Design has the a reputation of being associated with wild creativity. Yet engineering design must involve a harnessed use of that creativity. Imagine how inefficient it would be if every bridge designer in the world started designing his/her first bridge without prior study of an existing bridge. Engineering design has the beautiful advantage of a starting point: precedents.
“I have a feeling that good design, to be taught, should be studied ‘in statu nascendi’ – when it is emerging on the drawing board or even in the imagination of the designer. If we could see what is actually happening when a good designer is at work, if we could follow the emergence of the idea, its development and purification, study the rejects and compare them with the chosen solutions, and if possible hear the designer’s own explanation of his preferences – then we might learn something.”
Engineer Ove Arup’s ideal world is not always possible. However, the closest we may get to that ideal of following the design process decisions is by studying the final product itself: its connections, its force flows, its form.
We are by no means encouraging pure mimicry. Imitation takes the creativity and innovation out of the design process. There is nothing to gain by regurgitating an exact copy of an existing structure. What is encouraged is to receive inspiration, challenge ideas from existing designs, and gain intuitive knowledge. You can use the precedents to understand successful design endeavors and industry’s best practices. The idea behind studying these precedents is that you will later professionally try to solve similar problems; it is unlikely that these problems will fit the exact context of a precedent, but you will able to draw upon the design approach that was taken. By critically reflecting upon past successful design approaches, you will be able to develop design skills.
In the “Mind Over Matter” Video Chris Wise describes some of the factors that influenced the design decisions for the Duxford Imperial War Museum.