Capturing the Unicorn: Harnessing Creativity in Engineering

May 25th, 2016:

In the world of engineering, creativity often seems like a magical unicorn. It is this colorful, fun-sounding thing that people speak of so fondly, whose magical powers could help you solve problems, but you’ve never seen one outside of a book or children’s drawings.


“Is creativity real? And can you harness it?”

“Yes, it is! And yes, you can!”

“But how?!”


Let’s break it down into three basic categories:

  1. Luring the Unicorn: Setting Yourself Up for Creative Success
  2. Taming the Unicorn: How to Stay Creative
  3. Becoming Pure of Heart: Promoting Creativity over Time

There are many methods that will increase your creativity in different situations. Here are a few of what I find to be the more popular ones:

  • Be open minded.
  • Expand on your thoughts.
  • Break the problem down.
  • Create lots of ideas.
  • Relax.
  • Do some simple physical activity.

If you need to be creative at will, you'll be happy to know that not only is it possible to grow your creative "muscles" over time, but there are also concrete exercises you can do to get these creative juices flowing right away. For starters, if you know you need to be creative for a certain amount time, it helps to warm up beforehand.


Luring the Unicorn: Setting Yourself Up for Creative Success

Once you've got things going, you will want to maintain the creative flow and overcome any “creative blocks” that may occur along the way. The following are a few “creative bursts” that can help jumpstart new momentum and force you to consider new approaches:

  • Go for a walk.
  • Meditate to relax.
  • Snack on some fruit.
  • Participate in warm-up challenges and open-ended exercises such as ones linked here.

I also recommend that readers check out these more detailed articles from lifehacker on the topic as well:


Taming the Unicorn: How to Stay Creative

Great, so maybe you led your first successful brainstorm. Now how do you make yourself more creative without even trying?

  • Consider extremes.
  • Be open-minded (no critique!).
  • Tackle only one aspect of the problem at a time.
  • Don’t settle on the initial/obvious ideas… instead of the best ones.
  • Create a mind map (like this).
  • Run through the checklist of substituting, combining, adapting, re-using, eliminating, and rearranging.


Becoming Pure of Heart: Promoting Creativity over Time

This a short listing of helpful activities and guidelines that can promote creativity. Make no mistake, it’s hard to capture something intangible, but oh so necessary in order to make sure that you can cast a wide net and catch the best ideas possible.

  • Create a “Pinterest”-like collection to capture ideas you can’t quite verbalize just yet.
  • Keep a pen and notepad everywhere.
  • Look for inspiration (nature is a huge resource - search biomimicry and biomimetics).

Remember, sometimes the Unicorn comes to you, but more often than not, you’re going to have to chase after it with a club.

-Franco Montalvo, Jr. Mechanical Engineer