Someone on LinkedIn just pointed to these chopsticks made by Brunton and I think they’re mighty cool. They look stunning, and while I haven’t tried them yet, I am told by a user that they work well also. I love the honesty of the materials — both the bamboo and stainless steel look like what they are and are not hiding behind veneers or the like. And each of the materials are well suited to the product.


Here’s a really nice article about using nature to inspire more and better ideas. There is so much out there that we have only begun to explore and use as inspiration.

How reverse engineering nature can spur design innovation

Wow! Foldable helmets

November , 2013


These foldable helmets from Japan are not only cool, but they’re a practical way to enhance safety.  Somebody put some thought into these!


A year or so ago I had someone ask me in an interview what designed things I thought were cool.  In the heat of the moment I had trouble coming up with things to talk about, but of course on the drive home there were several that came to mind.

First of all, I adore bridges.  Unlike many other built objects in our environment, you can usually actually see the structural elements, without them being covered up in cladding or facade or a case.  Thus they allow us to fully appreciate the interaction of aesthetics, forces and materials.  One of my favorites is the Alamillo Bridge by Santiago Calatrava.  One can almost feel the reaching out of the main tower and the tension in the cables.


Some other products that I think are cool:

Smints container. The white inner piece is a single injection molded piece that includes a molded in leaf spring, a stop, and a small cavity large enough for one mint. When you push on the top with your finger, the leaf spring compresses, and the small section comes out the bottom, perfectly dispensing only one mint.


The Sascom international power plug adaptor. This small device can convert between any of 7 different types of power plugs throughout the world!


The Xtracycle FreeRadical This allows your bike to become an actual practical item of transportation, allowing you to take your kids to day care, pick up groceries, or even pick up the other bicycle of the household from the bike repair place.

Those are all things I think are very cool, but don’t necessarily own.  But if I think about the things I own and use every day and are Just Plain Right, then I have to go to these:

My teapot. Very similar to this one. The shape is pleasing without trying too hard or being cutesy, the ceramic holds heat in well so that your 2nd cup is as hot as your 1st cup, and the spout doesn’t drip (this is harder to do than it sounds).


Papermate mechanical pencil.   This particular pencil has everything needed to work flawlessly, but nothing added only to add fanciness or cost. The clip is metal so it doesn’t break, it’s designed with an eraser that is actually large enough to be useful, etc. I actually own more than one of these.


Messiness and Creativity

September , 2013

A very interesting article entitled “It’s not ‘Mess.’  It’s Creativity.” recently appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review.  It quotes from studies showing that people put in a messy room tend to choose options labeled ‘new’ over options labeled ‘classic’.  They also, while not necessarily having more ideas, were found to have better ideas (that is, more ideas scored by the judges as “highly creative”).

This isn’t necessarily a new idea, though these particular studies may be new.  What it makes me think of is that every time I have moved into a new cubicle or office for work, I have been covering the walls with a selection of pictures, quotes, drawings and other things that I found inspiring or beautiful or interesting to look at.  This results in a sort of mosaic effect, so that everywhere you rest your eyes, there is something different to look at.

Based on this research, I now wonder if all these years I have been self seeding my creative process by doing this.

What do you do that engenders messiness and creativity in your work life?



I saw an interesting article on Forbes today, entitled Entrepreneurs Need Creative Thinking After the Idea.  The author makes the extremely valid point that we don’t just need to use our creative muscles at the beginning of the process.  Instead, the most successful of us go back and forth continually between the more creative, wild and crazy way of thinking, and the judging and sorting way of thinking.  We need both of these at every stage of the process, whether we are designing and building a part or a company.





Matt Kahn’s pumpkins

October , 2011

This time of year, I always remember Matt Kahn’s design class (that I took back in mumble mumble year at Stanford). He always had a special class where we carved pumpkins. It had to respect the original folk art and be some kind of a face, though he also showed us a slide show of previous pumpkins and faces of humans and animals to get us started.

Article about the pumpkin carving class:

Article about Matt Kahn’s career in general:

Pictures from the pumpkins from 2009:

And from 2008:

What are you going to carve?

So one of the ways I don’t fit in that well in Silicon Valley is that I’m not crazy for whatever the latest gadget is.  Mostly when I hear about them I just think, “Why would I want to clutter my life with that?”.  But I recently read about these electronic glasses and thought that they sound actually useful.

The article touts them as useful for people who have multiple pairs of glasses or currently wear bifocals or progressive lenses.  But really, they could be useful for almost anyone who wears glasses.  Personally, I find that when looking at something quite far away, like a sign a block away, I often end up pushing my glasses very tightly to my nose to get a slightly stronger effective prescription.  I’ll bet many of us could use the ability to change our prescription if this new device becomes just a little less expensive.

So Magnus Larsson gave this TED talk entitled “Turning Dunes into Architecture”.  His idea is to build a giant wall across Africa, to halt or at least slow down the desertification process that is happening there.  The idea is to use bacteria that bond with the sand to make it hard, something like adobe.

It’s such a very cool idea, both useful and beautiful, and I wish I had some skills or knowledge that would be useful to such a project.  But unfortunately I have a feeling that, as the saying goes, “technology is easy, politics is hard” and that the things that would stop such a project are political and social.

Back in January, Chris O’Brien wrote a column (here’s the blog version, since the full version is now in the archive) discussing the myth that only young people can be creative or innovative.  The title in the print edition was “Do you lose your innovative edge after 30?” And that’s certainly the way a lot of people think about it, perhaps particularly people in Silicon Valley.

Myths usually have a grain of truth in them somewhere, and this one is no exception.  For example, a random selection of kindergarten students can astound most adults with their idea generating prowess.  Young children tend to be more free in the brainstorming process, all else being equal, probably because they haven’t yet been told “that will never work” as many times as we have.

But innovation requires more than just idea generation — it also requires the ability to evaluate ideas, to develop them to the next step, to try things out, and to start the whole cycle again at the next level of detail.  One must thus continually jump back and forth between idea generating and evaluating in order to be truly innovative.  And several of these steps are actually enhanced by age, education and experience.

As I was thinking about this article, I happened to hear part of the Fresh Air show on NPR.  This was an interview of Barbara Strauch, health and medical science editor at the New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.  As it turns out, while there are some areas, like remembering names, that grown-up brains do less well, there are other areas where they excel.  Studies show that people in middle age, which she is counting as 40 to 68, are actually better than younger people at  getting the gist of arguments, recognizing categories, sizing things up, and analyzing, among several other things she lists.  These are skills which are very useful in innovation in the stage of evaluation and developing to the next level.

So what’s an engineer to do?  Is it inevitable that as one gains in some of these other skills, one is also losing the ability to brainstorm and generate new ideas?  Not necessarily!  We can improve our creative thinking by practice and attention — like any other type of thinking we do.  Here are some ways that will keep your creative juices flowing at any age.

Keep reading

Many people recommend reading in your field.  And that’s a good thing, no doubt about it.  But I find reading things that are only tangentially related to what you do, or are related to what you want to start doing, or are maybe not related at all, even more helpful.  Books, articles, or blogs on engineering and how it relates to the rest of the world, on areas of engineering other than your own, on business, and specifically on creativity, can all be very useful.

Just a few of the many excellent books on creativity:

Experiences in Visual Thinking

Drawing on the Artist Within

The Care & Feeding of Ideas

Conceptual Blockbusting

A Kick in the Seat of the Pants

A Whack on the Side of the Head

Use your inventiveness in other pursuits

My second recommendation is to use your inventiveness in other pursuits, in addition to your work.  Creative thinking, like any other type of thinking, improves with practice, and the creative process is essentially the same, whether the output is a story, a drawing or painting, a mechanism or structure, a menu, or a sculpture.  Two of the things I do are “random ingredients” and paper mache and plaster.

“Random ingredients” is something I do with friends.  This is for one of those days where there is nothing to cook in the house, I couldn’t be bothered to go to the store, and I don’t want to spend the money to eat out.  I get together with one or two friends that are in the same boat, we combine our “nothing” and invent dinner.  The process involves group brainstorming, a good imagination for taste, texture, and appearance, and working within tight constraints.

I’ve made a number of sculptures of faces over the years with several different paper mache and plaster techniques.  I also taught a friend two of these techniques and gave on-going suggestions for her project of a “Flintstones” mobile built out of a golf cart.  This uses hands-on skills and 3D thinking, both in ways that are somewhat the same and somewhat different than in traditional engineering jobs.

Do brainstorming and creativity exercises

It seems clear that creativity and idea generation improve with practice.  Of course the traditional way to generate new ideas with a group is the brainstorming session.  If you do have access to a group, this process not only provides fresh ideas to solve the problem at hand, but also gives excellent practice to the individuals who engage in it.  As a reminder, two rules when doing a brainstorming session are to withhold judgement for later, and to build on other people’s ideas.

But sometimes a group is just not available.  In this case you can still do idea generation alone.  Techniques abound that are designed to help break out of your previous thinking.  Many of the books in the list above have exercises and suggestions.

Take classes (or teach them!)

Another thing you can do is to take classes.  Full academic classes at universities or community colleges can be great, but so can one time only talks on various subjects.  In the 90s, I took not-for-credit art classes from a teacher I knew in Ann Arbor.  In the last couple of years, I took 5 quarters worth of Pro/Engineer and 4 quarters of SolidWorks at my local community college.  And I often attend Cafe Scientifique for one hour talks on a variety of scientific topics.  The academic classes gave me some in depth knowledge and skills, the art classes improved my drawing and especially my seeing, while Cafe Scientifique exposes me to ideas and topics that I otherwise would not have known much about.  All are excellent fodder for the design process.  I’m thinking about what my next classes will be — possibly bicycle repair, but I haven’t decided yet.

Teaching others, whether in a classroom setting or simply one-on-one, is an excellent way to solidify your own knowledge, learn something from your student(s), think of a new way to explain something, or find some new connections between this area of knowledge and other things.

Stay curious!

I find that the most creative people are the most curious.  Indulge your curiosity when you wonder about something.  Look things up.  Ask questions.  Try things out.  Your creative process will be all the stronger for it.  Who knows, you just may have a conceptual breakthrough in your latest project because of it!  And in my book, you’ll end up being more interesting as well.

If all this sounds like an awful lot of work, keep in mind what Thomas Edison said:  “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  So if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my own perspiration now.