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Engineering Design Centre

Dr Nathan Crilly


Dr Nathan Crilly

Dr Nathan Crilly


Research group: Design Practice Group
Telephone: +44 1223 748244

Photo of Dr Nathan Crilly


  • B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, University of Southampton, 1999
  • Ph.D. Engineering Design, University of Cambridge, 2005

Nathan's research interests are in the areas of design, creativity and communication. He employs an interdisciplinary approach to studying how artefacts (e.g. products, systems or services) are developed, the properties they exhibit and the ways in which people respond to them. Nathan leads the EDC's Design Practice Group, conducting research into the relationships between designers, artefacts and users. Some of Nathan's publications are listed below, organised by topic. More comprehensive publication lists are available from ORCID and Google Scholar.  

Potential students, visitors or collaborators should contact Nathan directly.


  • Neroni, M. A. & Crilly, N. (2020). How to guard against fixation? Demonstrating individual vulnerability is more effective than warning of general risk. The Journal of Creative Behavior. Freely available from Wiley. An experimental study investigating the opportunities to improve creative behaviour by comparing the effect of demonstrating and asserting individual vulnerability to fixation. The approach combines insights from earlier qualitative work on fixation with a method first implemented in research into the persuasive effects of advertising.
  • Crilly, N. (2019). Methodological diversity and theoretical integration: Research in design fixation as an example of fixation in research design? Design Studies 65, 78-106. Available from Elsevier or draft here. A critical review of the methodological basis of design fixation research, drawing on citation analysis and arguments from other fields, Organisational Science, Construction Management, Information Systems, Medical Informatics, Economics, Cultural Studies, Psychology, Human Resources, Nursing and Ergonomics.
  • Crilly, N. (2019). Creativity and fixation in the real world: A literature review of case study research. Design Studies, 64, 154–168. Available from Elsevier or draft here A review of case study research focussing on creative design practice and episodes of fixation. Provides the foundation for...
  • Crilly, N., & Moroşanu Firth, R. (2019). Creativity and fixation in the real world: Three case studies of invention, design and innovation. Design Studies, 64, 169–212. Available from Elsevier or draft here. Three detailed case studies of creative design practice focussing on the development of design ideas through iterative prototyping. Discusses the cases in relation to creative blocks and breakthroughs, the co-evolution of problem and solution spaces, and the way in which ideas are recognised and accepted.
  • Neroni, M.A., & Crilly, N. (2019). Whose ideas are most fixating, your own or other people’s? The effect of idea agency on subsequent design behaviour. Design Studies, 60, 180-212. Freely available from ElsevierReports on an experimental study distinguishing between the fixating effects of ideas that are generated by the designer and ideas that are generated by others. By using the computer-based method reported in Neroni et al. (2017, see below) the study showed that 'psychological ownership' might be a more significant factor than 'sunk-cost' effects in determining fixation.
  • Crilly, N. (2018). ‘Fixation’ and ‘the pivot’: balancing persistence with flexibility in design and entrepreneurship. International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, 6(1-2) 52-65. Freely available from Taylor & Francis and summarised in Psychology Today. Reports on a study of technology entrepreneurs and their advisors, examining the way in which opportunities for strategic change are identified, resisted, accepted and implemented. Discussion of the results is informed by concepts of creative fixation, sunk cost effects and psychological ownership.
  • Neroni, M. A., Vasconcelos, L. A., & Crilly, N. (2017). Computer-Based ‘Mental Set’ Tasks: An Alternative Approach to Studying Design Fixation. Journal of Mechanical Design, 139(7), 071102. Available from ASME or draft hereReports on a methodological investigation of whether experimental paradigms used to study Mental Set (the 'Einstellung Effect') can be modified to study design fixation. A computer-based task is proposed for better data capture and a more objective measure of design performance.
  • Crilly, N., & Cardoso, C. (2017). Where next for research on fixation, inspiration and creativity in design? Design Studies, 50, 1–38. Freely available from ElsevierReports on an international interdisciplinary workshop focused on the future of design fixation research, drawing on contributions from twenty-one researchers. The workshop questioned the conceptual and methodological opportunities that fixation researchers might respond to and the ways in which the resulting knowledge might be applied.  
  • Vasconcelos, L. A. & Crilly, N. (2016) Inspiration and fixation: Questions, methods, findings, and challenges, Design Studies, 42, 1-32. Freely available from Elsevier. Reviews 25 experimental studies on inspiration and fixation, revealing variation in the experimental methods used and the results obtained.

  • Crilly, N. (2015) Fixation and creativity in concept development: the attitudes and practices of expert designers, Design Studies, 38, 54-91. Freely available from Elsevier and summarised in Fast Company. Reports on an interview study with thirteen professional designers to understand the role of established ideas in inhibiting creative work ('design fixation').

  • Crilly, N. (2010) The structure of design revolutions: Kuhnian paradigm shifts in creative problem solving, Design Issues, 26(1), 54-66. Available from MIT Press or Cambridge Repository. Provides an account of creative progress in design projects that includes gradual progress and sudden leaps forward. Structured around Thomas Kuhn's account of scientific developments (History and Philosophy of Science).


  • Chen, C.-C., & Crilly, N. (2016) Describing complex design practices with a cross-domain framework: learning from Synthetic Biology and Swarm Robotics. Research in Engineering Design. Freely available from Springer. Reports on two interview studies in fields of emerging technology that routinely address complex design problems. Builds a framework for understanding how design practitioners characterise complexity, devlop objectives with respect to that complexity and implement approaches to realise those objectives.
  • Chen, C.-C., & Crilly, N. (2016) From modularity to emergence: a primer on the design and science of complex systems. Technical Report CUED/C-EDC/TR.166. University of Cambridge, Department of Engineering. ISSN 0963-5432. Freely available here with an introductory animation here. A 'primer' introducing a domain-neutral framework and diagrammatic scheme for characterising the ways in which systems are modular or complex. It allows researchers and practitioners from different disciplines to share methods, theories and findings related to the design and study of different systems, even when those systems appear superficially dissimilar.
  • Chen, C.-C., & Crilly, N. (2014) Modularity, redundancy and degeneracy: Cross-domain perspectives on key design principles, 8th Annual IEEE Systems Conference (SysCon 2014), pp. 546-553. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: IEEE. Available from IEEE. Represents and distinguishes three key system architectures that relate function to structure. The general application of these is demonstrated through reference to technical and biological systems.
  • Chen, C.-C., & Crilly, N. (2014) Towards a framework of design principles: Classifying system features, behaviours and types, Design Research Society Conference, 2014, Umeå, Sweden. Available from DRS2014. Establishes a basis for structuring a framework of design principles that apply across domains. This is achieved through considering the different types of system that different domains consider, the features of those systems and the behaviours that result from those features.


  • Crilly, N. (2015) The proliferation of functions: Multiple systems playing multiple roles in multiple supersystems, Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing, 29(1), 83-92. Available from Cambridge University Press. Represents the different function statements that can be made when different levels of system abstraction are considered and when multiple roles are played at each level.

  • Crilly, N. (2013) Function propagation through nested systems, Design Studies, 34(2), 216-242. Available from Elsevier or draft here. Investigates how to represent the function of a system with respect to the multiple super-systems that it is embedded in. Incorporates aspects of biological and technical function theory and systems theory.

  • Crilly, N. (2010) The roles that artefacts play: technical, social and aesthetic functions, Design Studies, 31(4), 311-344. Available from Elsevier or drafts here. Explores definitions of 'function' with a view to including not just an artefact's technical roles, but also its non-technical roles. Builds on function theory from engineering design, philosophy of biology, social theory, art theory and archaeology.


  • da Silva, O., Crilly, N., & Hekkert, P. (2016) Maximum Effect for Minimum Means: The Aesthetics of Efficiency. Design Issues, 32(1), 41-51. Available from MIT Press. Develops an explanation for how product users might appreciate products as the means to achieve designers' intended effects. Products are regarded as more or less minimal means to achieve more or less maximal effects, with the maximum effect for minimum means being optimal.

  • da Silva, O., Crilly, N., & Hekkert, P. (2016) How People's Appreciation of Products Is Affected by Their Knowledge of the Designers' Intentions. International Journal of Design, 9(2), 21-33. Freely available from IJD. Reports on a mixed-methods study investigating how users' knowledge of design intentions influences the way in which they regard and appreciate products. Study 1 provides experimental evidence that intention knowledge has an effect on product appreciation. Study 2 explained this effect with interview data showing that intention knowledge influences the perception of the product, enables an evaluation of the intention and also an evaluation of the product as a means to fulfil that intention.

  • Crilly, N. (2011) The design stance in user-system interaction, Design Issues, 27(4), 16-29. Available from MIT Press. Develops the conceptual foundations for considering how users' design knowledge influences their interactions with designed systems. Builds on Daniel Dennett's concept of the 'Design Stance' (philosophy of mind).

  • Crilly, N. (2011) Do users know what designers are up to? Product experience and the inference of persuasive intentions, International Journal of Design, 5(3), 1-15. Freely available from IJD. Proposes research questions and methodological options for investigating how users' design knowledge influences their interpretations of designed products. Builds on Friestad and Wright's 'Persuasion Knowledge Model' (marketing theory).

  • Aruk, N., Jansson-Boyd, C. V. & Crilly, N. (2011) What users know about the design process: a report on two exploratory studies, Proceedings of Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces (DPPI '11), June 22-25, 2011, Milan, Italy. Available from ACM. Reports on two qualitative exploratory studies aimed at understanding the extent to which people�s responses to products are influenced by their ideas about the processes from which those products result.


  • Crilly, N., Moultrie, J. and Clarkson, P.J. (2009) Shaping things: intended consumer response and the other determinants of product form, Design Studies, 30(3), 224-254. Available from Elsevier or draft here. Builds a framework for the factors that influence product form by analysing interviews with industrial designers. This framework is complementary to that presented in 'Seeing things' (2004).

  • Crilly, N., Maier, A. and Clarkson, P.J. (2008). Representing artefacts as media: Modelling the relationship between designer intent and consumer experience, International Journal of Design, 2(3), 15-27. Freely available from IJD. Reviews the various diagrammatic models that can be used to represent design as a process of mediated communication. Builds on communication theory, media theory, literary theory and design theory to develop an integrated model.

  • Crilly, N., Good, D., Matravers, D. and Clarkson, P.J. (2008) Design as communication: exploring the validity and utility of relating intention to interpretation, Design Studies, 29 (5), 425-457. Available from Elsevier or draft here. Reviews the various diagrammatic models that can be used to represent design as a process of mediated communication. Discusses the most popular models and suggests how they might be used.

  • Crilly, N., Moultrie, J. and Clarkson, P.J. (2004) Seeing things: consumer response to the visual domain in product design, Design Studies, 25 (6), 547-577. Available from Elsevier or draft here. Develops a conceptual framework for the varieties of consumer response and the factors that influence those responses. This framework is complementary to that presented in 'Shaping things' (2009).


  • Crilly, N., Blackwell, A.F. and Clarkson, P.J. (2006) Graphic elicitation: using research diagrams as interview stimuli, Qualitative Research, 6 (3), 341-366. Available from SAGE. Describes a novel research method that involves presenting interviewees with research diagrams. Places that method in the context of other qualitative approaches, especially visual methods. Republished as...

  • Crilly, N., Blackwell, A.F. and Clarkson, P.J. (2012) Graphic elicitation: using research diagrams as interview stimuli, SAGE Visual Methods, Hughes, J. (Ed.), Vol. 4, Ch. 65, pp. 283-307.