The One Industrial Design Skill That Can’t Be Taught

There is a unique human quality that, hopefully, is woven into the fabric of the industrial design skill of individuals. To a greater or lesser degree, it provides each individual with the ability to change our environment.

I’ve written countless industrial design articles during the past ten years and I realized that one of the most critical elements for great design has rarely been mentioned in any of my articles. The quality I am referring to is imagination.

In my experience, the application and enhancement of imaginative skills to creative design solutions can be elusive. It seems that imagination could be nurtured and improved. But it’s the one design skill that cannot be taught.

Imagination: The Cornerstone for All Great Designs

Simply recalling any iconic man-made creation ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Michelangelo’s Pieta proves this. Technology such as CAD can improve the efficiency of designing products by assisting in visualization, development and analysis, but it cannot improve the most fundamental requirement for any good design: one’s imagination.

One aspect of imagination is related directly to an individual’s perception of his or her environment. Everyone sees and interprets their surroundings uniquely. This is why we have different cultures, religions, political points of view, art and millions of other interpretations of our world.

Some individuals only see what is physically in front of them and look no further. Others may see the same object as a dozen other things. To illustrate, you could be walking along a beach a see a broken coconut shell and simply pass it by. Someone else could see that same shell as a drinking cup, a tool, an arrow tip, jewelry, or various other useful items.

This level of perception is based on need, intelligence and knowledge.  It also applies to the design of a part or product. Knowledge of the material, application, and process provides perceptive insight to interpret a set of design requirements into a creative solution.

Another aspect of imagination is one’s ability to correlate ideas, concepts and objects to one another. Invention and innovation occur when unrelated ideas or objects are combined within a completely new embodiment. These breakthroughs are often singled out by the media or buying public as revolutionary new products. Inventions based on correlating unrelated objects to one another include such common items as Velcro and honeycomb composites that were derived from thistles and beehives.

Unconventional materials can also be introduced to a product, transforming it into an entirely new invention. Process improvements and new materials can also benefit from cross-pollinating ideas from completely alien applications. Freedom of thought is essential to creative thinking.

A fertile imagination can be nurtured by encouraging a thinking process that removes the fear of being perceived as wrong. Individuals who are concerned with self-image, prestige, and respect are less likely to propose ideas if they fear being judged as childish or stupid.

Creative thinkers are typically uninhibited by social traditions or protocols, which provides them the freedom to think “outside the box.”  I hope this brief discussion about imagination and its profound effect on industrial design skill has provided you with insight and inspiration to the design of the next revolutionary product.

Remember to think freely, openly and boldly. You may be regarded as the next industrial design genius.