I’ve been thinking about the plight of the modern scientist / engineer. We were the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, the architects of the Information Age. The most respected voice of the last century or more. And now we are tucked away neatly into little cubes. If we are too vocal, too dissatisfied with the status quo, we might be “upgraded” to an office in a back hallway . . . so managers can avoid our critical gaze and sharp tongues. A necessary evil.

Meanwhile artists and designers, long the idle and unemployed of society, have found themselves in high demand by large and reputable companies. They are given “creative spaces” and “creative time”. They are wined and dined like royalty.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “woe is me” story. And I don’t disrespect designers – afterall, there must have been a damn smart designer somewhere that gained his (or her) profession a respectable name. But hear me out.

Scientists are now being taught about “design thinking”, being told that they need to find more “creative solutions”. Which I think is an excellent idea, aside from the fact that someone is assuming that scientists aren’t creative by nature (excuse me, but the reason I studied science was because of world of possibilities that it opens up. and an open air cube isn’t what I had in mind). Anyway. At the same time we are being told that we’re too expensive (this is a tough economy after all), so we need to become more efficient and find ways to measure and prove that we are being creative.

So my question here is: if we expect scientists to be creative, why not give them the type of environment that designers “require” to be creative? (Or if the environment isn’t really required, then how come the designers don’t have to live in cubes? But I hope that’s not the conclusion you draw from this).

Designers get their inspiration from unrelated things. Car designers study wild animals. Perfume bottle designers study male and female figures. These are now classic examples. But GM once told designer Bill Mitchell to “make this car look cool and powerful”, and Bill Mitchell went fishing. It’s a good thing he didn’t get fired though, because he came back with the design for the classic 1963 Corvette Sting Ray inspired by a Mako shark. The point is that neither Bill nor his boss knew that a shark was going to be the inspiration for the car.

I like photography. A lot (in case it doesn’t show). But P&G didn’t hire me because they thought a photographer would have the perfect insight into making diapers fit better. Nor did they hire me because my background in biochemistry was going to explain the physics of a diaper. Actually as far as I can tell they hired me because I sat down at my interview and explained how I thought a diaper could be improved to fit better (when asked – I didn’t prepare that one ahead of time :p ) But I can assure you that I have employed photography, video editing, biochemistry, psychology, health science, physiology, neurology, mathematics, design, architecture, rock climbing, and ok, maybe a little physics to improving diaper fit. Honest.

So that certainly does beg the question . . . why not give scientists the space to be a little more creative?