14 Must Know Engineering Design Tips

To become a 10x design engineer, you need to soak in engineering design tips. And the more tips you absorb, the quicker you can level up.

The best designers have A LOT of experience, but also, they’ve learned what to do and what not to do. This is super critical because engineering design is complex. Especially, when you design on the bleeding edge. Anyone who says otherwise is either not a designer or is doing cookie-cutter designs.

Just remember though, you can never learn enough. Because the next big engineering challenge is always right around the corner. But hopefully, at least, you’ll have the tools to take a shot at every design. Let’s now go over the 14 design tips.

#1 Understand project requirements

ev charging scope of work
Electric vehicle charging station design services scope of work for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements

Be sure you understand every last requirement of a project. Because skipping over one small design requirement can completely derail your design.

For example, let’s say you’re designing a hydroelectric facility. You may know every last design element like the back of your hand. BUT, you forget to design for future capacity.

This one element alone would throw off the work of every last engineer working on the project. This goes from electrical, to civil, to structural, and down the line.

Thus, know AND understand all your project requirements. If you have even 1% of doubt over a project requirement, freeze what you’re doing. Then, go ask questions until everything is crystal clear to you. And if becoming a broken record is necessary to avoid a future catastrophe, then so be it!

#2 Create a project to-do list

I always create to-do lists for every project I work on. This way, I never forget even the smallest of tasks.

Because projects become hairy as you get knee-deep into the work. In other words, design changes are common. So, you can easily lose track of new design elements as they shuttle towards you.

At the same time, I constantly update my to-do lists. I find this is the best way to stay on track with projects. Otherwise, once your schedule becomes hectic, you’ll forget things.

In short, create to-do lists, no matter how good you think your memory is.

#3 Think outside of the box

Don’t quickly jump on the most obvious engineering solution. Instead, dissect a problem to a granular level. This way, you’ll completely understand the problem you’re tackling.

To help you think outside of the box, try to learn from Elon Musk’s learning strategies. He’s the master of thinking outside of the box. One of his favorite strategies to approach new designs is first principles thinking.

Also, learn the engineering creative process. I’ve illustrated this process using the Golden Gate Bridge development as an example. You can see how engineers had to think outside of the box to figure out a unique design solution.

In short, you have many tools to brainstorm engineering solutions. Use them all to figure out the simplest yet most effective design.

#4 Brainstorm and sketch ideas on paper

I find sketching designs on paper, helps get the wheels turning in my head. Sketches allow me to do the following:

  • Create a framework for a given design direction
  • Explore and quickly compare many design concepts together
  • Request feedback over a design direction
  • Find limitations and problems
  • Create a record of ideas

Yes, you can skip this stage. But, there’s no quicker way to explore a proposed design idea than sketching. Especially because ideas hit you when you least expect them. You may be sitting inside a restaurant with your family when a light bulb goes off in your head.

#5 Don’t forget about the construction and manufacturing stage

Good designs ALWAYS consider the implementation phase of a project. I’m talking about the contractors and manufacturers who need to bring your design to life.

So as you design, always think ahead. You don’t want to create a non-buildable design. For example, a mechanical engineer, who shows screws in an area where a wrench will not fit in the factory.

And this is why hands-on work as an engineer is so important.

#6 Keep it simple 

simple apple iphone design

If a design is becoming too complex, look for another solution. Simple is always better.

But, simple designs ironically are more difficult to brainstorm. Because anyone can throw everything and the kitchen sink at a problem to make something work. But at what cost?

Albert Einstein said it best,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

In the end, a simple design usually has the following benefits over a more complex design:

  • Cheaper budget
  • Reduced build time
  • Easier to construct and/or manufacturer
  • Less maintenance

#7 Incorporate a safety factor

Don’t design right down to the required specs. Include a safety factor in your design and you can sleep better at night.

For example with a bridge, a safety factor will increase the load-carrying capacity. So if the bridge safety factor is 2, the required support capacity will double.

This is important because contractors and manufacturers don’t always perfectly implement a design. Also, a safety factor will protect your design from an unexpected increase in load.

To point out, when it comes to rockets, safety factors go out the door. Because you want to keep the rocket as light as possible to save on costs. And this in itself is a unique engineering problem. Hence, the many fascinating elements of rocket structure analysis.

Important Note: the safety factor varies between industries and projects. So, it’s always important to research the typical safety factors used in your industry. 

At the same time, closely analyze safety factors against your project budget. Because as the safety factor increases, project costs will naturally increase too. 

#8 Consider project costs

You can solve almost any engineering problem if you have a large enough pot of gold. Unfortunately, in the real world, leprechauns don’t exist to hand out pots of gold.

So, project costs are huge factors in your design work. You more times than not will have a fixed budget to work around. This is why it’s important to know how to think creatively as an engineer. This way, you can figure out awesome yet affordable solutions.

Not surprisingly, a HUGE part of engineering is keeping projects within budget. I wish engineering was just about designing amazing cool things, but it’s not. Real-world budget boundaries exist.

#9 Don’t reinvent the wheel

spacex falcon heavy landing
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Landing (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

All engineers stand on top of the shoulders of giants. In other words, ALL engineers use the work of millions of past great minds.

So when you come across a problem, don’t instantly try to reinvent the wheel. First, do research. More than likely, someone has come across your exact problem and they found a solution you can borrow.

Of course, if you work on the bleeding edge of tech, there will be fewer solutions you can borrow. But even still, there’s a lot of information you can reuse. Look no further than SpaceX’s reusable rockets. SpaceX wasn’t the first to make reusable rockets, despite what you may think.

NASA’s McDonnel-Douglas first tested reusable rocket technology. The technology pails in comparison to SpaceX rockets of today. But nevertheless, almost 25 years ago, NASA proved the concept. SpaceX then heavily iterated over the existing technology.

#10 Avoid self-imposed limitations

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you even start your design.

An engineering problem may seem impossible at first but always keep an open mind. Some engineering problems simply require reinforced resources, such as the following:

  • A larger engineering team
  • Increased budget
  • Elongated project timeline
  • Extended research and development

In the end, most engineering problems on their own are difficult enough. So, don’t add extra unnecessary limitations with a negative mindset. Especially if you haven’t given your problem justice through your sweat and tears.

#11 Think about the end-user

simple effective tesla vehicle design
Photo Credit: Bram Van Oost

When you design a car, you place the heating and cooling controls, in hand’s reach of the driver. Not on the passenger’s side, because it’s a more minimal design.

The latter design will only make you look like a moron designer. So, always place yourself in the shoes of an end-user. Then ask yourself, what would you want to see in a design as a paying customer?

If what you design, is not something you’d ever stand behind, then why are you designing it?!

Just use common sense, and design for real-world use cases.

#12 Get help from others

You’re never alone when it comes to design work. Don’t try to tackle challenging problems single-handedly. As the old saying goes,

“Two heads are better than one.”

So get help from other engineers. Added input will always help you clear mental hurdles and improve designs. Plus, bouncing ideas off others is a great way to find new solutions to old engineering problems.

#13 Communicate and communicate some more

Keep in touch with all the key players of a project. So if you work with customers directly, speak to them when problems come up. This way, your customer won’t have any surprises down the line.

Plus, I find customers sometimes don’t grasp the ramifications of their proposals. So, your updates will keep them in the loop over the direction of their project.

At the same time, communicate with all the players on your engineering team. Do this throughout an engineering project. So when there’s a design change, quickly inform the other engineers. You never know how a new design element will impact the work of other engineers.

I’ve had other engineers tell me about a design change a week before a project’s deadline. They said the design change is trivial. Lo and behold, I had to burn the midnight oil the entire week to finish the project. I wasn’t happy whatsoever.

#14 Don’t fear critique

Let others review your work before your final submission. In fact, encourage others to pick apart your work. Because even the best of the best engineers make mistakes.

And NEVER take any criticism to heart when it comes to your design work. Criticism will only make you a better engineer. Plus, your design will become safer for the public. A win-win!

What’s more, it’s better another engineer catches your mistake than its ugly face surfacing 5 years down the line. Because a single mistake can cost millions of dollars in re-work and even hurt and kill people.

Without a doubt, it’s a blessing to have a network of engineers you can tap into to review your work. Better yet, if these engineers are your colleagues. Not all engineers have experienced colleagues a shout-away in their office.

Engineering design tips wrap up

All these engineering design tips are deeply woven together. Each tip is heavily influenced by the others.

So apply as many of these tips as you can, to quickly level up your design abilities. Just keep in mind, you’ll never know everything as a design engineer, and this totally okay and normal.

Because designing is a never-ending learning journey. And the constant search for improvement is what creates superstar engineers.

What engineering design tips do you find the most helpful? What do you find to be the most difficult part of engineering design work?


Featured Image Photo Credit: Bram Van Oost (image cropped)

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