7 Steps on How to Be a Creative Engineer

By learning how to be a creative engineer, you maximize your abilities as an engineer. Then, you can tackle the most complex of problems.

Before we go over the 7-step method though, we’ll discuss the different levels of creativity among engineers.

Are all people equally creative in engineering? 

No. There’s a spectrum for creativity levels. 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, with players having different physical and mental qualities. For example, there’s Lebron James, then hundreds of bench warmers beneath him. The differences found in NBA players come from the following:

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

The point is, you may never become as creative as some engineers you know. We’re just not all created equally. But you can always strive to reach your full creative potential, which many engineers don’t do.

The 7-step method on how to be a creative engineer will give you a leg up. 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)

Engineers often face countless difficult problems, which require innovative solutions. Think back to the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Engineers had to build a strong and large enough bridge across turbulent and deep unchartered waters. Given the period of time, the complexity of the project was unimaginable. You couldn’t simply drive several pillars and pour a concrete platform and call it a day. Engineers had to exhaust their creativity to find a solution.

With the stage set, I’ll use the Golden Gate Bridge as the cornerstone of my discussion on how to be a creative engineer.

Important Note: The Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County. As early as 1820, discussions began about building a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait. 

In 1921, engineer Joseph B. Strauss submitted a design package for the bridge. Construction 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.”

However, several engineers still pursued this herculean project undeterred. 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 7 miles offshore
  • Nonideal bedrock location
  • Constant load from vehicle travel over the bridge

This step of outlining the project is critical. It focuses your creativity on the most important areas, and where you need to do research to collect data. And the more data you have, the more creative you’ll become.

For example, the Golden Gate Bridge required extensive Earth analysis for the foundation design. So engineers had to gather a vast amount of data around the Golden Gate Strait. This set the design parameters for engineers to work around.

In summary, identify and list all your project variables, while highlighting potential problems. Leave no stone unturned!

#2 Closely analyze the project problems

Once you’ve identified your problems clearly, research and analyze them in depth. Understand the severity of their impact on your design. Otherwise, you may have an engineering failure.

For example, wind plays a major role in bridge design, and if you’ve ever biked across the Golden Gate Bridge, you know how windy it can get. Engineers had to consider static wind load, which is the horizontal force pushing a bridge sideways. The design had to be able to resist this force to prevent instability and possible collapse.

They also had to consider dynamic wind loads. This is the aerodynamic interaction between the bridge and the flow of air past structural elements.

Then last but not least, the following wind-related issues were considered for the construction workers:

  • Precision work becoming 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 workers’ eyes
  • Breathing and hearing difficulties
  • Increase in construction costs

To point out, a creative solution is only as good as the constraints you have to work around. With the Golden Gate Bridge, a suspension bridge of this size had never been built before. So engineers had to know the monster they were dealing with, before flexing their creativity.

#3 Organize the project problems to form a design path

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

With our analysis step complete, we have much more data and perspective to work with. You can now pragmatically formulate a design path.

We’ll use the bridge towers as our discussion point, as they support the entire bridge and dictate the other design components.

With the bridge loads now understood, engineers had to decide where to place the towers. The north tower, situated onshore, was an easy choice after a thorough geological analysis. The tower sits on top of strong chert rock on the Marin Headlands’ shore.

However, the south tower was another story. The design called for the tower to be built 1100 feet offshore submerged 100 feet underwater on bedrock. This was a contentious issue during the design process due to the construction difficulty. But it was necessary to support the bridge’s immense weight and provide support from the unforgiving wind loads.

Without the proper analysis, engineers may have placed the south tower closer to the shore, compromising the bridge. In summary, do the following in this step:

  1. List all the problems while considering your analysis from Step #2
  2. Categorize your problems by importance (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)

Your most important problem will become the founding variable you first design around.

#4 Brainstorm design solutions for the project

With your design direction established, you can now begin brainstorming solutions. Assuming, of course, you properly executed the previous steps. Otherwise, you may end up solving a problem, which isn’t related to your project.

For the Golden Gate Bridge, with the towers established in Step #3, engineers needed additional support to stabilize the deck. The original decking support design idea was far from ideal though.

In 1921, chief engineer Joseph Strauss proposed a design labeled “ugly” by the local press. The bridge design had a suspension span section, with cantilever trusses providing support on both ends.

Then in 1929, Leon S. Moisseiff and O.H. Ammann proposed a full suspension bridge design. Joseph Strauss still entertained his original idea though.

The more design options you can review, the more data you’ll have to compare and contrast, to make an informed decision.

#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, we finally select a solution from all the presented ideas from Step #4. To do so, you need to compare and evaluate all the solutions together, based on the following requirements:

  • Engineering feasibility
  • Compliance with project specs
  • Environmental impact
  • Construction aesthetics
  • Design and construction costs
  • Design and construction timelines
  • Worker and public safety

Once you select a solution, your entire focus needs to shift to it. You can’t continue to entertain other ideas, otherwise, you won’t make any progress. Also, you typically only have the resources to run with one idea.

In some situations though, the best solution may come out to be a dud. So you’ll need to shift gears and run with a previously brainstormed idea or revert 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. It’s the design you see today when visiting the bridge in San Francisco.

Engineers ended up selecting this design because of the deflection theory. A critical theory used to predict and analyze the amount of movement the bridge deck under load could withstand.

Steps #2 and #3 also highlighted the great amounts of load the bridge would be subjected to. This further nudged engineers to realize it wasn’t only the weight of the bridge causing deflection. But also wind, earthquakes, and high-volume traffic.

Without the big-picture lens of all bridge loads though, engineers may have overlooked the deflection theory. Deflection theory is only one method used to calculate the load-carrying capacity of bridges.

Thankfully, Strauss’ team avoided an ugly and expensive bridge design, while not compromising on safety.

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 applied forces. 

The deflection theory is a mathematical model, which allows you to calculate how a bridge’s deck and curved cables work together to carry loads. This results in the roadway flexing safely in the wind due to its thin and flexible design, reducing unsafe vibrations from stress.

The main cables on the bridge absorb a significant amount of wind pressure, which is then transmitted to the towers. The towers then absorb this energy. 

The key is the curve of the main cables, which allows loads to be easily carried compared to stiffer bridges. As a result, the deflection theory shows how suspension bridges are superior as they can carry more loads while being lighter, more elegant, and safe. Additionally, they save on construction costs by reducing the 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 and complete the rigorous design. This includes making calculations and creating design drawings.

For example, let’s revisit the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Engineers and geologists conducted an analysis and determined the following:

  • The south pier foundation requires over 125 thousand cubic yards of concrete.
  • Using dynamite is necessary to blast away the uneven rocky bottom and create a suitable base for the piers.
  • The south pier footing needs to extend 20 feet into the bedrock.
  • The height of the suspension tower will rise 746 feet above the ocean, and connects the two main cables, which span 7650 feet.

In this step, you can also create a mockup design to verify calculations. For example, engineers built a model suspension tower to confirm their calculations of the applied forces. The test used a civil engineering testing machine.

This type of real-world analysis allows you to verify the past steps while identifying any overlooked issues from Step #1.

#7 Project reflection upon completion 

Once you complete your project, evaluate the entire project process. This reflection period allows you to identify key takeaways for future projects. In return, you can pursue more challenging and bolder projects.

I like to write down everything I’ve learned after a project before the fine details escape my mind. This includes my thought processes when I mulled over and solved challenging problems.

For example, through the design of the Golden Gate Bridge, engineers learned the following:

  • Full-suspension bridges are great options for long spans, which experience many loads
  • Bridge towers can safely anchor to the ocean floor

Additionally, the Golden Gate Bridge also taught us about proper safety requirements, which 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 high heights
  • Sauerkraut juice to beat hangovers
  • Onsite field hospital to instantly treat injuries
  • A safety net placed under the bridge to catch workers who fall

These safety requirements were not previously used in bridge construction. So they instantly made future bridge construction magnitudes safer.

“How to be a creative engineer” wrap up

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

Rather, you need a deep understanding of your scope of work and the project challenges. Only then can you thread your thoughts to come up with a creative solution. Because creativity is a process, which requires data. And the more data you have, the more creative you’ll become.

So follow these 7 steps on how to be a creative engineer to gather data and to successfully execute projects.

What advice would you give on how to be a 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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