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Training Tomorrow’s Designers: A Study on the Design Fixation Training engineering students for being tomorrow’s efficient designers has been an area of concern in recent times. The ability to come up with novel and functional solutions to design problems is an essential skill for a good designer. Researchers have identified many factors that affect the generation of novel ideas. The presence of rich pictorial stimuli around designers is one such factor. Designers tend to duplicate features from the examples they encounter in their immediate surroundings or in their day-to-day activities. This adhesion to the existing features from their surroundings is termed as “design fixation”. This study explores the fixation effect of examples provided to novices as a part of their class project. We investigate two hypotheses in this study: The first hypothesis is that students tend to duplicate features of examples provided to them, in their designs. The second hypothesis states that exposure to higher quality examples can lead novice designers to better solutions for design problems. To investigate these, freshmen engineering students attending four different sections of a introduction to engineering course are asked to solve a design problem as a part of their class project. They are asked to design and prototype stunt cars that satisfy few specific requirements provided to them. The prototypes are built with legos. As a part of the study, the regular example solution for this project is modified.Two sections are provided with a “poor example” that contains few negative features that hinder the functionality of the design and make the designs unnecessarily complex. These negative features are not explicitly explained to the students; however these are easily identifiable during testing of prototypes. The remaining two sections of the class are provided with a “good example” which does not contain any of the negative features. The results show that in majority of cases, students copy features from their examples. It is also observed that students who obtain bad examples tend to copy the negative features in their solutions, thereby creating more complicated and less effective designs. Some students identify the negative features in their designs as they test the prototypes of their designs. At the same time, students with good examples created simpler and more effective designs. These results are in agreement with the presented hypotheses. These results indicate that novice designers tend to fixate to the examples in their surroundings and unless they are carefully trained to choose their examples correctly, this fixation can lead to infeasible designs. Examples being essential part of our engineering curricula, it is important to choose them wisely. Students need to be introduced to good and bad examples and they need to be explained what makes those examples good or bad. Being able to build prototypes of their ideas can help them in identifying the negative features themselves,which can contribute to their learning in a more effective way. As engineering educators, we need to train students to learn through building and recognize negative features in their designs in that process.


© 2012 American Society for Engineering Education. This article originally appeared in the Conference Proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, 2012 and can be found online at this link.