Pencils and Paper are the top productivity tool in almost every field

Creativity is the Lifeblood of Product Design

Creativity. This word can conjure up many different meanings depending on who you ask.

Artists are thought of as being creative. Same with designers of all types. When you talk about an accountant being creative or ‘creative accounting’, a whole different idea comes to mind.  

Creativity is original ideas.

Original ideas can be great or terrible, and everywhere in between. In product design, creativity is essential, but it needs to be in a focused direction.

A common Industrial Design approach to facilitating creativity is sketches, and a lot of them. Free-form flow of ideas on paper. Looking at the problem from many different sides. It’s a puzzle that has an unknown number of pieces, and you get to assemble it in an infinite number of ways.

It’s the designers job to sort out that puzzle, select the appropriate pieces, and show the customer the best ideas. This is a highly focused and creative process.

In product design, ID is one of the first steps. How does this product solve the problem at hand? However, once the ID direction is chosen, the creative process starts all over again.

What about the engineers?

In the engineering phases, you have a whole new set of questions and problems to solve:

  • How is the product manufactured?
  • What materials will be strong enough yet cost effective?
  • What problems  need to be solved before engineering can even begin?

Engineers are not usually Industrial Designers, and Engineers aren’t usually thought of as creative types.

Certainly there are many examples of creative engineering solutions. But engineers in general are usually pretty linear thinkers. They look at a problem, take steps toward a solution and usually solve the problem. This is unlike Industrial Designers who look at the problem in many different ways.

Combining approaches

Bringing these two approaches to problem solving together can be extremely successful. This can be done in different ways.

Many engineers use sketches or graph paper drawings to formulate ideas. Sometimes just a few lines and shapes is enough to see if the idea has merit. Some Engineers work so effectively in CAD, they can develop many different concepts in 2D or 3D.

There are tradeoffs to each, speed vs accuracy. Sometimes you can only take sketches so far before you need to start making dimensions or relationships more defined.

On the other hand, the speed of pencil and paper is nearly unmatched. Sometimes you just need to get the ideas out of your head as fast as possible.  

Creativity is new ideas.

It can also be existing ideas used in new and different ways. This is where experience comes into play.  

We, as a company, have designed thousands of products in many different industries. We have seen many successful products and teams as well as extremely creative solutions to problems.  

Every one of those ideas is cataloged in our files and our brains.

We do this with existing products as well. We are always looking at products to see material choices, design ideas, how edges reflect the light, how a button feels when actuated, how it feels in your hand and when it is used.  

All of these seemingly insignificant details are so important to how a product is perceived, and how the product makes the user feel when it is used.  

Where does creativity come from?  

Can you foster it or nurture it? Ideas can come at all times of day or night, during every activity; ideas in the shower, or on the bike. I have talked to many people about their creative process and every single one is different.  

However, there are some factors that seem to be more common than others.

One factor is passion. Many creative solutions come from a need, and sometimes the need is so strong, you almost can’t stop thinking about it. Your brain is working on it while you are cooking, shopping or even biking. Then, all of the sudden, you have this solution that pops into your head.  

For this to work, you need to lay the groundwork. You need to do enough investigation to understand the problem so you know how to attack the solution.  

Often times, it means sketches or ideas on paper that may not work. But it allows your mind to see the problem and begin to start working out other ideas. The more ideas you can document that don’t work often times will get them out of your head so you can start to see what will work.

Being open to new ideas is also immensely important.

If you have an idea that you think will be a good solution, pursue that idea. Oftentimes, that is a great start. But sometimes when you share your ideas with others or see examples of some different direction, you should be open to those ideas too.

There are so many times in the past where someone will have an alternate solution that I think is terrible at first blush, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

There is no single idea that is the best at the beginning. Some ideas don’t show their true merit until you can really investigate them and flesh them out.  

Another big factor in creativity is collaboration, or brainstorming.  

This is sometimes difficult to find the right people. People who know the problem, people who understand the creative process, people who are not naysayers.  

This can be a VERY effective method for bringing out many different ideas is a short period of time. The main rule of brainstorming is, all ideas are valid.

  • Make a list
  • Make sure you fully understand the idea
  • Ask questions
  • Be open minded

If people have big egos, it will be much less successful. Everyone needs equal input. Then, someone or a smaller team, can take that list and start evaluating and expanding on it. They can flesh out the ideas and see which solutions rise to the top.  

In product design, it’s critical. And when it all comes together in a successful product that people are excited to use, it’s absolutely priceless.


Daniel TagtowDaniel Tagtow – Partner

Dan has been with Innovate for more than 15 years and in Product Development for 25+.

He is passionate about product design with a background in both Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering. Dan enjoys pushing SolidWorks’ and its surfacing tools to their limit to give his clients the very best possible product.

Have a question or comment for him? Dan is pretty easy to find over on LinkedIn.

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