The Design Creativity Debate Continues

July 22, 2009
It's not surprising that our recent article, "Have Designers Lost Their Ability To Be Creative?" generated some significant reader feedback. The article's author, Rob Evans of Altium, responds to their comments and encourages them to keep the conversation

I guess it’s not surprising that my article, “Have Designers Lost The Ability To Be Creative?” triggered some sharp responses from engineers. The trend of most of these comments is an affront at the idea that designers have lost creativity. I note that the blame for that potential loss is squarely aimed at myopic, greed-driven management.

This is not an unfamiliar concept to most engineers, including myself. But perhaps the value of discussions like these is to ask whether the popular view is the whole story. A broader view, for example, may ask why management imposes so many controlling constraints on engineering activity. Is it entirely stupid greed? Or is there a real factor of design management in there as well?

More specifically, the design restrictions and constraints imposed by management are “survival” mechanisms, often developed though bitter experience of cost and deadline overruns—not necessarily triggered by engineers, I might add, but triggered by something (or someone) nonetheless.

One comment expressed an opinion about offshoring, which isn’t a new trend. The trick in dealing with it lies in working out what to do. Almost by definition, offshoring indicates that a task or a product has become a commodity that can now be manufactured by anyone, anywhere—or, at least, somewhere other than the current headquarters. This means its value is dropping, so more value, or something new, is needed.

That concept could be mistaken for some kind of defense for obtuse management tactics, but all those involved in the development of today’s electronic products are ultimately battling the same storm of change. Those changes, along with the world turning into a single marketplace, are the increasing complexity and diversity of the electronics design process.

We cope by chopping design up into manageable chunks, attacking each section in isolation, and finally pulling it all together to make the final product. There’s a limited view of the final result and how the customer will experience it. And more importantly, there’s no opportunity to explore ideas because of the negative impact on the other sections of the design—not to mention incurring the wrath of upper management. Changing our approach to design to focus on the real end result, and reassessing the processes we use, is one way forward.

The point of the original article is that the ability to be creative has been taken away from designers. Such is the nature of today’s electronics designs, processes, and corporate mentality. In that respect, its headline was perhaps a little misleading. I should add, though, that the subhead (“You can’t assume that you’re playing at the top of your game. Take an honest look at your own work and ask if it’s the best you can do.”) fueled the fire somewhat and was not in the original article.

Nevertheless, the piece has certainly provoked discussion, which has to be a good thing. The rather demonized “management” may not respond, but real change invariably comes from the grass roots level—those who build and create things, or in this case engineers.

Regarding a few comments from other readers, I perhaps should clarify that my background is indeed in electronics engineering. It spans about 30 years, starting in a technician role in the radar field through to analog and digital design engineering in the consumer products industry.

I suspect this makes me somewhat “old school” since my software and embedded design experience was later in my career. But my current position catapults me into both the world of actual design (we create boards as well as software) and a world hooked into many designers doing very many things.

As a final thought, I notice that many of the reactions seemed to come from U.S. engineers. The U.S. wasn’t mentioned in the article, and this was certainly not an anti-U.S. opinion piece. It may illustrate that U.S. engineers in particular are sensitive to these issues, but my view is that the opinions apply worldwide.

This discussion needs to happen. There’s a major and permanent shift happening in the electronics design industry (accelerated by the global financial situation) that will affect us all. As engineers, our greatest asset is design creativity, and without change it may well be wasted.

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