Appeasing the design odds -

Appeasing the design odds


If you're the kind of person who reads this magazine back-to-front, like a databook or a programmer's reference manual, you've already discovered this is our “think different” issue. All five feature articles cover unorthodox ways of thinking, engineering, or programming. To reuse an already overused cliché, this issue is all about thinking outside the box, even when you're engineering what's inside the box. (Does anybody even remember the connect-the-dots puzzle that spawned that phrase?)

As programmers and engineers, we're supposed to be methodical, reliable, practical, predictable. On the other hand, good engineering sometimes requires lateral thinking or unorthodox solutions. If you were among the packed house at the Embedded Systems Conference keynote presentation in San José, you'll recall Dean Kamen's experiences with innovation. As Dean said, sometimes you can be too close to the problem. You end up “solving the solution instead of solving the problem.” As simplistic as that advice sounds, he had a point. Merely tweaking last year's product to make it slightly faster (or cheaper or lighter or more power-efficient) can mean unconsciously dragging last year's design baggage along as well. A clean break–a fresh view–is sometimes the best route to a substantially better product.

That's all well and good, but quantum leaps in design are elusive and rare by nature. You can't command innovation. But neither can you wait patiently for lightning to strike while the clock runs out on your design schedule (and your tenure with your current paymaster). How, then, do we attract the design Muses? How do we think differently, on demand and on schedule?

The short answer is, you can't. But you can increase the odds of inspiration by hanging out with non-engineers. Horrifying as that sounds, the practitioners of non-technical professions have their own insights into problems and practices that may not occur to us when we're too close to the problem. Besides, some of them are funny.

How often have we seen TV movies where the hero or heroine is stumped, with time running out, when a seemingly irrelevant event or annoying comment sparks a flash of inspiration? The “a-ha!” scene has become a cinematic chestnut. At the last minute, our protagonist saves the day and thanks the obligatory nuisance character for unwittingly suggesting the now-obvious solution. High fives all around. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Dean Kamen suggested an interesting yardstick for judging a new design: imagine what people will say 15 years from now. Will they say, “That's the best they could do with the materials and methods they had”? Or will posterity wonder, “What were they thinking? There were already smarter ways to do that!” Sometimes the best way to encourage inspiration is to assume you've already got it and work backwards from there.

Jim Turley is the editor in chief of Embedded Systems Design. You can reach him at .

Reader Response

Talk about heresy! Here is some. If you’re looking to think outside the box as it were, why not physically go outside the box yourself? In other words, try being something other than an engineer for a while. Try some creative (non-technical) writing (use a calligraphy pen, no computer), take a hike, try ballroom dancing or ice skating or still life painting. In short, try to stimulate the other side of your brain, the non-analytical side that likes to have fun. Oh yes I know, calculating some monstrous equation can be “fun,” but only to the analytical side of you. If you exercise the other half a lot more vigorously, who knows what might come of all those synapses firing away. You might even have an aha! moment of your own. And it’ll give your eyes a break from daily raster burn.

–Don McCallum
Sr. Electronics Engineer, MTI
Rancho Cordova, CA

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