from section iv

Passing On What
I Have Learnt



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Chapter 1: Facilitating Co-creative Design - The Basics

A design project usually starts with a blank sheet of paper. You have to start to draw something, yet there is always a great deal to be found out about the client’s needs, the site, and the brief.

As a team assembles to create a new building design, people come with many pre-existing ideas, preferences, and prejudices. Everyone has their own perspective, and it’s their job to bring it into the project before it can operate successfully.

The blank sheet of paper is already quite crammed with needs, wants, desires, and obstructions. In this complicated field it can be hard to find consensus to move forward. This is why open communication is so crucial. The best communicators are likely to have more than their fair share of influence.


Co-creation requires communication across everyone’s personal spectrum, talking and sketching, and rapidly testing ideas. You have to give everyone space and respect so they can take part and make contributions, reaching consensus visibly on paper. This kind of collaboration has to be choreographed to happen. People need space rather than being pinned in place around a table, looking at yet another slide show of someone else’s ideas. We need tables small enough to share a sketch as a community of thinkers. People need time to air their own views and negotiate a resolution.

Chapter 2: Guide to Idea Creation in Co-creative Design

So, there are four parts to Idea Creation in co-creative design. One is putting down an idea, as a stepping stone upon which you can move. The paper becomes an aid to the memory. Two is allowing other people to see the idea in new ways from multiple angles. Three is giving something tangible with which others can build their own creative contributions—the first step in co-creation. And four is accepting shared ownership, because through sharing you are all able to see further and imagine more possibilities.

As a structural engineer my first need is to describe how something will look—first to myself, then to others. Beyond this, I try to sense how it feels structurally. Structural engineers need to acquire a natural sense of how forces flow, how stresses distribute themselves within a frame, shell, skin, or machine. How we describe this to ourselves is quite a personal thing. The sketch might become a deformation diagram, showing how something would distort under load. This could call for an exaggerated distortion of elements being drawn. Maybe it is illustrated as waving hands to suggest movement or with coordinates where the stresses are too high. Arrows on a diagram can show where the forces flow. A diagram can show deflected shapes of frames, shell, or tents under load. You need to explore what you think needs expressing and how best to do it. It all depends on your audience and you.

Concept design is rarely taught to structural engineers. Learning collaborative design techniques is even more rare. What are the tactics to develop an ability to draw thoughts, either yours or someone else’s?

  1. Don’t let anyone convince you that you cannot sketch. Perhaps you don’t sketch as beautifully as your art teacher, but you can find a way to sketch that conveys ideas.

  2. Use a pen, not a pencil. A felt tip or roller pen is good. Pencil is too feint and smudges. It also tempts you to use an eraser, which means you are being too careful!

  3. Never use an eraser. Just keep sketching until it looks right, or start again.

  4. Always carry a pad of paper, preferably plain but don’t worry too much about that. Carry a few pens. Multiple colours can be good for contrasting ideas.

  5. You can practice anytime, anywhere. Give yourself an impossible time limit so you have no chance to dither. Just do it quickly!

  6. Ideally, it is best to draw something that’s in your head rather than an existing object. That way there is nothing to compare your sketch to, so it can’t be wrong.

  7. Don’t wait for an idea to be complete in your head. If you have some vague sense of an idea, start to see what it makes you draw. Just start a sketch and let the ideas flow.

  8. It would be even better to practice with someone else. With just pen and paper, you can make a game of communication where you each have to co-create something in a short period of time. I find this essential to keep the ideas circulating.

  9. If this process becomes part of your work, it can help if you find collaborators who value your ideas and want to see them. Try to find such people.

  10. Consider how to communicate abstract ideas, like time or anger as well as tangible things, like a tap or an elephant. Remember the time limit. It needs to happen at the speed of a sentence.

  11. Expect to throw every sketch away. Never let them be important once they have done their job. Don’t expect them to be put in a book!

  12. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for something. Just enjoy taking part to the full.

  13. Find out if there is a time where you feel most free to imagine and create ideas. I’m best in the morning before ten, but I’ve found that a five o’clock meeting at the end of the day works well as a day’s finale.

The engineer, with a sound understanding of the science of materials, the physics of environmental response and the interplay between man and nature, has a lot to say and a responsibility to speak out.

So, my advice to you is don’t sit back. In a conversation, listen for what isn’t being said as well as what is. Ask questions as often as you answer them. In a meeting sit forward—literally. Do not relax back for a minute. There will be opportunities for you to help the direction of the meeting, to express an opinion, to show it on a sheet of paper, to influence things. Do not miss any such opportunities. Have your agenda ready to steer you.

Becoming an expert at something helps you develop individuality and self-definition. Taking time to reflect on what you really believe in, what you really care about and why, helps you acquire some stability.

Try making sure you are forever observing, exploring, and learning from what you experience. Look, hear, and smell what is happening around you. Be alert. All this helps you to form your agenda, to tell between what is aligned and unaligned with what you value. This will give you a creative edge, something of you that you can bring to the table. It will be something strong rather than a whim, and you will defend it rather than back away at the crucial moment. I call this your agenda. You need one to be creative. Or else you are just repeating what others are saying, and simply going with the flow.

Structural engineering, like all engineering, is not a solo game. We work with many different people. Architects play a particularly important part in our collaboration, so finding ways to understand each other is crucial. The sketch is a vital ingredient in forging this relationship. It helps make sure the engineer is seen and heard at the heart of the creative conversations. If productive conversations are not happening, it is possible to use sketches to get engineering onto the table, so that everyone can think about it together.

A rapidly drawn sketch, one that is crude and messy, one that is casual and off the cuff, is not threatening. For a structural engineer to come to the table with a rather well-polished drawing or diagram looks rigid and fixed. It doesn’t look like the start of something. It will be interpreted as a conclusion, and as such it risks rejection.

The point of the sketch is to start a conversation, not to sell an idea. So, it is right if it looks scruffy and ill-formed because it happens as part of the conversation. Scruffiness reflects its transience and is actually quite important. It also makes it less intimidating for others to join in and add to the sketch. This is always a high point for me: that people see it as a shared image of a shared idea that we are developing together.

It is important not to think that the sketch is useful only for communicating design. They can be just as helpful in other sorts of conversations. This is because most conversations in business are about finding ways to coordinate many people’s ideas in order to transform a shared vision into action. At least that’s what I hope meetings are all about.

I find I can have a far more productive meeting when I supplement my sketches with words. The notations are crude and done with a sense of feeling for the situation. Looking back on them you can barely work out what they are trying to say, but in the moment, adding to the conversation, they become the focus of the shared ideas. The sketch is something upon which others can join.

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Chapter 3: Re-Discovering a Skill to Imagine

I am worried about the way we teach young people engineering. We are all born with a creative spirit that wants to make our mark in the world. Engineering offers us this opportunity. But it doesn’t feel like it when taught.

During youth we are encouraged to let our imaginations run free in play. We are allowed to crayon wildly, seeing what we can capture of the world on paper. Some of it even gets pinned on the fridge door. Later at school we are given marks for art. They tell us it is good and neat, or bad and messy. We are not judged for our ability to visually communicate or for the ways we can clarify something in mind. We segregate the written word from the drawn word. And suddenly, words are how we are supposed to communicate. 

I am convinced that we need to encourage the use of pen and paper in all walks of life. This would help us communicate and share our ideas. The spontaneity of the shared sketch is so powerful; it takes over where words simply cannot do the job.

Children have powerful imaginations that can happily invent whole worlds of their own. They share them with others and call it play. I know my childhood play was all about imagining. I would pretend I was driving airplanes, trains, or cars. Sometimes, I would drape an oversized cloth over the dining table to make a shelter house or build a space station from every object I could find in the house. There seemed to be no limits. We had no rules requiring authenticity or accuracy. There was no such thing as wrong. If all else failed, we had crayons and paper to scribble on.

Ideas flowed in and we captured them somehow, bringing us into a different world. Imagining matters. It is the root of creativity. And, being the route of progress, creativity has immeasurable value.

We try hard to educate creativity out of our young people with rules and exams. It’s a pity we are told to stop playing as soon as we start to understand what we are doing, and then life has to get serious. Even sport becomes competitive and highly selective.

To be creative adults we need to be more relaxed and playful—and less ‘adult’ in fact. Many creative organisations that rely on employees’ ideas realise this and create workplaces that encourage interaction and play.

I believe anyone can do what I do, but I worry when I see my college students struggling to communicate with lines, whether they are on paper or digital. When they see something in their heads they often try to use words to describe it. When I ask them to draw, their hands just don’t connect to the images in their minds. I have started to try to work out how to help them make this connection.

When drawing from life, we are told to switch off the left side of the brain and use the right. This means turning off the analytical side. That is to stop thinking about the object as, say, a jug in order to see it rather as curved lines in certain proportions. If we link to the left side, acknowledging it is a jug, we impose ‘jugness’ on it, and it all goes wrong.

For drawn thought, I think we need to use both sides of the brain at once. Perhaps this is why many people struggle to sketch their imaginings. In particular, engineers are trained, and perhaps selected, on the basis of being analytical. They would rather only draw something when it is fully formed and correct. When they need to engage the right side of the brain to let go and imagine things, they can struggle because of their analytical sides being dominant. They want whatever they say or draw to be accurate, nearly always thinking with the left hand side. But drawn thought needs to come out without prior analysis. It is almost unconscious.

To overcome this I suspect we need to do exercises that loosen up the silos in the engineering mind, allowing people to bypass the preconceived image. I think the key is to use the sketch in place of the mind’s eye. You don’t need to see it in your head first. You can use the act of sketching to see and share it for the first time. This could be the clue. If so, we need to teach engineering differently. It isn’t about a reproduction of learned observations. It’s an instinctive hand-eye event coming straight from the mind.

The trick to finding solutions is imagining them. Think of a three-dimensional object in space that you can move around, touch, and even smell if you try hard. Next, you need to capture it from your mind and make it visible. Don’t worry about any rules of drawing. Don’t worry about plans and elevations, or orthotropic projections. Just put what is in your head on paper and keep going until the drawing looks something like it. Then you won’t lose your vision, so you can build ideas from it. Even better, sharing your recorded ideas with others, people can add their own ideas to the mix. There is a kind of childish naiveté about this attitude, and it might take a bit of time to feel comfortable with it. But it is actually quite liberating not worrying about convention or making it look good. Once you see that it works, as people accept it and use it in the conversation, you will become more confident.

Chapter 4: Teaching Creative Design for Engineers

The world needs more engineers and more people who think like engineers. This means people who can solve problems by gathering knowledge about the world, applying data as evidence for decision making, testing that solutions will work, and building the framework that transforms answers into actions. However, this description of engineering misses one important component. For engineers to really help create a better future, they need to have the skills to imagine new opportunities and ask fresh questions, using these to drive out more valuable solutions. In simple terms, we need more creative engineers.

The lion’s share of our traditional teaching at schools and universities is designed to give people basic knowledge and understanding but does not equip individuals with creative tools—which are essential in practice. Although, I see a shift in this approach where young people are introduced to creative problem-solving at all ages. As a Visiting Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, I am pleased to say that even a short amount of time spent imagining solutions to creative design problems in small groups is bearing fruit.

Rapid-fire sketching can play a part in opening up a dialogue, getting people to share ideas and co-create solutions with combined imaginations. I would like this to be taught not as art, drawing, or traditional sketching, but as a means of rapid communication and shared creation. It is important to emphasise that engineers also need rigour. We rely on them to get things right. Things have to be tried and tested. They have to serve their purpose. But we need just a bit more. Engineers do have imaginations, and these, along with rigour, become assets in our teaching and practice.


I have said before that creativity is—at least for engineers—a shared activity. It takes a whole range of minds to conceive, plan, analyse, and construct things such as ocean liners, skyscrapers, or operating theatres. Various people will play different roles, bringing in diverse expertise. Some will be starters; others are finishers. Some will throw in ideas, and others will gather them to make sense of it all. 

Over a career your role might change as well. My role certainly has, and this book couldn’t have been written ten years ago because I wouldn’t have clearly realised my role as I do now. For a while, if asked the right question, I described myself as someone looking for harmony—perhaps balance, perhaps poise, perhaps clarity, perhaps honesty. But I think harmony describes it best. Harmony implies more than one note, so, in my world, more than one idea. Creativity on a project comes from a synthesis of ideas, gathered in a way that adds them all in, creating a harmonious story, a tune, or, in the case of a whole building, a symphony perhaps. This sense of harmony also describes how the man-made built object should sit with nature and its surrounding—working with nature to enhance it rather than fighting with it and harming it.

Looking back, I can see how hard it becomes to find the origin of an idea. I work with idea makers and we enjoy the jazz that is creative design. I can see that my sketches simply capture a tableful of ideas. I probably censor what I capture just a little, but the origins of a sketch are not necessarily from inside my head alone. So, I am perhaps as much a facilitator as I am a creator. This facilitation allows creativity to be captured, seen, and shared. I can claim that the sketches are from my hand, but they represent a collection of thoughts from many people that build on one another. I realise I have been more than lucky working with wonderfully creative architects and engineers. 


Communal sketching has value in the distillation of ideas. I have often felt that I am equally a gatherer and creator of ideas, distilling them into something to be shared. This curation and illumination is of real value. Many sketches in this book are the result of this. Numerous people were involved in the making of ideas.

The best chance of having creative impact is not to worry about who gets the credit. The important thing is that the project design moves forward and brings with its construction, positive outcomes for all (client, public and planet), becomes brilliant, and gets built. 

The act of sketching is an act of giving. You are doing it to make sure ideas get captured, giving them a better chance to be considered and developed by everyone. You are sketching to facilitate co-creation. Which idea came from whom becomes a blur, just as it would in a conversation.

Most of my sketches have been on white boards or tracing paper. Having done their job, these are wiped clean or binned at the end of a session. I was lucky to find some survivors gathering dust on shelves in the office, because from these few pages, scattered across various notebooks, we have been able to illustrate this story.