Education and Training

Innovation, Engineering and the Arts

19 May 2016

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles that examine innovation and the creative process in engineering and related fields. “Looking Outside the Profession for Innovation” reviews some of the management literature and what the psychological and social sciences have to say. “Building an Innovation-Friendly Organization” considers some of the key elements that innovative organizations have in common.

In a Scientific American blog, Steven Ross Pomeroy made a case for the relationship between the arts and humanities and scientific creativity. “Nobel Laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician,” he wrote. He went on to point out that camouflage for soldiers in the U.S. armed forces was invented by American painter Abbot Thayer. Earl Bakken based his design for a pacemaker on a musical metronome. And Japanese origami inspired medical stents and improvements in airbag technology.1

It’s also striking how many of the breakthroughs Walter Isaacson describes in his book The Innovators2 came from people who were as passionate about the arts as they were about technology. “Those who helped lead the technology revolution were people in the tradition of Ada Lovelace, who could combine science and the humanities,” he writes. From Lovelace’s father, Lord Byron, she received a love of poetry and from her mother, a love of mathematics. “Her father defended the Luddites, who smashed mechanical looms, but Ada loved how punch cards instructed those looms to weave beautiful patterns, and she envisioned how this wondrous combination of art and technology could be manifest in computers.”

John Von Neumann, who made great contributions in science, math and computers, was raised in a family immersed in poetry, music and art. The same was true of William Shockley, who laid the theoretical groundwork for the invention of the transistor. Robert Noyce came up with the idea for a practical microchip using planar technology. While in college, he played oboe in the band, sang in the chorus and starred as the lead in a radio soap opera.

(Author Ed Brown discusses innovative teams in this webinar from Engineering360).

Vannevar Bush was instrumental in the development of technology in the U.S. after World War II. “He could quote Kipling and Omar Kahyyam… played the flute, loved symphonies, and read philosophy for pleasure.” J. C. R. Licklider was a psychologist and technologist who felt that his love of art made him more intuitive. He approached spotting talented engineers in the way he analyzed the brush strokes in great paintings. The team he put together laid the foundations for the internet. Bob Taylor, another internet pioneer, had studied psychology and “took joy in appreciating art and music.”

Alan Kay never distinguished between art and science and used that sensibility in helping to create the personal computer and the graphical user interface at Xerox PARC. Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-created Google. Page loved computers and music, while Brin was inspired by physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, “who touted the power that comes from joining art to science the way that Leonardo da Vinci did.”

At his last public product launch, Apple’s late Steve Jobs expressed his feelings about technology and the arts: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”


According to a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, students of the humanities and of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) dwell in different silos.3 But there is a growing awareness that this separation constricts innovation in both areas. This has inspired a movement to combine the arts with STEM education — transforming STEM to STEAM.

John Maeda, past president of the Rhode Island School of Design, sees a contrast between design thinking and art thinking.John Maeda, past president of the Rhode Island School of Design, sees a contrast between design thinking and art thinking. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) from 2007 to 2013, was an early advocate for this transition, and sees a contrast between design thinking and art thinking.

“If you think of design as a way of making ideas, I think art is the idea itself… If you think of an image, you have the image and then you have everything that sits in the white space. Art is the part that isn’t defined yet,” he says. Maeda, who has advanced degrees in electrical and computer engineering, business administration, and design, believes that the work of artists is “raw innovation.” It is made through arduous practice and skills-based approaches and through intense, passionate, and personal critique.

In the summer of 2009, Maeda presented a two-day workshop on creative leadership for members of the World Economic Forum. For the first two hours his frustrated students did nothing but draw pictures of their cell phones. This was a practical lesson in how hard it is to draw and think and compose. By the end of day two, they were all on board. “Many were even inspired to consider expanding their studies to learn more.”4

According to Joseph Piro, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Long Island University, “Training in a musical instrument has been shown to enhance both verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning, and involvement with visual art has seemed in research to intensify students’ observational powers and analytic prowess.”5

Henry Fountain, a science writer for The New York Times, wrote a feature article on the subject, for which he interviewed a number of technologists6:

· “Engineers focus on how it works,” said Jenni Buckley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware, but “artists focus on the user experience” (a philosophy central to Apple’s success).

· James Michael Leake, director of engineering graphics at the University of Illinois, “believes that learning to make even rudimentary drawings is critical to development as an engineer…being able to quickly sketch to communicate an idea, is an enormously useful tool…To do engineering you’ve got to be able to visualize.” As described in an earlier Engineering360 article, researchers in both psychology and ethnology have reported the effectiveness of informal drawings based on their observations of engineers at work.

· A joint project between engineering students at Brown University and architecture and design students at RISD to build an 800-square-foot solar house is one example of arts and engineering in collaboration. Isby Lubin, a Brown engineering major, said RISD students helped her understand how to effectively use the space within the structure. They also taught her about structural design and novel uses for strong lightweight materials.

Speaking at the 2012 PopTech conference,7 Leila Takayama, a research scientist for personal robot maker Willow Garage, described how her company employs a Pixar animator to impart lifelike qualities to the robots.

“Bringing in an artist can shake things up and question what you’re doing in ways that are more critical than what you’re doing.”

Sylvie Leotin, who holds advanced degrees in computer science and management, is a former professional ballet dancer and has written about the commonalities between science and dance.Sylvie Leotin, who holds advanced degrees in computer science and management, is a former professional ballet dancer and has written about the commonalities between science and dance. Sylvie Leotin, who holds advanced degrees in computer science and management, is a former professional ballet dancer and has written about the commonalities between science and dance. She says that "the movement through time, the geometry of interactions, the symmetry of the lines, balance of the bodies" all have parallels in the sciences.

Empathy is a key ability for both scientists and dancers. The most creative scientists immerse themselves in their problems through empathy with their materials. Empathy is a critical skill for dancers, who relate to each other in the creation of abstract representations. Dancers “… assimilate the importance of being attuned to others, and surrendering to the harmony of the whole.”8

Tools for Creativity

The book, Sparks of Genius, by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein,9 is an analysis of how exceptionally creative people think. The authors broke down the processes into a number of categories.

Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein say that learning to think creatively in one discipline opens the door to understanding creative thinking in all disciplines.Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein say that learning to think creatively in one discipline opens the door to understanding creative thinking in all disciplines. They begin by writing that “Creative thinking in all fields occurs preverbally, before logic or linguistics comes into play, manifesting itself through emotions, intuitions, images, and bodily feelings. The resulting ideas can be translated into one or more formal systems of communication, such as words, equations, pictures, music, or dance only after they are sufficiently developed in their prelogical forms.” They say that learning to think creatively in one discipline “opens the door to understanding creative thinking in all disciplines."

Nineteenth-century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss wrote a description of his preverbal thinking: “I have had my results for a long time; but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” Albert Einstein, is quoted as having said that he thought in terms of images, rather than words or equations. In one thought experiment, “he pretended to be a photon moving at the speed of light. Then he became a second photon and tried to imagine what he could experience of the first one.”

Creative thinkers are often able to formulate in their mind an image of a complex problem. Elmer Sperry, inventor of gyroscopic stabilizers, was described as merely looking into the air, when all at once he would pick up a pad and begin to draw. “It’s there! Don't you see it! Just draw a line around what you see,” he is quoted as having said.

Abstracting is an essential element of creativity. The Root-Bernsteins describe the process of abstracting by referring to the paintings of Picasso, the poetry of e. e. cummings, and the photographs of sub-atomic particles taken by C. T. R. Wilson. Abstractions are simplifications that yield new insights. The physicist Richard Feynman described it in pared-down language: "Phenomena complex – laws simple… Know what to leave out.”

Another element is the ability to recognize patterns. Musicians and mathematicians are good at "recognizing patterns of relationship." It has been suggested that mathematics creates order out of apparent chaos. The Nobel physicist Chen Ning Yang compared this process to assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and the struggle to assemble a large number of small pieces to form an overall picture. "Once in a while you find one piece that can put five pieces together. That joy is indescribable," Yang says.

Not only recognizing, but also forming patterns, is an essential element of creativity — to create a pattern that can clarify reality. For example, complex waveforms can be described by Fourier analysis, which represents the complex wave as the combination of simple sine waves. Engineering in general can be thought of as coping with complex problems through the assembling of simple elements.

Forming analogies, is another essential tool. Analogies don't simply express similarities, “they recognize a correspondence of inner relationship between two or more different phenomena or complex sets of phenomena." The use of analogies is to relate something that is understood to something that is not. Although analogies are by nature inexact, they help us to use what we already know as a way to approach problems that we don’t yet understand.

The physicist Max Planck, who was a pianist, considered electron orbits as if they were vibrating strings. Image source: Max Planck InstituteThe physicist Max Planck, who was a pianist, considered electron orbits as if they were vibrating strings. Image source: Max Planck Institute The early 20th century physicist Max Planck, who was a pianist, used an analogy to music in order to better understand how electrons behave. He considered electron orbits mathematically as if they were vibrating strings. By using this analogy, he was able to apply the theory of standing waves to explain why electrons had certain orbits and no others, and why the energy of an atom was concentrated in discrete units, or quanta. It was from these observations that he developed quantum theory.

Louis de Broglie, a physicist (and violinist) extended the analogy further. He demonstrated that irradiating atomic nuclei with energy produces unique harmonics, a discovery that is the basis for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Empathizing is the ability to project yourself into your problem. For example, Charles Kettering, Director of Research at General Motors would criticize engineers who were carried away with complex calculations by saying “Yes, but do you know what it feels like to be a piston in an engine?”

Programmers and chip designers have told the Root-Bernsteins that “they walk around inside their microchips and programs.” They know their problems subjectively as well as objectively. Artists also use this technique; the Impressionist artist Henri Matisse, for example, once said, “After I have identified myself with a tree, I create an object which resembles a tree.”

Modeling requires a synthesis of many of the other creative techniques. A model can be either intellectual or physical — both require assembling the elements of a representation of something that exists, or is intended to exist, in the real world. A model provides the means to manipulate a situation, see the interconnections between its elements in tangible form, and more easily visualize its strengths and weaknesses.

The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso said: “To model an object is to possess it.” Modeling, as with any artistic form builds the “imaging, abstracting, analogizing, and dimensional skills” necessary for creative success.

Richard Feynman offered advice about models, however. Once they have given you the insight you need it is important to throw them away, so as not to confuse the model with the concept. He used Maxwell’s equations as an example: “Maxwell’s discovery of electrodynamics was first made with a lot of imaginary wheels and idlers in space. But when you get rid of all the idlers and things in space everything is O.K.”

The physicist Richard Feynman spoke in pared-down language: "Phenomena complex – laws simple… Know what to leave out.”  The physicist Richard Feynman spoke in pared-down language: "Phenomena complex – laws simple… Know what to leave out.” As a young physicist, Feynman learned that playfulness was important for his creativity. Early in his career while working on the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear bomb, he became depressed about his work and considered leaving the field. But then he realized that he formerly would take a playful attitude toward physics and “do whatever I felt like doing…so I got this new attitude…I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”

He told the story of how, within a week, he saw someone throwing a plate in the cafeteria. Feynman noticed how the plate wobbled in midair and went on to work out the equations for the wobble. This was an early step in his most important work that ultimately earned him a Nobel Prize. He also used a technique he invented for himself of translating equations into drumbeats and whoops in order to better understand the math.

Considerable evidence exists based upon the stories of outstanding technologists, that creative thinking is nourished by openness to multiple disciplines, not just science, math, and technology, but the arts and humanities as well. The ways of thinking that are necessary in the arts free the mind from narrow constraints and open it to new possibilities. Much may be learned by examining how some of the most creative people describe their creative methods. And it is possible, by examining these descriptions, to understand the habits of thinking that can lead to creativity.


1From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand, by Steven Ross Pomeroy,

2Walter Isaacson, The Innovators, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017



5Going From STEM to STEAM by Joseph Piro, in Education Week Vol. 29, Issue 24.

6Putting Art in STEM, by Henry Fountain,


8What Scientists can Learn From Ballet, by Sylvie Leotin

9Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein, Sparks of Genius, Houghton Mifflin, 1999

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