Visualising Ideas

By: Nick Burman
Graphic Designer

25th July 2018

Home » Insights » Design

Songwriters, architects, chefs and engineers have at least one thing in common.

They all need ideas.

There are as many (if not more) sources of ideas as there are individuals, and the process of developing those ideas can be lengthy and involved, or instantaneous and effortless. But often it is necessary to communicate ideas to others to develop them further, explore them deeper or involve others to bring the ideas to fruition.

Ever since Alex Steinweiss created the first album cover in 1939, musicians have depended on visuals to help sell their music. Architects use illustrative renderings to show how a building will look, and chefs even find the need to pictorialise their recipes. Not only do people eat with their eyes first, we also (arguably) trust and retain visual information more.

From a business perspective, turning ideas into visuals is a vital step in developing ideas and engaging other people such as investors, clients or work colleagues. You could write an entire report with text, but since 65% of people are visual learners, you would be reaching less than half of your audience.

Two effective methods for transmitting ideas are photography and illustration.


Photography

Photography works well at portraying the visible. It might be in situ, in a clean environment like a seemless background or mocked up in an ideal surrounding. Using plain backgrounds and a well lit subject helps to remove distractions from the point – the subject of the photograph.

Visualising ideas, photography, medical application


Illustration

Illustration aids the portrayal of ideas and subjects that may not currently exist (or only exist in part) in the real world. Filling in the gaps photography simply can’t capture in front of a lens, such as computer generated imagery for backgrounds and other elements within an illustrated image.

In the medical field for example, there are lots of cases where illustration is the only way to present an idea or concept working as intended in a real-world environment, due to stringent regulations and other market specific pressures en route to productisation.

illustration, infographic, visualising ideas

In a technical environment, accuracy has to be key. To this end, a workflow that includes a number of rounds of revisions helps to make sure the illustration or photograph communicate to the client what they want to see.

Also important are the aesthetic points, or what could be considered the discretionary aspects. Colour choices, font usage, spacing and style.


Colour

The right colour palette allows the important aspects of an illustration to be prominent while conveying the right mood (and certainly avoiding the wrong one).Colours are an instant way to create mood and evoke an emotional response. Since a vast proportion of buying decisions are emotional, colour has a very important role to play in visualising ideas. It might be tempting to use bright bold colours for anything that is meant to stand out, but if the overall scheme is jarring, you can easily turn people away.


Type

The correct font can be more subliminal. With longer piece of copy (like the one you’re reading) the right line spacing (leading) and letter spacing (tracking and kerning) can make the copy easier to read and guide the eye from line to line and word to word. Sentence structure and even line length can have an effect, and tire the reader quickly causing them to lose interest in what they are reading.

With short copy, and text that accompanies images, the right font also has the power to convey the right mood. The right font can imply power, style, excitement or nostalgia, and the wrong one can make even an international corporation look like a corner shop.

visualising ideas, font choice, graphic design

While we know that images help break up text – especially in lengthy Powerpoint presentations – knowing how to present ideas and communicate them effectively with the audience in mind can be key to a project’s success, even if you’re not Richard Rodgers.

 


1image source: http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/steinweiss/slideshow/

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Songwriters, architects, chefs and engineers have at least one thing in common.

They all need ideas.

There are as many (if not more) sources of ideas as there are individuals, and the process of developing those ideas can be lengthy and involved, or instantaneous and effortless. But often it is necessary to communicate ideas to others to develop them further, explore them deeper or involve others to bring the ideas to fruition.

Ever since Alex Steinweiss created the first album cover in 1939, musicians have depended on visuals to help sell their music. Architects use illustrative renderings to show how a building will look, and chefs even find the need to pictorialise their recipes. Not only do people eat with their eyes first, we also (arguably) trust and retain visual information more.

From a business perspective, turning ideas into visuals is a vital step in developing ideas and engaging other people such as investors, clients or work colleagues. You could write an entire report with text, but since 65% of people are visual learners, you would be reaching less than half of your audience.

Two effective methods for transmitting ideas are photography and illustration.

Photography

Photography works well at portraying the visible. It might be in situ, in a clean environment like a seemless background or mocked up in an ideal surrounding. Using plain backgrounds and a well lit subject helps to remove distractions from the point – the subject of the photograph.

Visualising ideas, photography, medical application

Illustration

Illustration aids the portrayal of ideas and subjects that may not currently exist (or only exist in part) in the real world. Filling in the gaps photography simply can’t capture in front of a lens, such as computer generated imagery for backgrounds and other elements within an illustrated image.

In the medical field for example, there are lots of cases where illustration is the only way to present an idea or concept working as intended in a real-world environment, due to stringent regulations and other market specific pressures en route to productisation.

illustration, infographic, visualising ideas

In a technical environment, accuracy has to be key. To this end, a workflow that includes a number of rounds of revisions helps to make sure the illustration or photograph communicate to the client what they want to see.

Also important are the aesthetic points, or what could be considered the discretionary aspects. Colour choices, font usage, spacing and style.

Colour

The right colour palette allows the important aspects of an illustration to be prominent while conveying the right mood (and certainly avoiding the wrong one).Colours are an instant way to create mood and evoke an emotional response. Since a vast proportion of buying decisions are emotional, colour has a very important role to play in visualising ideas. It might be tempting to use bright bold colours for anything that is meant to stand out, but if the overall scheme is jarring, you can easily turn people away.

Type

The correct font can be more subliminal. With longer piece of copy (like the one you’re reading) the right line spacing (leading) and letter spacing (tracking and kerning) can make the copy easier to read and guide the eye from line to line and word to word. Sentence structure and even line length can have an effect, and tire the reader quickly causing them to lose interest in what they are reading.

With short copy, and text that accompanies images, the right font also has the power to convey the right mood. The right font can imply power, style, excitement or nostalgia, and the wrong one can make even an international corporation look like a corner shop.

visualising ideas, font choice, graphic design

While we know that images help break up text – especially in lengthy Powerpoint presentations – knowing how to present ideas and communicate them effectively with the audience in mind can be key to a project’s success, even if you’re not Richard Rodgers.

 


1image source: http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/steinweiss/slideshow/

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Further Reading

PCB surface finishes

PCB Design for High Frequencies: Start with the Finish

Dave Burrel - Senior Consultant, Product Design

By: Dave Burrell
Senior Consultant, Product Design

20th December 2017

Home » Insights » Design

A Printed Circuit Board (PCB) surface finish is a coating between a component and a bare board PCB. It is applied for two basic reasons: to ensure solderability, and to protect exposed copper circuitry.

Since the early days of Tin/Lead Hot Air Solder Levelling (HASL) finish, there have been many PCB finishes over the years, each with their own advantages and limitations. Cost, technology requirements and legislative demands are only some of the reasons for this growth in choice.

The current, common finishes like Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG), Immersion Silver and organics like Organic Solderability Preservative (OSP) provide much better planarity and smoothness for finer pitch devices. An example of such devices would be a Ball Grid Array (BGA), a Quad-Flat No-Leads package (QFN) or a Land Grid Array (LGA).

Changes in RoHS regulations (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) have also made these common finishes more mainstream, making them more accessible over their cheaper counterparts, like OSP and Silver, which tend to be susceptible to shelf life issues.

This difference can be seen more clearly when RF frequencies are introduced. At low RF frequencies, current will typically pass through the copper track of a PCB surface very efficiently. However, as the frequency increases, current tends to pass more on the outer surface/skin of the track, so the plating and its conductive loss becomes of greater significance.

Copper, gold and silver all provide very low resistance and insertion loss; however bare copper is, of course, not suitable as a finish as it will degrade, similarly (but to a lesser extent) to silver.

This leaves us with gold as the most suitable top plating but this has its own unique setback. Gold cannot be put directly onto copper; it needs a barrier layer, provided either by the nickel in ENIG, the silver in ISIG (Immersion Silver/Immersion Gold) or by Palladium in ENIPIG (Electroless Nickel Immersion Palladium Immersion Gold).

At this point, most engineers would opt for nickel in ENIG (the most common solution), but it is very resistive to RF and, as frequency increases, preference moves towards ISIG or ENIPIG. Both of which provide a highly conductive outer skin and, therefore, a better signal path.

As RF frequencies increase to 60 GHz – 80 GHz, the PCB finish has a greater significance to the efficiency and performance of the PCB, becoming a crucial part of the overall design functionality.

In addition, with technologies pushing the boundaries of RF frequencies further in sensors and radar, I predict that these more exotic PCB finishes are going to become more prolific in the future.

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A Printed Circuit Board (PCB) surface finish is a coating between a component and a bare board PCB. It is applied for two basic reasons: to ensure solderability, and to protect exposed copper circuitry.

Since the early days of Tin/Lead Hot Air Solder Levelling (HASL) finish, there have been many PCB finishes over the years, each with their own advantages and limitations. Cost, technology requirements and legislative demands are only some of the reasons for this growth in choice.

The current, common finishes like Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG), Immersion Silver and organics like Organic Solderability Preservative (OSP) provide much better planarity and smoothness for finer pitch devices. An example of such devices would be a Ball Grid Array (BGA), a Quad-Flat No-Leads package (QFN) or a Land Grid Array (LGA).

Changes in RoHS regulations (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) have also made these common finishes more mainstream, making them more accessible over their cheaper counterparts, like OSP and Silver, which tend to be susceptible to shelf life issues.

This difference can be seen more clearly when RF frequencies are introduced. At low RF frequencies, current will typically pass through the copper track of a PCB surface very efficiently. However, as the frequency increases, current tends to pass more on the outer surface/skin of the track, so the plating and its conductive loss becomes of greater significance.

Copper, gold and silver all provide very low resistance and insertion loss; however bare copper is, of course, not suitable as a finish as it will degrade, similarly (but to a lesser extent) to silver.

This leaves us with gold as the most suitable top plating but this has its own unique setback. Gold cannot be put directly onto copper; it needs a barrier layer, provided either by the nickel in ENIG, the silver in ISIG (Immersion Silver/Immersion Gold) or by Palladium in ENIPIG (Electroless Nickel Immersion Palladium Immersion Gold).

At this point, most engineers would opt for nickel in ENIG (the most common solution), but it is very resistive to RF and, as frequency increases, preference moves towards ISIG or ENIPIG. Both of which provide a highly conductive outer skin and, therefore, a better signal path.

As RF frequencies increase to 60 GHz – 80 GHz, the PCB finish has a greater significance to the efficiency and performance of the PCB, becoming a crucial part of the overall design functionality.

In addition, with technologies pushing the boundaries of RF frequencies further in sensors and radar, I predict that these more exotic PCB finishes are going to become more prolific in the future.

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Further Reading

Giving Your Product Personality

Giving Your Product Personality

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

22nd November 2017

Home » Insights » Design

All products have personality, whether it’s a sleek, modern smartphone or an industrial, rugged drain cover. The “look” of a smartphone is carefully crafted by its designers over weeks or months; while I suspect the drain cover engineers just made a cast iron plate to do the job and added some texture to the surface so no one would slip on it.

No matter how ‘everyday’ a product may seem, each engineer designs with the end-user in mind and how they would ultimately “feel” when they look or use the final product. Don’t believe me? Do you not feel the safety of added grip when walking over a drain cover’s embossed grooves? And we all get a feeling of excitement when we hold and use the latest smartphone. It’s all these major and (nearly almost always) subtle characteristics that create emotion and defines a product’s personality.

What personality should you give your product?

The kind of personality given to a product can depend on a number of things.

If the target customer base is mostly composed of a particular gender or age group, or defined by some other common characteristic then that might make a big difference to how the product looks and how it is marketed. Razors for women are pink and sleek. Toys for children are vibrant and simple. An expensive sports car has to look fast, to the point where the shape of the car might actually be less aerodynamic.

You might also think about the location and situation the product will be used in: if it’s the kitchen, the product should look “at home” among other kitchen appliances and furniture, just like a hand-drill should not look out-of-place next to other tools and workshop equipment.

You also have to take the company’s branding into account, whether it’s your brand or your client’s brand. Brand recognition is very important for business so a product might have to look instantly recognisable as belonging to that brand. But branding is not just the colours and shapes the brand uses, it’s the overall character. Is the brand accessible or exclusive? Modern or traditional? Playful or serious? Think about how the company brands itself compared its competitors.

These are just some of the biggest considerations. There are many more! Not all of them will be relevant to every product and in some designs one will take priority over the others.

Some products are more ambiguous, like Coca-Cola, which is broadly appealing and instantly recognisable, no matter the age, gender, country, profession, or situation. I think this is only possible because of how old the product is; everyone already knows what it is and what it’s for because it has remained largely unchanged for over one hundred years. Compare this to Diet Coke, which is directed at young women so successfully that The Coca-Cola Company invented Coke Zero so men could have a low-calorie Cola drink too!

How do you communicate personality?

Let’s take a look at the Cubert desk lamp, a Colebrook Bosson Saunders product with the electronics designed at Plextek, for modern hotel rooms and offices. Cubert has a simple, modern look to compliment a computer monitor, TV screen, or phone that might be on the desk with it, and the devices that will be plugged into it. This is achieved with the square base, the slender stem, and flat, adjustable head. It is coloured in neutral tones so it will not clash with any colours in whatever room it is in. The light tones also give the impression of light itself, since white is the most reflective colour.

Here is an exercise I find fun and useful: if Cubert was a person, what kind of person would it be? I imagine a man in his twenties wearing a clean white shirt, no tie, likes to solve Sudoku puzzles on his phone and is easy to talk to at parties. This is not to be confused with your target demographic; it’s just a way to start thinking about personalities.

If you want to develop your intuition about product personality, start by paying attention to the products and brands all around you. Look at the furniture in your home, the packaging on your food, and cars on the road, and think about their human characteristics. It can help to compare products that serve the same purpose that look different. For example, the shape and packaging of Cadbury, compared to Galaxy, and compared to Hershey’s. Starbucks compared to Costa, and compared to Café Nero.

“Personality goes a long way”

One of the exciting things about product design is that a small spark of inspiration near the start of a project can have a big influence on the finished product. For this reason, thinking about personality early in a project can elevate the final product from something that functions as it should, to something eye-catching or delightful or so at-home in its environment that you barely notice it’s there. However, you always want your customer to feel a positive emotion when they see your product and you can prod them in the right direction by adding personality.

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All products have personality, whether it’s a sleek, modern smartphone or an industrial, rugged drain cover. The “look” of a smartphone is carefully crafted by its designers over weeks or months; while I suspect the drain cover engineers just made a cast iron plate to do the job and added some texture to the surface so no one would slip on it.

No matter how ‘everyday’ a product may seem, each engineer designs with the end-user in mind and how they would ultimately “feel” when they look or use the final product. Don’t believe me? Do you not feel the safety of added grip when walking over a drain cover’s embossed grooves? And we all get a feeling of excitement when we hold and use the latest smartphone. It’s all these major and (nearly almost always) subtle characteristics that create emotion and defines a product’s personality.

What personality should you give your product?

The kind of personality given to a product can depend on a number of things.

If the target customer base is mostly composed of a particular gender or age group, or defined by some other common characteristic then that might make a big difference to how the product looks and how it is marketed. Razors for women are pink and sleek. Toys for children are vibrant and simple. An expensive sports car has to look fast, to the point where the shape of the car might actually be less aerodynamic.

You might also think about the location and situation the product will be used in: if it’s the kitchen, the product should look “at home” among other kitchen appliances and furniture, just like a hand-drill should not look out-of-place next to other tools and workshop equipment.

You also have to take the company’s branding into account, whether it’s your brand or your client’s brand. Brand recognition is very important for business so a product might have to look instantly recognisable as belonging to that brand. But branding is not just the colours and shapes the brand uses, it’s the overall character. Is the brand accessible or exclusive? Modern or traditional? Playful or serious? Think about how the company brands itself compared its competitors.

These are just some of the biggest considerations. There are many more! Not all of them will be relevant to every product and in some designs one will take priority over the others.

Some products are more ambiguous, like Coca-Cola, which is broadly appealing and instantly recognisable, no matter the age, gender, country, profession, or situation. I think this is only possible because of how old the product is; everyone already knows what it is and what it’s for because it has remained largely unchanged for over one hundred years. Compare this to Diet Coke, which is directed at young women so successfully that The Coca-Cola Company invented Coke Zero so men could have a low-calorie Cola drink too!

How do you communicate personality?

Let’s take a look at the Cubert desk lamp, a Colebrook Bosson Saunders product with the electronics designed at Plextek, for modern hotel rooms and offices. Cubert has a simple, modern look to compliment a computer monitor, TV screen, or phone that might be on the desk with it, and the devices that will be plugged into it. This is achieved with the square base, the slender stem, and flat, adjustable head. It is coloured in neutral tones so it will not clash with any colours in whatever room it is in. The light tones also give the impression of light itself, since white is the most reflective colour.

Here is an exercise I find fun and useful: if Cubert was a person, what kind of person would it be? I imagine a man in his twenties wearing a clean white shirt, no tie, likes to solve Sudoku puzzles on his phone and is easy to talk to at parties. This is not to be confused with your target demographic; it’s just a way to start thinking about personalities.

If you want to develop your intuition about product personality, start by paying attention to the products and brands all around you. Look at the furniture in your home, the packaging on your food, and cars on the road, and think about their human characteristics. It can help to compare products that serve the same purpose that look different. For example, the shape and packaging of Cadbury, compared to Galaxy, and compared to Hershey’s. Starbucks compared to Costa, and compared to Café Nero.

“Personality goes a long way”

One of the exciting things about product design is that a small spark of inspiration near the start of a project can have a big influence on the finished product. For this reason, thinking about personality early in a project can elevate the final product from something that functions as it should, to something eye-catching or delightful or so at-home in its environment that you barely notice it’s there. However, you always want your customer to feel a positive emotion when they see your product and you can prod them in the right direction by adding personality.

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Further Reading

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover…. And to Solve a Problem

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover…. And to Solve a Problem

Stephen Field - Lead Consultant, Product Design

By: Stephen Field
Lead Consultant, Product Design

15th November 2017

Home » Insights » Design

There are ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ according to singer Paul Simon in his hit song from 1975. Looking back, he only managed to recommend five, quite vague, ways of extricating yourself from a physical relationship. I suppose you’d call that false advertising, or perhaps, over-promising and under-delivering.

Of course, Paul is only tapping into his own personal experiences and knowledge. There are likely more than fifty ways to leave one’s lover and, with no pretence of a subtle transition, I move on to compare the themes of this song to the role of the engineering designer.

In terms of mechanical design, there are usually many ways to solve a design problem. In fact, you’ll be able to find parallels here that relate to any design or engineering specialism. While there are numerous solutions to a problem, no one person, no matter how clever or experienced, can have sufficient insight to see all the possible approaches. Each of us has a limitation on what training and experience we have received and what life has exposed us to. This knowledge informs how we react to design challenges; how we approach them and the courses of action we inherently pursue.

Collaboratively, we can accomplish so much more. The adage ‘two heads are better than one’ is completely true in this scenario. Working together to solve problems enables a much wider experience to fertilise the problem-solving egg. When done at the right time, this can be amplified by the use of brainstorming techniques.

Brainstorming is most effective when the team is comprised of a diverse range of backgrounds. An individual’s engineering experiences ensures each member brings something unique to the creative process and we’re able to visualise many possible solutions as a result. Brainstorming helps us avoid simply opting for the first solution that comes to mind, which may not be the best. Furthermore, working in a team also helps the creative process. One idea sparks another, and so on.

A diverse team with an open dialogue approach to the creative process allows for the introduction of different ways of seeing the world and the challenges we face. These varied viewpoints help to steer the design to the best solution. The person who can see the holes in another’s plan has just as an important contribution as the one making the suggestion.

The moral of the story; during the creative phase of the design process – share and collaborate with your colleagues. Almost certainly they will have a perspective you’ve not seen. When faced with a mental block over your design, share and welcome different and even opposing views from a supportive team. Make a new plan, Stan.

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There are ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ according to singer Paul Simon in his hit song from 1975. Looking back, he only managed to recommend five, quite vague, ways of extricating yourself from a physical relationship. I suppose you’d call that false advertising, or perhaps, over-promising and under-delivering.

Of course, Paul is only tapping into his own personal experiences and knowledge. There are likely more than fifty ways to leave one’s lover and, with no pretence of a subtle transition, I move on to compare the themes of this song to the role of the engineering designer.

In terms of mechanical design, there are usually many ways to solve a design problem. In fact, you’ll be able to find parallels here that relate to any design or engineering specialism. While there are numerous solutions to a problem, no one person, no matter how clever or experienced, can have sufficient insight to see all the possible approaches. Each of us has a limitation on what training and experience we have received and what life has exposed us to. This knowledge informs how we react to design challenges; how we approach them and the courses of action we inherently pursue.

Collaboratively, we can accomplish so much more. The adage ‘two heads are better than one’ is completely true in this scenario. Working together to solve problems enables a much wider experience to fertilise the problem-solving egg. When done at the right time, this can be amplified by the use of brainstorming techniques.

Brainstorming is most effective when the team is comprised of a diverse range of backgrounds. An individual’s engineering experiences ensures each member brings something unique to the creative process and we’re able to visualise many possible solutions as a result. Brainstorming helps us avoid simply opting for the first solution that comes to mind, which may not be the best. Furthermore, working in a team also helps the creative process. One idea sparks another, and so on.

A diverse team with an open dialogue approach to the creative process allows for the introduction of different ways of seeing the world and the challenges we face. These varied viewpoints help to steer the design to the best solution. The person who can see the holes in another’s plan has just as an important contribution as the one making the suggestion.

The moral of the story; during the creative phase of the design process – share and collaborate with your colleagues. Almost certainly they will have a perspective you’ve not seen. When faced with a mental block over your design, share and welcome different and even opposing views from a supportive team. Make a new plan, Stan.

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Further Reading

Innovation… What Does It Mean?

Stewart Da'Silva - Senior Designer, Product Design

By: Stewart Da’Silva
Senior Designer, Product Design

8th November 2017

Home » Insights » Design

The buzz word of the moment that is constantly being bandied about is ‘innovation’. There is hardly a departmental or company briefing where that word isn’t mentioned.

Indeed, it seems to be held up in the business world as the holy grail of survival; a panacea against the risk of extinction (in the corporate sense). Market gurus metaphorically stand on tip-toes whilst balancing on rooftops shouting through megaphones…”INNOVATE OR DIE!”

But what exactly does ‘innovation’ mean? What does it mean to us as individuals and as a company?

My perception of ‘innovation’ is that it isn’t something that I, personally, should bother my pretty little head about. After all, I know for certain that having spent my whole working life immersed in the world of engineering… I have never once in all those many, many years had a spark of an original idea that has ever taken seed and germinated in the wilderness that is my brain.

No, I had assumed that this call for us to innovate was directed towards the more intelligent amongst us and that they were being asked to dream up some new ground-breaking idea… a blinding flash of inspiration that our company could exploit in the form of some great new product.

Then the realisation began to dawn; that there, in fact, had been very few real inventions of any substance for many years.

A case in point is in our own industry – electronics.

It is accepted that the transistor was the starting point of the phenomenal growth of the electronics industry as we know it today. The ‘invention’ of the transistor took place in the Bell Laboratories in 1947 by John Barbeen and Walter Brattain, in fact, they, together with William Shockley, received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for “their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”

Except… they didn’t ‘discover’ the transistor effect.

It was, in fact, described by one Julius Lilienfeld in a patent that he filed in Canada on the ‘field effect transistor’ in 1925. Although he patented it – he published no known research articles on the subject. Bell scientists Bardeen and Brattain, in fact, built a field effect transistor utilising Lilienfeld’s patent in their research laboratory and surprisingly it worked, they then set about improving and refining the efficiency of the device and then published their findings – although Lilienfeld’s patent was the basis for their transistor, he was never credited in their published papers.

But then Lilienfeld himself had built upon research and observations that had gone before.

In 1833, Faraday’s research on the negative temperature coefficient of resistance of silver sulphide was the first recorded observation of any semiconductor property. The trail from Faraday’s experiments to the Lilienfeld patent had many, many contributors.

My point?

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes’ – discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.

The first working transistor wasn’t invented in 1947, it evolved from Faraday’s first observations in 1833. At that time, that is all it was, an observation – with no obvious applications.

This meandering pathway had then progressed towards its conclusion (the transistor) in a succession of incremental steps. Academics and scientists didn’t carry on their given research in splendid isolation from those that went before. If they found some relevance to their own research then they applied those previous observations and investigations to further their own knowledge and that of those that were to follow.

Which brings me back to where I started – ‘Innovation… what does it mean?’

In today’s engineering environment, I believe that it means that we, each and every one of us, could be an innovator. We don’t have to be qualified in a specific field. We just need to be open and have the vision to see how established techniques in the world around us could be transferred and applied to other disciplines to create or improve an existing product: cross-pollination of ideas and skills. Indeed, in the first instance, there is no need for detail… just the vision.

I believe that each and every one of us is capable of doing that.

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The buzz word of the moment that is constantly being bandied about is ‘innovation’. There is hardly a departmental or company briefing where that word isn’t mentioned.

Indeed, it seems to be held up in the business world as the holy grail of survival; a panacea against the risk of extinction (in the corporate sense). Market gurus metaphorically stand on tip-toes whilst balancing on rooftops shouting through megaphones…”INNOVATE OR DIE!”

But what exactly does ‘innovation’ mean? What does it mean to us as individuals and as a company?

My perception of ‘innovation’ is that it isn’t something that I, personally, should bother my pretty little head about. After all, I know for certain that having spent my whole working life immersed in the world of engineering… I have never once in all those many, many years had a spark of an original idea that has ever taken seed and germinated in the wilderness that is my brain.

No, I had assumed that this call for us to innovate was directed towards the more intelligent amongst us and that they were being asked to dream up some new ground-breaking idea… a blinding flash of inspiration that our company could exploit in the form of some great new product.

Then the realisation began to dawn; that there, in fact, had been very few real inventions of any substance for many years.

A case in point is in our own industry – electronics.

It is accepted that the transistor was the starting point of the phenomenal growth of the electronics industry as we know it today. The ‘invention’ of the transistor took place in the Bell Laboratories in 1947 by John Barbeen and Walter Brattain, in fact, they, together with William Shockley, received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for “their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”

Except… they didn’t ‘discover’ the transistor effect.

It was, in fact, described by one Julius Lilienfeld in a patent that he filed in Canada on the ‘field effect transistor’ in 1925. Although he patented it – he published no known research articles on the subject. Bell scientists Bardeen and Brattain, in fact, built a field effect transistor utilising Lilienfeld’s patent in their research laboratory and surprisingly it worked, they then set about improving and refining the efficiency of the device and then published their findings – although Lilienfeld’s patent was the basis for their transistor, he was never credited in their published papers.

But then Lilienfeld himself had built upon research and observations that had gone before.

In 1833, Faraday’s research on the negative temperature coefficient of resistance of silver sulphide was the first recorded observation of any semiconductor property. The trail from Faraday’s experiments to the Lilienfeld patent had many, many contributors.

My point?

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes’ – discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.

The first working transistor wasn’t invented in 1947, it evolved from Faraday’s first observations in 1833. At that time, that is all it was, an observation – with no obvious applications.

This meandering pathway had then progressed towards its conclusion (the transistor) in a succession of incremental steps. Academics and scientists didn’t carry on their given research in splendid isolation from those that went before. If they found some relevance to their own research then they applied those previous observations and investigations to further their own knowledge and that of those that were to follow.

Which brings me back to where I started – ‘Innovation… what does it mean?’

In today’s engineering environment, I believe that it means that we, each and every one of us, could be an innovator. We don’t have to be qualified in a specific field. We just need to be open and have the vision to see how established techniques in the world around us could be transferred and applied to other disciplines to create or improve an existing product: cross-pollination of ideas and skills. Indeed, in the first instance, there is no need for detail… just the vision.

I believe that each and every one of us is capable of doing that.

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Further Reading