The art of creative engineering

By Mike Birch — May 15, 2020

STEM – Science, technology, engineering and maths played a huge role in my education. However this collective of subjects always missed the vital and historically important interplay between art and engineering that we use every day to deliver our projects across the world.  What would be considered typical engineering traits of rationality, practicality and efficiency must seamlessly coexist and collaborate with a creative world where transcendence, grace and beauty are king. What might create the most beautiful kinetic centrepiece will most likely not consider the thousands of parts required to make it work, stand up safely or fit within a standard 40ft shipping container and the reverse is equally true when approached alone.

The overarching driver to our approach is that compromise isn’t a word to be used lightly; our aim throughout each project is to use these opportunities to merge the best of the engineering and artistic worlds to deliver exacting results, regardless from which standpoint the success of these results may be viewed.

There is no manual for this – each project is different, with its own intricacies and its own rhythm

My engineering interest started as a child where curiosity met basic hand tools, resulting in many items being disassembled in the garage to find out how they worked. This same curiosity and thinking in systems and layers is how we approach our work. It starts with deconstructing the creative concept/render/ brief to identify the core elements which make up its very essence. From this we start to add structure where often there isn’t any. This is structure not necessarily in a physical materials sense, but an ever growing toolbox of approaches, rules and limits which define what is reasonably possible and where we need to develop the impossible.

The devil is in the detail

Conceptual modelling, hand sketching and materials sampling plays a huge role in our workflow, from forming a 3D base model for our own creative renders and creative responses to client briefs, to developing a client’s own creative ideas from a single 2D image. This stage in the process allows us to quickly move the conversation, whether top level conceptual abstract or minute detail, into a structured reality, where we can appraise what does and doesn’t work and its value within the context of the overall picture. What might seem like a minor detail now might have a huge impact on the overall success in delivering the creative intent and likewise the reverse can often also be true.  Unwavering accuracy and honesty are key in this phase to deliver an engineering approach which holds true into the production and delivery of the finished piece.  “It looks exactly like the creative render” being the clear marker of a job well done.

Almost everything we produce goes through a detailed engineering design phase, where entire projects and each individual component or assembly that makes them, is designed, modelled and assembled within our 3D CAD package before heading into manufacture.  This sets a solid foundation for the technical delivery of the project, which encompasses processes such as finite element analysis (FEA) and structural engineering calculations for safety critical items. Within this phase we start to factor in the numerous technical challenges and constraints which are ever-present. These serve as our masters and the role of the engineer is to use these to fuel the fires for innovation and resourcefulness. How can we make this better!

I get a kick out of the little details, the ones that nobody should notice, as whilst they can often not be creatively significant, I know they are there and they are there for a reason.  This might be as simple as the choice of fastener meaning the team on site need to swap tools less often, to a complex assembly design using the Japanese principles of poka yoke, meaning the build process is greatly simplified and the chance of error reduced.

Time marches on

The one constraint that looms over every project is time – it has a haunting habit of marching on regardless, even when you sleep. It’s one of the first questions I ask when presented with a creative concept. Again engineering needs to work in harmony with the ebbs and flows of the creative process, giving it room to breathe and develop through the ideation process whilst providing a supporting guide through the often inescapable balance of what’s available, what’s possible, what’s desirable, what the limits are and how far we are looking to push these.

An invaluable inhouse team

Having a large and highly skilled inhouse fabrication team and workshop facility certainly helps our abilities to push the boundaries of what’s achievable. As a team, being able to take on projects inhouse from creative ideation, through design and fabrication into installation on site is invaluable. We get to touch each stage of the project, transferring new ideas, new approaches and attention to detail which showsin the final product. 

An ongoing role

The engineering role doesn’t stop at opening night or lights down after a ceremony – it, like the teams on site, runs long into the night. Ensuring not only it has performed flawlessly, but it’s ready to do it again night after night or ready to be demounted and packed away safely and quickly.


So how do we engineer a creative? To use a well-known analogy, each project is like an iceberg. The visible section above the water is the result that wows the audience, what sits beneath the surface is a huge collaborative team effort and long hours agonising over the creative, engineering, production and project management details, each one having its moment in focus but all playing a critical role.