceiling does exist for engineering creativity. Creativity hinges on the following qualities, which differs from person to person:
- Rapid spatial reasoning
- Memory capacity
- Pattern recognition
On that note, read my 20 tips on how engineers can become more creative.
“Are engineers creative?” wrap up
“Creativity” has a different definition depending on who you ask. But one thing is clear, engineers solve problems. They come up with efficient solutions, while up against given constraints and conditions.
And yes, the end goal is clear, but the process is far from straightforward. This is where imagination and original ideas come into play.
So no matter how you define “creativity,” engineering is a conduit from the mind to the real world. It has allowed humans to move out from caves, and build an amazing technological world.
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.