*Science and math education focus on finding direct solutions to direct problems. In practice, though, design is iterative and questions and answers are rarely direct, absolute or obvious, leading to the first rule of design: Design is iterative. Despite your best efforts, your first solution will almost never be right.
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Right now you are thinking that I have an overly negative view on this topic. You might be right! Before deciding, though, let me tell you why I think this statement isn’t negative at all, why I think this is actually a hopeful idea, and why I think this idea frees us from having to be “right” every time. Further, this idea protects creativity from being overcome by practicality at the first sign of weakness. As we get into the topic, let’s first explore a bit of back story.

Good engineering is the foundation of the built environment, and is itself founded on the realities that we call math and science. Math and science education, then, are essential building blocks of creative design in the engineering and architecture fields. Think back to your own math and science education. If it was at all like mine, it began with math and the understanding that math can be reduced to a series of rules. Science then followed as a related field, with its own set of rules.

Under this system, presented with a problem, a student applies these rules within a structure defined by more rules. After applying all of the rules, the student arrives at an answer. When the rules were all applied correctly, in the right order, we call this the “right” answer. Everything else is “wrong”. Plug and chug. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades – an actual quote that I learned from an actual math teacher. Except, close counts in almost everything else, too, and plugging and chugging relies on having something to plug into and chug along with.

Bringing us back to engineering, consider the process for sizing pipes in a sewer system. The set of equations that governs modeling fluid flow in a pipe network was developed over centuries and is very complex. Thus, directly calculating the exact pipe sizes needed to carry water through a sewer can be almost impossibly difficult. Fortunately for us, pipes only come in certain sizes! Instead of spending hours determining that we need a 13.625 inch diameter pipe, we can just guess that we need a 12 inch, then use a much simpler calculation to check that assumption. That won’t carry the flow? Then try an 18 inch pipe. That seems too big? How about 15 inches? Perfect!

In this example, we knew that there was a very good chance that our first solution – the 12 inch pipe – wouldn’t be right, but the process saved us time. What could have taken hours of careful modeling, took us 15 minutes in a simple spreadsheet.

Engineering education stands in stark contrast to the key concepts that guide an engineer’s daily work. Simply put, design is iterative and your answer – or at least your first answer – is less a solution and more a starting point for a process that could well lead the design in an entirely different direction. This is the power of creativity, something that we should work our hardest to protect. This is also a direct challenge to our way of thinking.

What then is the intent of the first solution if it is not an attempt to solve the problem? I would say that the first solution less needs to solve the problem and more needs to define the box that the eventual solution must exist in. In protecting the creativity of the design, it is to our interest to define this box in the biggest, most flexible terms possible.

Let me be clear that I am not advocating for sloppy math or ignoring the importance of understanding the mechanics of problem solving. Quite the opposite, these things are very important and too many engineers rely on computer programs as substitutes for understanding them. This appears in my own work as a path of least resistance temptation to view myself as a well trained CAD technician and permit form filler instead of striving to become a thoughtful, experienced engineer. This is a topic for another time, but for now my point is this: Understanding how an internal combustion engineer works is only one part of understanding what a car is and does and can be used for. So to are math and science rules to their fields.

As stated at the beginning of this post, knowing that your first answer can’t be right isn’t actually discouraging at all. True, the engineering mind has been taught to love correctness, exactness and direct problem solving and in this case it won’t find any of these for awhile. This is disappointing, but by acknowledging that your first answer can’t be right, you also accept that your first answer doesn’t need to be right. You aren’t the gatekeeper though, responsible for keeping out far fetched, impractical ideas. You are a member of a creative team responsible for continually defining and refining a concept that will one day grow up to become “the solution”.

Letting go of the outcome frees us to focus on the process, and focusing on the process puts us in a position to serve the design team in a way that only we can. We became engineers because we are interested in the puzzles created by the realities of math and science. By looking for direct, exact solutions to these puzzles, we turn our realities into limitations. When we accept that there aren’t any direct, “right” solutions and make the choice to instead engage in the creative process, these realities become challenges and opportunities and we free ourselves to truly do our best work.

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*If you found this post interesting, you might also like these past posts from Civil PDX.*

Engineering Concepts in LID

The Engineer and the Fisherman

Achieving Zero and the Value of Experience

Great post! The zen of engineering!

The limber, nimble engineer! Thought-provoking post.