Thinking by design

Students working on a project


Have you ever wondered how engineers come up with their ideas? 

Whether they are developing new biomaterials, earthquake-resistant buildings, AI-enabled techniques to find critical mineral deposits or an electrical grid that’s more resilient to hacking, engineers use design thinking to develop solutions that make people’s lives better. 

This design thinking process is an engineer’s superpower. 

It’s a tried and tested method that engineers learn in university and then use throughout their professional careers and even in their personal lives when making decisions! 

What is the design cycle?

The engineering design cycle is the guiding process that engineers use to define, explore, create and test their ideas. 

It’s an inherently creative process that results in innovative ideas that lead to new products, processes and solutions.

It generally looks something like this: 

Engineering design cycle


Watch a video on the engineering design cycle 

Over the course of your time at UBC Engineering, you’ll have countless opportunities to use the design cycle, from your first-year engineering courses to project-based assignments and capstones in your upper years. And it will continue to guide you in your career.

First-year courses  Capstones

Learning to think like an engineer 

You’ll be introduced to the design cycle in your first engineering classes. It will soon become second nature! 

In your first year, you’ll get lots of practice with the design cycle any time you need to come up with a solution to an open-ended problem – be that designing and building an autonomous claw or creating a water filtration system for a remote community.

It’s a powerful tool that will help you learn how to innovate and solve problems – and could even change the way you approach decisions outside of class. “My first APSC 100 class was one of the few times I’ve been genuinely surprised by what I’m learning,” said student Myklos Sunario. “Even though I knew that engineering would teach me to solve problems, I was surprised by the extent to which the instructors taught us how to use the design cycle process to make decisions.“

APSC 100

Miklos Sunario


Practise makes perfect: Learning the engineering mindset

Throughout your degree, you’ll return to the design process again and again as you apply your knowledge to work on assignments and projects. 

Through the projects and group work I learned a lot of problem-solving skills,” says Manufacturing Engineering graduate Jasmine Lee. “Any time you take a project from beginning to end you’re going to run into a myriad of problems and issues. One of the mindsets that engineering taught me is that the only way out is through. Solving challenges requires adaptability and the ability to redefine expectations while keeping the project goal in mind.

Alumni Success- Jasmine Lee


You’ll also use the design cycle if you decide to join a student design team. These are entirely student-run clubs that tend to focus on a complex, interdisciplinary project. Many UBC teams participate in national and international competitions. 

Mechanical Engineering student Caitlyn Molander, who is part of Formula UBC Racing, says the one-year design cycle for the team means “You get to design a part, build it, test it and then see it in the car at the end of the year and in competition.” Formula UBC Racing team members demonstrated the success of their efforts when they travelled to Michigan to compete in the renowned FSAE competition, finishing sixth in design finals out of 120 teams from around the world.

Formula UBC Racing

Caitlyn Molander

The design cycle in your career

The design cycle is something you’ll use throughout your career as an engineer. Emma Gray is an Engineering Physics grad and Product Manager on Microsoft’s Education Product team where she develops apps for students and teachers that empower learning. She describes the design cycle as the “bedrock of engineering design” and says it’s something she uses every day. 

I work with our design, engineering and research teams (and other experts) to define the problem space, the opportunity within it, and what we should build in response,” she says. “I work iteratively with our technical teams and designers, while checking back with our customers, to make sure that what we’re building truly addresses the problem at hand. It’s the whole APSC 100 engineering design process in action!

Learning what part of the design cycle interests you the most

As a product manager, Emma’s job touches on the entire design cycle from start to finish. However, most engineers will focus on one particular area of the design cycle. 

This is an important thing to keep in mind over the course of your education and work terms because it can help you identify your unique skills and aptitudes and determine what kinds of jobs are a good fit for you. 

Perhaps you love the big-picture brainstorming that happens at the outset of a project. Or maybe you love prototyping potential solutions. Or it could be that the process of testing and validation is where you find the most satisfaction.

An engineering student at the Design and Innovation day exhibit

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Design & Innovation Day, Kai Jacobson

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You may not know yet if you’re interested in leading an organization. But one thing is certain. Starting your future at UBC Engineering will give you a well-balanced education and sought-after skills – the first step and the foundation for a challenging and rewarding career.

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