Knowledge-based Design and Design Creativity

Design has always been one of the core features of human civilization. It has allowed for the birth of new ideas, arts and innovations that have brought about the progress of the last 10’000 years. Obviously related to the process of creation and development, the concept of design itself is yet one of the hardest to define. It spans such a wide range of fields and topics that a unique definition or even a common descriptor cannot be found. In recent years the design process has become target of many studies and researches. A scientific approach is being used to try understanding what are the key features of a prime designer.

One of the most interesting analysis regards the role of creativity and knowledge in the design process. Strongly affected by the context, creativity and knowledge can alternatively be considered the fundamental or the ‘expendable’ characteristic required for design. In fact, they are both extremely valuable to a designer in any field, and understanding the way in which they influence the design process is most important to improve one’s skill as a designer.

Creativity is also a term difficult to define. A brief search on google will report the following basic definition

the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work

Such definition represents the widespread belief which associates creativity with arts and non-scientific works, where there are “no rules” to oblige to. This belief, although popular, does not represent the scholastic view. The great step-forward in technology of the last half-century has shown the need and the value of creative thinking also in the technical domains.
In fact, among scholars, creativity is widely assumed as a quality independent of the context of application.
A more proper definition then is the one proposed by Charlotte Jirousek in her introduction to a creativity course.

“[..] creativity is the ability to see connections and relationships where others have not.”

Jirousek’s definition shows creativity as an approach rather than a skill. Creative people do not create something new, but rather find novelty from the existing world.

Unfortunately, although the human mind is capable of incredible ideas, their feasibility is often restrained by several physical, economical and ethic constraints.  This is where knowledge comes into play. Knowledge allows the creative designer to discern between feasible and unfeasible ideas and evaluate the options to reach the best possible solution.

However, knowledge often poses conceptual limitation to design. Most designs come from problems which are very similar to ones already solved, at least at first appearance. This may lead the “domain expert” to design a solution following the standard approach, given by his knowledge, missing out on alternative ways that may apply better.

An example of this can be seen in computers. PCs today still follow the basic scheme known as Von Neumann architecture, which was developed in the 30s before the first computer was even born. The Von Neumann architecture is made up of two main components, a memory and one or more computational units, which react to inputs and provide outputs. This scheme has hold for more than 50 years and, up to less than a few decades ago, was vastly regarded as the only way a computational machine could work, including the human brain. In recent years more advanced studies on the brain have shown that this is not true. The human brain has been found to work in a completely separate manner, where computation happens across billions of very simple units, the neurons, and data is not stored anywhere, but instead is embedded in the connections between neurons. Following such discovery, new proposals have come up for “human-like” computers, which completely abandon the Von Neumann architecture.

This is a good example of how, once a technology is established, it is incredibly hard to shift to a different one. Having said that, it is important to notice that the technical challenge required to emulate the brain are much higher than for traditional computation, and hence the lack of knowledge has also played an important part in making this novel approach spring so late. Also, the technology progress has reached a limit with Von Neumann machine, which has become a great driver for alternative technologies.

A more proper example of how knowledge can be a limit to creativity can be found in paintings. Up to the end of the 19th century, the concept of painting was always applied to colors on a flat surface. Since the beginning of human race, many styles, materials and techniques have followed, but the key concept of a two-dimensional representation has stuck. It was only during the early 20th century, with the avant-garde, that artists finally fled from the limit of two dimensions and started applying real objects to paintings, as well as subtracting them (Fontana’s cut-offs).
Following such revolution, the art horizon has completely changed and contemporary arts now span far beyond the simple visual representation, with the addition of sounds and other mediums.

It would be trivial to conclude that if the idea of adding objects to a painting had sprung before contemporary art as we know it would have appeared many centuries ago. In fact, both the example listed have as a primary cause the social and economic context during which they happened, but in both we can see how traditional methods require to be pushed to the limit before creative alternatives can surge. This is indeed a major driver, but creativity may make the difference even when a more common solution is available.

As an example of this I can bring my own personal experience.
For the past three years I have been a member of Politecnico di Milano’s Formula Student team, a competition between engineering universities where each year students build and race a four-open-wheel racing vehicle.
In the vehicle there is a great amount of cabling necessary to interconnect all the different electronics onboard. Such cabling adds a noticeable weight, most of which is due not to the cable themselves, but to the protecting sleeves required in such a harsh environment with oil and fuel often splashing around.

This year we developed custom pipes directly within the chassis and routed the main cabling along these pipes. This system keeps the cabling secured and sheltered from the environment without the need for protecting sleeves, thus reducing the overall weight of the vehicle by about 2%.
This simple idea shows the perfect combination of creativity and knowledge in the design process. To realize that wire harnessing does not have to be a standalone component, but may be integrated on an existing one means to find a simple connection between available items, abandoning the standard idea of heat-shrink sleeves as the only mean of protection. At the same time, the development of pipes within a chassis which is subject to very strict regulations requires a deep knowledge of the technical context.

Going back to popular belief, it is commonly assumed that whilst knowledge can be acquired, creativity is a talent that cannot be learned. Again, such belief does not effectively represent reality.
Knowledge can be acquired by studying, but the amount of study required may differ a lot from person to person and depending on the subject. A student who excels at math may not necessarily excel in literature, and vice versa. Experience also play an important part in knowledge acquisition. In fact, experience in a field usually results in a much higher degree of awareness and confidence on the subject with respect to book-study only. Creativity, on the other hand, cannot be studied on books. Because of the inherent novelty embedded in creativity and its nature as connector rather than self-standing element, there are some principles or common descriptors that can be studied, but the such knowledge does not necessarily make the student creative.

This does not mean that creativity cannot be learned. In fact, it is possible to become more creative over time, and the best way to do it is by experience. Opposite to knowledge, creativity can be bettered not by long experience in the same field, but by a lot of experience in different fields. Having experience how similar problems are solved in totally different manners by different people in different context, provides the designer a vast pool of ideas from which to pick and build the best solution. In the same sense, relationships are key for creativity. Being surrounded by people with different ideas, knowledge and experiences, with whom to share ideas and opinions, allows for the birth of more creative alternatives, that pick ideas from many different fields and construct them into a feasible and optimum solution.

The ensemble of knowledge and creativity then is what makes a designer great.
In fact, designers often work in team to increase the amount of ideas and experiences that can help introduce new ideas and solve the problem.

This result has recently been proved in the economic world, where companies have changed the way in which employees relate with each other to encourage discussion and share of ideas in the workspace. In the latest year the “cubicle” model has been replaced by open spaces and recreational areas, where people are more prone to discussion and sharing of thoughts and ideas.

The shift in companies has also affected universities, which have understood that technical skills, although required, are no longer sufficient to excel in jobs. As a consequence of this, many programs were born, such as Alta Scuola Politecnica, where students from different backgrounds have the opportunity to work with each other fostering creativity and creating connections.

August 30th, 2017



Google, "creativity," 2017. [Online].
C. Jirousek, "Creativity and the Design Process," 1995. [Online].
B. Widrow, "Cognitive Memory," 2007.
R. Hartenstein, "The Expensive von Neumann Paradigm: is its Predominance stil Tolerable?," Sydney, 2009.

Note: The paper was developed as homework for the course Design Methods and Processes held by professor Cascini at Alta Scuola Politecnica