“Good order makes us look assured, and it seems enough to look brave.”
Looking at a Nightmare
In the year 1961 in Hollywood, California, Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker and a former engineering student, was reading the New York Times. He was boggled by a story of an Australian man whose house had been attacked by kookaburras. A few months later, newspaper headlines screamed about another strange incident : Thousands of rabid shearwaters invaded the coastal city of Capitola, California. “The place was black with them,” a police officer reported. The birds smashed into cars and blocked traffic, leaving the city deep in feathers.
Intrigued, he immersed into his study. To educate himself on the erratic behavior of birds, he rented 16-mm films such as Western Birds at Home, Birds of Prey, and Journeys on Wing. He also read a novelette by Daphne du Maurier, about predatory birds foraying a town.
As he brimmed with inspiration, he wrote down ideas for his next motion picture, which we now know as The Birds.
Having had a thorough foundation in engineering, Hitchcock’s films are grounded in technical logic. That being said, as an engineer, he had a mental framework of thinking backwards — He was able to envision creations and then figure out, detail by tiny detail, on how to make them come to life. His goal was to turn a dream into something so real, so that his audience would be “looking at a nightmare.” His target was his audience’s nerve endings, as he wanted them to feel like they were “dipping their toes in the cold waters of fear.”
“I make a film entirely on paper,” he once said in an interview, sounding like an engineer working with his schematic diagrams. “Not ‘write it’ but ‘make it’ on paper.”
The actor James Stewart, who worked with Hitchcock on several films said of him, “(He) came into a picture better prepared than almost anybody I’ve ever seen. He’d work on a script for five to six months with the writer and become absolutely glib and absolutely know every scene, every word of the script.”
In filming The Birds, Hitchcock’s engineering background came in handy when he applied the aerodynamic principles of gliders to simulate bird movements. In terms of sound design, he laid out detailed plans to “extract a little more drama out of ordinary sounds.”
In one scene, the birds gather outside a school before they attack a group of children. With this visual of a forbidding threat, most directors would have used doomy music or sound effects. Hitchcock, instead, has singing children so that the audience would pick up a contrast between the innocence of the victims and the menacing birds that are gathering onscreen.
Yet, in certain scenes, Hitchcock found that silence was more effective. He said in an interview, “Of course, I’m going to take the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all. I’m going to play the sound as though the birds are saying to this person, ‘Now we’ve got you where we want you and here we come. We don’t have to scream with triumph. We don’t have to scream with anger. This is going to be a silent murder’.”
As an engineer, Hitchcock understood the power of context, and combined various tools to achieve effective ends.
Perhaps Hitchcock’s most masterly scene was in his later film, Psycho, in which a woman is stabbed to death in the shower. “Cinematically, there wasn’t a single shot of a knife touching (the) body anywhere,” Hitchcock remarked. “It was completely illusional.”
Hitchcock brilliantly evoked horror by assembling small segments of the film — Altogether 78 snippets of the knife, hands, feet, face, shower, water, and the shadow on the curtain — Culminating in a thrilling scene that only lasted about 45 seconds. “You could not take the camera and just show a nude woman being stabbed to death. It had to be done impressionistically,” he said.
Such is the hallmark of a Hitchcock film. It stays in the audience’s minds, tugging and pulling on them to keep thinking of what they saw in the cinema. Hitchcock commented on Psycho, “As the film went on there was less and less violence, but the tension in the mind of the viewer was increased considerably — It was transferred from film into their minds. Towards the end (of the film) I had no violence at all but the audience was screaming in agony. Thank goodness.”
Essential Elements of Engineering
Engineering is a very rigorous and tedious domain. Weaving together branches of knowledge such as mathematics, physics, electronics, and computer programming (to name a few), engineers are expected to make the best connections and to find the most viable and creative solutions. They are trained in seeing the whole gestalt of a structure, as well as deconstructing them into its constituent parts.
Studying a domain isn’t only rewarding in terms of the explicit knowledge that you gain, but of the skills and the mental framework that you cultivate from your practice. That’s why, in this article, we will discuss engineering not as a domain, but as a discipline. As Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated in making some of the most lasting films in history, engineering-based thinking is plug-and-play, as it could be applied in many different terrains. Hitchcock grapsed the engineering concepts of structures, constraints, and trade-offs, which we will cover shortly.
If the practice of engineering could be boiled down to one thing, it’s sticking your butt to your seat, while you think out every possible solution, one step at a time. If we could add to that, it’s also about having the confidence that there is a solution somewhere out there when it absolutely feels like there isn’t any, and that you can and will find it.
In his book Applied Minds, Guru Madhavan laid out three essential elements in the engineering mindset.
First is the ability to “see” structure where there isn’t any. “From haikus to high-rise buildings, our world relies on structures,” Madhavan said. “Just as a talented composer ‘hears’ a sound before it’s put down on a score, a good engineer is able to visualize — And produce — Structures through a combination of rules, models, and instincts.” He added, “The engineering mind gravitates to the pieces of the iceberg underneath the water rather than its surface.”
Second is the adeptness at designing under constraints. Madhavan wrote, “Even if there are no constraints, good engineers know how to apply constraints to help achieve their goals.” — Constraints such as time, money, and human behavior are always useful, as they concentrate the mind wonderfully, forcing us to make the most of what we have. Otherwise, our work would never get done.
Third is trade-offs, or the ability to make considered judgments about solutions and alternatives. We can’t have everything in the world, and there’s always a cost to getting what we want. An engineer develops the sensitivity to keeping only what is most essential in her creations. Additional features that are merely decorative or do not serve a functional purpose, are ruthlessly discarded. As Madhavan said, “If constraints are like tightrope walking, then trade-offs are inescapable tugs-of-war among what’s available, what’s possible, what’s desirable, and what the limits are.”
These three elements are the tool-kit of an engineer, just as “time, tempo, and rhythm are to a musician”. In respect to these three elements, we will examine how the engineering mindset can help in our creative work.
How Engineering Can Help You As a Creative
Of course, there’s nothing more valuable than actually practicing the engineering discipline itself, but there’s still a lot of good in implementing that mental framework to improve how we approach our creative work.
“Why engineering?”, you might ask. Good question.
Engineering is all around you, in everything that stands, in everything that works. Engineering is omnipresent, but the beauty of it is, that it is invisible. What we see is just the tip of the iceberg, or the final product. What goes on under the surface of the water, is where engineering lies, where all the painstaking details and everything needed to convert a vision into reality are — It’s a scary and overwhelming place to dive into, but as creatives, that’s where we need to familiarize ourselves with in order to create great work.
The discipline of engineering is absolutely needed in creating work that is lifelike. From that, we can create something that is calculated, open-minded, disciplined, yet grounded in reality. Engineers pay a great amount of attention to detail because lives are literally at stake, and they can’t afford to be unreliable. Pay that same amount of attention to detail in our creative work, and it will do wonders.
So here’s what we can do.
Firstly, teach yourself to “see” the underlying structures in other artists’s works, and to implement structure in your own work. In the creative world, we tend to admire the “spontaneous” and laid-back artists, who seem to create art out of nowhere. If we dig only a little deeper, there’s a good chance we’ll learn that that isn’t true, at least not as true as we would like to believe. Like a building, a piece of art without good structure would not stand, and it would not say anything important either. It would end up being a rambling monologue.
Hunter S. Thompson made it seem like he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a drug-fueled sprint, but in reality, the book was a very conscious attempt to simulate the experiences of being under the influence of drugs. Similarly, a jazz musician might seem like she has a lot of spontaneity under her wing, but she wouldn’t be able to do that without first knowing the musical rules, or the rhythm and scales. Without them, she couldn’t be saved from playing discordant notes.
The economist Brian Arthur coined the term “deep craft”, or the ability to intimately know various functionalities and how to effectively fuse them together. As a creative, you need to know the vocabulary of your craft, and how to use them to produce something meaningful. In music, for example, it’s not enough that you memorize chords and scales. They’re only useful if you know how to combine them to create a good melody.
Secondly, place constraints on your work. Other than giving yourself a definite deadline, it’s also important that you limit yourself to a handful of ideas or resources, so that you’re able to have a clearer idea of what you want your work to be like. Your work can’t be about everything, and it won’t be good if it’s too general either. In fact, the more you specificize the problem you’re trying to solve, the better.
A good guideline in utilizing constraints is a concept that computer engineers use, which they call “denormalization” or, to think about constraints in reverse. As N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys explained, “It’s like starting off with an ideal world. You design the system as if there are no constraints. Then step by step, you start introducing your constraints and trade-offs.” — You can start by dreaming big, and then slowly narrow your work down into something viable.
Thirdly, analyze the trade-offs in your work. It’s fair to say that everyone doing creative work has or will experience a situation where an idea personally looks good, but it might not mean as much to the audience. So you must decide which parts of your work are absolutely essential, and to cut out the parts that are not essential.
It could also happen that you want your work to be one way, but in actuality, your work could be turned into some other better uses. Take this for an example. Johannes Gutenberg initially invented a wine press, which didn’t go anywhere too far. So he repurposed it as a printing press, using olive-oil based ink. This new approach in mass-production gave the world a new standard — Books. From that, literacy levels rose, and social orders were stimulated.
And fourthly, do remember that while this engineering mental framework can help you tremendously in your creative work, it isn’t everything. A common flaw in engineering is that engineers tend to focus so much on perfection, that they forget about another crucial aspect — Customer experience. Through it all, you need to keep in mind that intuition and common sense are just as important. Your ability to empathize with the needs of other human beings must always be at the forefront of whatever you’re working on.
Lastly, it’s worth keeping in mind that trial and error are inevitably, the way to go. Engineers like to equip, “Failure is a feature”, as testing is at the core of running engineering projects. Every mistake is a chance to learn, and that’s why we make prototypes and demos, right? — So that we could see where our blind spots are. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work out. Take that as your advantage, learn, and just make a new draft, maybe fail some more, and always get back to work again.