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Engineering Design Centre

Nathan Crilly


Nathan Crilly

Nathan Crilly

Professor of Design

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

Photograph of Nathan Crilly (headshot)


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

Nathan conducts research into how products, systems and services are designed and developed, focussing on designers' creativity and users' experiences. He combines a variety of research approaches in his work, including experimental and qualitative methods of empirical investigation, and integrative scholarly methods for conceptual development. This work is interdisciplinary in nature, connecting ideas, methods and findings from different research traditions. In addition to his individual research, he collaborates with researchers specialising in engineering, product design, psychology, computer science, complexity science, education, anthropology and philosophy. 

Nathan is a member of the Editorial Boards for Design Studies and the International Journal of Design Creativity & Innovation. He held an Early Career Fellowship from the UK’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (from 2013-19), and the Crausaz Wordsworth Interdisciplinary Fellowship in Philosophy from the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities (in 2014). Before joining the University of Cambridge, Nathan held technical roles in the aerospace and software industries. He continues to consult on product development and user research issues for multi-national organisations, SMEs and startups.  

At Cambridge, Nathan has developed and delivered courses focussing on engineering design, user-centred design, systems thinking, creativity, problem solving, sketching, visual representation, and verbal communication. He is an external examiner for the 'Innovation Design Engineering' double Masters programme run jointly by Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. Nathan also delivers talks and training internationally on his research topics (e.g. creativity, problem-solving), the research methods he uses (e.g. interview techniques, disciplinary integration) and various aspects of research communication (e.g. writing, diagramming).


Selected Publications

Some of Nathan's publications are listed below, organised by topic. More comprehensive publication lists are available from ORCID and Google Scholar.  


  • Crilly, N. (2021). The Evolution of “Co-evolution” (Part I): Problem Solving, Problem Finding, and Their Interaction in Design and Other Creative Practices. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation. 7(3) 309-332, Freely available from Elsevier. A cross-disciplinary review of the history and development of the theory that problem solving and problem finding proceed in parallel, and interact. Provides the context for...
  • Crilly, N. (2021). The Evolution of “Co-evolution” (Part II): The Biological Analogy, Different Kinds of Co-evolution, and Proposals for Conceptual Expansion. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation. 7(3) 333-355, Freely available from Elsevier. A conceptual exploration of the biolgical analogy that underpins descriptions of how problem solving and problem finding proceed and interact.
  • Neroni, M. A. & Crilly, N. (2021). How to guard against fixation? Demonstrating individual vulnerability is more effective than warning of general risk. The Journal of Creative Behavior. 55(2) 447-463, 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). 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 a computer-based method, 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 Innovation6(1-2) 52-65. Freely available from Taylor & Francis and summarised in Psychology TodayReports 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.
  • 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 CompanyReports 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 RepositoryProvides 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).



  • Neroni, M. A., Oti, A., & Crilly, N. (2021). Virtual Reality design-build-test games with physics simulation: Opportunities for researching design cognition. International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, 9(3), 139-173. Available from Taylor & Francis or request a copy here. An exploration of how VR systems permit research participants to rapidly iterate the design of diverse mechanical systems through simulated build and test activities.
  • 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.
  • 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 Elsevier. Reports 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 experimental research into design fixation and creativity, illustrating the diversity of questions posed, methods employed and findings obtained. Methodological challenges are identified and proposals are made for how to overcome them.   
  • 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 SAGEDescribes a novel research method that involves presenting interviewees with research diagrams. Places that method in the context of other qualitative approaches, especially visual methods.



  • Töre Yargın, G., Moroşanu Firth, R., & Crilly, N. (2018). User requirements for analogical design support tools: Learning from practitioners of bio-inspired design. Design Studies, 58, 1–35. Freely available from ElsevierReports on interviews with fourteen experts in bio-inspired design to present the opportunities and challenges for providing software tools that support analogical design processes.
  • Töre Yargın, G. & Crilly, N. (2015). Information and interaction requirements for software tools supporting analogical design. Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing, 29(2), 203–214. Available from Cambridge University Press. Constructs a user requirements framework for software tools supporting analogical design, considering both the information content of the tools and the interaction qualities that the tools support. 



  • Taysom, E., & Crilly, N. (2018). On the Resilience of Sociotechnical Systems. in P. Jones & K. Kijima (eds.) Systemic design: theory, methods, and practice (Translational Systems Science – Vol. 8). Berlin: Springer. pp. 145-171. Available from Springer or draft here. A framework of resilience concepts is derived from a workshop with 21 participants across different areas of research and practice related to the resilience of different socio-technical systems.

  • Taysom, E., & Crilly, N. (2017). Resilience in Sociotechnical Systems: The Perspectives of Multiple Stakeholders. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation3(3), 165–182. Freely available from Elsevier. Reports on system-mapping interviews with multiple stakeholders in the same system to understand system resilience and vulnerability to disruption.

  • 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, develop 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. . ISSN 0963-5432. Freely available from the University of Cambridge 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. 



  • 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 PressRepresents 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 hereExplores 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.



  • Bonner, O., Beardsall, K. Crilly, N., & Lasenby, J. (2017) 'There were more wires than him': The potential for wireless patient monitoring in neonatal intensive care. BMJ Innovations, 3(1), 12-18. Freely available from BMJ Journals. Reports on the experiences of parents and nurses in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to understand the challenges posed by wired baby monitoring systems and the potential benefits of a wireless system.
  • 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 PressDevelops 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 IJDReports on a mixed-methods study investigating how users' knowledge of design intentions influences the way in which they regard and appreciate products, providing experimental and qualitative evidence for how intention knowledge affects product appreciation.
  • Crilly, N. (2011) The design stance in user-system interaction, Design Issues, 27(4), 16-29. Available from MIT PressDevelops 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 IJDProposes 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).



  • 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 hereBuilds 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 IJDReviews 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 hereReviews 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 hereDevelops a conceptual framework for the varieties of consumer responses and the factors that influence those responses. This framework is complementary to that presented in 'Shaping things' (2009).