Learn the 7 Steps on How to Be a Creative Engineer

Learn how to be a creative engineer in 7 easy to follow steps, to solve complex engineering problems. In return, you’ll positively impact countless lives.

I’m not even exaggerating, as engineering rides the back of creativity.

Just look around your own home. Every gadget staring back at you went through a deeply creative engineering process.

In fact, if it wasn’t for creativity, we’d still be pulling bugs out of our hair while living inside caves.

Before we go over the 7 step method, I want to touch on the different levels of creativity among engineers.

Are all people equally creative in engineering? 

The simple answer is ‘no.’

Creativity among engineers has a broad range.

Engineers need to process complex information from many sources and find solutions. It’s no cakewalk.

As with every profession, levels exist. Each of us ranks differently when it comes to the following qualities:

  • Rapid spatial reasoning
  • Memory capacity
  • Pattern recognition

It’s no different than in the NBA. All NBA players have different physical and mental qualities.

For example, there’s Lebron James, then hundreds of bench warmers beneath him. Clearly, all NBA players aren’t created equal. The differences found in NBA players include:

  • Height
  • Wingspan
  • Athletic ability
  • Durability
  • Court vision
  • Memory
  • Aggression

The point is, you may never become as creative as some engineers you know. And that’s totally okay.

But you can always strive to reach your full creative potential. Many engineers never try to maximize their creative ceiling.

This is where following this 7 step method on how to be a creative engineer will help you.

Also, check out my 20 tips on how to maximize your engineering creativity.

The importance of creativity in engineering

golden gate bridge black and white
Golden Gate Bridge (Photo Credit: Angel Origgi)

Sharpening your creativity in engineering is critical. Because engineers face countless difficult problems that need solutions.

I’m not talking about just designing the next great iPhone feature. But, building around real-world obstacles.

Think of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Engineers had to build a strong and big enough bridge across turbulent and deep waters. This was no easy feat.

You can’t just drive several pillars and pour a concrete platform to act as a road. Then you have your bridge.

The complexity was unimaginable, given the time period of design and construction. Engineers had to exhaust their creativity to find a solution.

I want to now showcase the engineering creativity in the Golden Gate Bridge. So, I’m going to reference this bridge all throughout the 7 steps on how to be a creative engineer

Important Note: the Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County. 

As early as 1820, talks started about building a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait. 

In 1921, an engineer named Joseph B. Strauss submitted a design package for the bridge. 

The construction later began on January 5th, 1933, and the bridge opened on May 27th, 1937. 

#1 Closely review the project work scope and identify the problems

Building a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait seemed impossible at one point.

In fact, it was labeled as “the bridge that couldn’t be built.”

But as the project picked up steam, the trigger was finally pulled. Engineers then started evaluating the design variables to tackle this herculean project.

Some of the extreme design variables included the following:

  • Strong water currents
  • Deep, dark, murky, and cold waters
  • Powerful stinging winds
  • Endless thick fog
  • The San Andreas Fault located 7 miles offshore
  • Bedrock location
  • Constant load from vehicle travel over the bridge

Talk about a long list of challenges!

Now, this outlining of the project’s scope is critical. This highlights where you need to focus your creative mind in the later steps.

Also, it shines a light on where you need to dig deep and do research to collect missing data. Keep in mind, the more data you have, the more creative you can become.

For example, the Golden Gate Bridge required extensive Earth analysis. Engineers had to gather as much data as possible around the Golden Gate Strait.

This helped engineers determine their design requirements for the bridge foundation. The foundation connects the bridge and the ground.

Thus, identify and list ALL your project variables. You want every potential problem identified.

Leave no stone unturned!

#2 Closely analyze the project problems

Once you have your problems clearly identified, you need to focus on each of them.

In this step, you’ll research and analyze each of the problems you’ve pinpointed.

This allows you to understand the effects of all the variables in your project. For example, understanding the role wind plays in your bridge design.

If you’ve ever biked across the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll know how windy it is.

Engineers had to consider static wind load. The horizontal force that pushes a bridge sideways.

Engineers had to design a bridge that would push back against this force. Otherwise, the bridge could possibly fall over from instability.

Then there were dynamic wind loads. The aerodynamic interaction between the bridge and flow of air past structural elements.

What’s more, the wind caused the following difficulties for the construction workers:

  • Precision work becomes a challenge
  • Tools flying out from the hands of workers
  • Cranes and towers falling over
  • Workers falling from great heights
  • Materials and debris striking workers
  • Dust irritating worker eyes
  • Breathing and hearing difficulties
  • Increase in construction costs

In short, engineers had to firmly grasp the impact of wind on the project. Otherwise, the project would fail.

This is why it’s important to understand the implication of all design variables.

Only then, can you come up with a creative solution that meets your project specs.

Reduce project problems into parts for easier analysis

Combine your education and research, to investigate all parts of your project. This helps you simplify your project.

Thereafter, break your project down into small parts.

Engineers reduced the effects of wind on the Golden Gate Bridge into the following parts:

  • Static wind load
  • Dynamic wind load
  • Construction challenges

You need this level of simplification. Because you can’t rely on a guide to direct you.

If designs were all cookie-cutter, you wouldn’t even need to be creative in engineering.  You’d simply flip open the instruction guide and follow it to a T.

Before the Golden Gate Bridge, engineers hadn’t built a suspension bridge this large.

So, an existing design template didn’t exist.

#3 Organize the project problems to form a design path

golden gate bridge south tower
Golden Gate Bridge south tower (Photo Credit: Bart Dunweg)

Yes, we’ve already outlined the problems.

But now after our analysis step, we have much more data and perspective to work with.

For example, engineers designed the north tower onshore after a thorough geological analysis. The tower sits on top of strong chert rock on the Marin Headlands’ shore.

The south tower was another story. The design had this tower built 1100-feet offshore submerged 100-feet underwater on bedrock.

It was a big contention in the design process, as it was a major design component. Plus, it was the first bridge support constructed in the middle of the ocean.

In short, deep and proper analysis allows you to better create a design direction. This is a key part to becoming a creative engineer.

In this step, you do the following:

  1. List all the problems while considering your analysis from Step #2
  2. Categorize your problems (e.g. tower, cables, and construction workers)
  3. Rank the problems by the degree of challenge
  4. Prioritize the gathered project data (e.g. wind speed is more important than the ambient temperature)

Now, regarding the Golden Gate Bridge. The following were some of the highest-ranked design elements:

  • Towers: these were the pillars that would hold up the bridge. A major structure, given the bridge size and the loads the bridge would carry.
  • Main deck: this is the area where cars would drive over. This deck design consisted of four major components:
    • The reinforced concrete bridge deck
    • Permanent corrugated steel formwork
    • Cross girder beams
    • Deck truss system
  • Safety innovations: the construction environment was beyond dangerous. As a result, for the first time, construction hats became required. Also, the chief engineer, Joseph Strauss had a net placed under the bridge to catch fallen workers. The net saved 19 men, and they were famously called the “Halfway to Hell Club.”

Keep in mind, each of these design elements has many subcategories.

#4 Brainstorm design solutions for the project

With your problem clearly defined, you begin brainstorming solutions. To point out, it’s critical you’ve executed the previous steps properly.

Otherwise, you’ll problem-solve something that’s not even relevant to the project.

For the Golden Gate Bridge, the original design idea was far from ideal. In 1921, chief engineer Joseph Strauss proposed a design called “ugly” by the local press.

This bridge design had a suspension span section. Also, it had cantilever trusses providing support on both ends.

Later in 1929, Leon S. Moisseiff and O.H. Ammann proposed a full suspension bridge design.

Joseph Strauss entertained both of these design options.

Important Note: engineers submitted different design proposals for the Golden Gate Bridge. These designs came at different time periods.

Thus, the 7 steps for how to be a creative engineer weren’t followed to a T. And that’s completely okay. 

Sometimes, two different outfits brainstorm over a solution. Then at some point, these outfits hit a point of intersection where ideas mesh.

#5 Selecting a design solution for the project

golden gate bridge full suspension bridge
Golden Gate Bridge full suspension bridge (Photo credit: Maarten van den Heuvel)

Now, here we finally choose a solution from all the presented ideas from Step #4.

You need to compare and evaluate all the solutions together. You choose the best idea based on the following requirements:

  • Engineering feasibility
  • Compliance with project specs
  • Environmental impact
  • Aesthetics
  • Design and construction cost
  • Design and construction timeline
  • Worker and public safety

Once you select an idea, your entire focus needs to shift to this idea. You can’t still try to entertain your other ideas.

I know, sometimes it’s not easy.  You’ve probably grown attached to some of your ideas.

But, you typically only have the resources to run with one idea.

Of course, sometimes the best solution comes out to be a dud. In this instance, you shift gears and run with a previously brainstormed idea.

Or, you rewind back to Step #4.

The Golden Gate Bridge and the deflection theory

In 1929, Leon S. Moisseiff and O.H. Ammann convinced Strauss to go with a full suspension bridge design.

Thus, what we see today in San Francisco is the full-suspension bridge design.

Engineers in the end selected this design because of the new deflection theory. This theory made this engineering marvel possible.

What’s more, the work from Steps #2 and #3, highlighted the great loads the bridge would carry. This nudged engineers to realize this was no ordinary bridge project.

Without the big picture lens of understanding all the bridge loads, engineers may have overlooked the deflection theory. Because engineers would’ve underestimated the bridge loads.

Thankfully, Strauss’ team avoided an ugly, monstrous, and expensive bridge. Even more, they prevented a bridge that would snap from the ferocious winds.

Important Note: in structural engineering, deflection is important in design. It’s the movement, or change in geometry, of a solid object in response to forces. 

Now, the deflection theory is a mathematical model. It allows you to calculate how a bridge’s deck and curved cables work together to carry loads. 

In other words, the roadway would safely flex in the wind because of its thin and flexible build. This reduces unsafe vibrations from stress.

The main cables on the bridge would absorb a lot of the wind pressure pushing against the bridge. This energy would then transmit to the towers.

The towers would then absorb the energy. The key is the curve of the main cables that allows loads to be easily carried compared to stiffer bridges.

Thus, the deflection theory showed how suspension bridges are superior. They could carry more load than originally thought. Thus, the Golden Gate Bridge would become lighter, more elegant, and still, remain safe. All the while, save on costs by reducing the number of construction materials needed. 

#6 Implementation of the selected design solution for the project

golden gate bridge traffic
Golden Gate Bridge traffic (Photo Credit: Mihály Köles)

With an idea in the bag, you now begin your rigorous design.

Here you’ll start doing your in-depth calculations and drawing out your design.

For example, let’s re-look at the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Engineers and geologists determined the following:

  • The use of dynamite to blast away the uneven rocky bottom was necessary to create a workable base for the piers.
  • South pier foundation required over 125 thousand cubic yards of concrete.
  • South pier footing had to extend 20 feet into the bedrock.
  • The height of the suspension tower will rise 746-feet above the ocean. It will connect the two main cables, which span 7650-feet.

In this step, you’d create mockup designs too, if necessary. This allows you to verify your calculations.

Engineers had built a model suspension tower to confirm their calculations. They tested the tower in a civil engineering testing machine.

They simulated the forces the model tower would experience.

This type of real-world analysis allows you to also see how well you executed your past steps. You check to see if you’ve addressed all your problems from Step #1.

In short, you want to complete the entire project design in this step.

This is a grueling process, especially for complex projects. But, if you properly followed the previous steps, the work becomes simpler.

#7 Project reflection upon completion 

Once you complete your project, evaluate the entire project process.

Through this reflection period, you’ll find key takeaways for future projects.

Of course, some of the most creative engineers simply have a knack for creative thinking. BUT, they’re also constantly chasing after more and more challenging work.

After each project, they gain new skills and knowledge. This enables them to tackle greater challenges using more creativity.

This is why evaluating your work is so important if you want to become a more creative engineer.

I personally write down everything I learn after every project. This includes writing down my thought process when I mull over and solve problems.

If I don’t write it down, I’ll forget the fine details several years from now.

I know, some of this stuff may seem trivial when it’s fresh in your mind. But trust me, when a new similar project comes along, you’ll be scrambling to find any helpful notes.

For example, engineers learned the following from the Golden Gate Bridge:

  • Full suspension bridges are great options for long spans while supporting all loads
  • Bridge towers can safely anchor to the ocean floor

Both of these items carry countless sub-lessons for future engineering projects.

What’s more, the Golden Gate Bridge taught us about proper safety requirements. More specifically, every project needs its own unique set of safety requirements.

The safety requirements for construction workers at this bridge site included the following:

  • Safety lines and hard hats
  • Glare-free goggles for visibility to combat the Sun’s reflection off the water
  • Special diets to fight dizziness from heights
  • Sauerkraut juice to beat hangovers
  • Onsite field hospital to instantly treat injuries
  • Safety net placed under the bridge to catch workers who fall

These safety requirements were never seen in a bridge-building project before. They became game-changers in the construction field.

After the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, future bridge construction became safer.

Even more, this bridge inspired engineers to build larger and bolder bridges.

“How to be a creative engineer” wrap up

When it comes to complex problems, creativity doesn’t work like in the cartoons. A lightbulb doesn’t instantly go off in your head.

You need a strong understanding of your scope of work and the related problems. Only then can you thread your thoughts to come up with a solution.

In short, becoming a creative engineer is a process.

But, the more data you have, the more of those ‘ah-ha’ creative instances you’ll experience.

It’s no different than playing your favorite video game. I loved playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a kid.

If I ask you how do you solve the puzzles in the Water Temple, you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t played the game.

So follow these 7 steps on how to be a creative engineer to gather all the data you need.

At the same time, don’t shy away from leading projects. Because it’s the surefire way to reach your full creative potential.

What do you do to become a more creative engineer? Do you think everyone can become a creative engineer?


Featured Image Photo Credit: Maarten van den Heuvel (image cropped)

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