Creative Thinking and Fixation in Design

By Rachel Gould - Engineering Student @ Jesus College, Cambridge

While engineering is an analytical subject, designing requires a large amount of creativity that many logical minded STEM students can really struggle with.

One reason for this is a phenomenon called fixation. Fixation is when a designer has a mental block that limits their ability to effectively problem solve. This can be broken into three main types:

  • Problem fixation, failing to see alternative perspectives of the problem. Designers may start solving a problem before really thinking about whether this is the correct problem to solve.

  • Process fixation, failing to see alternative methods of solving a problem. It is easy to see that something has been done the same way for hundreds of years, and so designers fail to question whether this is the only method.

  • Solution fixation, failing to see any alternative to a proposed solution. Designers become unable to see that there is another way of solving the problem, and so don’t explore other solutions.

Fixation is a form on unintentional internalised psychological bias. Designers easily get caught up in their own solutions, and tend to have a bias towards their own ideas and traditional or normal ways of doing things, which is why coming up with brand new ideas is so tough.

Creative thinking is a hugely valuable skill, and can be improved by being aware of fixation and consciously exploring your problem and questioning each decision you make, ie, why am I doing this in this particular way, and is there an alternative method that I haven’t considered? Asking yourself these questions allows you to fully explore the solution space and solve problems most effectively.

A great example of this comes in the design of trains. The speed of trains has risen throughout the years, through more efficient and more powerful engines, but the faster a train goes, the worse the air resistance becomes. This has been tackled by thinner, streamlined, smooth trains, all methods of reducing the air resistance experienced. But what everybody failed to consider, until Elon Musk proposed it, was the concept of removing air resistance all together. The hyperloop is a proposed technology involving a train hovering in a vacuum, allowing for superfast travel as it almost eliminates the issue of friction and air resistance. This perfectly demonstrates how people were experiencing fixation, they failed to realise that they could eliminate a problem entirely rather than work to reduce it through traditional methods like streamlining.

Creativity is a vital skill in engineering, but difficult to perfect. Design incorporates both analytical and creative problem solving, and its important to develop and utilise both of these to effectively develop solutions.

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