Interview with Ron Slade: Creativity and Problem-Solving in Engineering

Words by Katie Puckett

Ron Slade / engineer / WSP / London

“Engineers enjoy problem-solving and that’s when we are at our most creative.  Problem-solving takes time — quality time, unhindered by people or outside events or the telephone. That said, to develop ideas, I think you do need to be under some degree of pressure and to feel the tension of everyday life. If I’ve got a problem to solve and I come in early to deal with it, I’m still under pressure but I can grab some quality time because the phone isn’t ringing. These days, not many people are given that luxury. We work in a frenetic society — everything is speeded up by computers and communications. I’m sure we work more intensely now than we ever did, but we should still hold on to the concept of quality time.

“I think you do need to be under some degree of pressure and to feel the tension of everyday life”

There are some aspects of creativity and problem-solving that are peculiar to a particular field. For instance, in basic structural engineering, there is rarely any situation where something is brand new — ways of defying gravity have nearly always been investigated by our predecessors. But we have to be able to think creatively in order to explore various options. In construction, it’s important to understand how things are put together, and that knowledge assists the quest for solutions. Everyone uses the expression “thinking laterally” but in structural engineering, thinking diagonally and moving away from orthogonal arrangements to something less regular often provides an answer. For instance, we use walking columns, or flag columns, to change load paths.

Thinking on paper helps, drawing in order to understand helps, and I am a firm believer that sleeping on a problem helps. It helps when things are reasonably quiet — it’s very difficult to think creatively if you’re on site and it’s raining hard and the plan you’ve got in your hands is getting wet …”

Ron Slade is the author of Sketching for engineers and architects

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