Being a design engineer makes Douglas Stout happy.
He has far too much to do, and far too little time to do it. His mind is racing a mile a minute, toying with new projects and improvements on the old. And he wouldn't have it any other way.Stout was recently appointed chairman of the design department at Brigham Young University - a position that comes naturally to him, since he has chaired that department before, and once headed the art department at BYU.
His is a thriving, even over-crowded department. "We have 650 majors, and 850 students," he said, "and we really must find a way to cut back.
"There are always a great many competition winners among our students, and the rate of employment for our graduates is 90 percent. They branch out everywhere; if they stay here in Utah, we've failed," he added cheerfully.
Stout takes a broad view of his specialty. "Any artist is a designer. To take the unorganized and organize it is to be a designer.
"God is God because of his ability to create, and creativity is our birthright. The more knowledge we put into ourselves, the better we will be able to create later, when we reach into the unknown and put the elements together, to solve a problem with knowledge and originality.
"No one creates in a void," he philosophized. "We all work with some sort of materials. Artists organize paint on canvas, or organize clay into a pot, or mold a sculpture. Musicians organize notes into compositions. The common denominator is organizing in a new way, never done before.
"In my department, we focus on visual design," he explained, "learning to organize the space around us, and the things in that space.
"We seek to remove all layers of negativism, of self-limiting thinking from our students. High schools teach what is already known, so people can get through the mechanics of living. In college we strip away the pragmatic, and give the skills and ideas to be creative, to investigate the unknown. In this department we teach a basic approach to design that will serve in any imaginable situation later."
Stout believes quite simply that you learn to be creative by being creative. "Think of any other learned activity - walking, talking, swimming, climbing; you learn by doing," he said. Accordingly, students in his basic design class get a problem during the first session.
This term the assignment was to redesign eating utensils, which brought forth a variety of solutions - some mere redundancies on a theme, others that showed a spark of improvement in grace and convenience.
A slight, wiry Scotsman with an irrepressible twinkle in his eye, Stout was born in Edinburgh. A naturalized American and Korean War veteran, he graduated from the University of Utah in industrial design, and earned a master's degree in product design from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Stout first worked for General Motors, where he became a senior designer on the styling staff, then moved on to the Ford Motor Design Center as a senior designer. In both cases he worked on car interiors: at General Motors, taking a hand in Corvair Monza GT and SS show cars. At Ford it was the Cougar, and the Mercury Montego. (For Ford, he has since done a study on campus of drawing and design methods, considering how to use computers to simplify and speed the process.)
He confesses to an ongoing romance with the automobile. "But I was always a little unfulfilled in Detroit, felt a little like a cog in a big wheel," he said. "When I was asked to join Mattel Inc. to design toys, I loved the idea. We bought a nice home in Palos Verdes, and we were going to stay in California forever.
"A couple of days later, Floyd Breinholt called and asked me if I knew an industrial engineer who would like to teach at BYU. I thought it over for a little while and said, maybe I would. It meant a one-third cut in income, but I'd do it again in a minute," he said, flashing his quick smile. "It's been 20 years of special opportunity."
Except for one year when he was finishing a doctorate in educational administration at the University of Utah, Stout has labored contentedly at BYU. In 1987 he spent his sabbatical in Scotland, attending the Heriot-Watt University department of mechanical engineering. While there, he helped develop a four-year design engineering program, and conducted research on computers and electronic engineering.
If he weren't a teacher, Stout would probably be a full-time inventor. "The ideas come full blown, then you just have to work out the details," he said. "You keep asking yourself, `How can this be done better?' "
Among his inventions is a three-wheel racing wheelchair, which he has patented. Taking the rear wheel of a bicycle and extending the front with two smaller wheels, Stout has stripped the weight, greatly improved the seating position for handicapped racers, and completely revised the basic manner of propulsion. "The rider pushes on rods, like pumping iron; no more pulling on wheels," he said.
As befits one who had a career on the outskirts of rapid propulsion, Stout's master's project was a propelled chair that would go about 30 mph. The lack of fearless riders who wished to propel themselves, fully exposed, at such speeds caused him to put this project on the back burner.
Next term Stout will teach a class called "The History of Common Objects," which will be either liberal education carried to its zenith, or the height of foolishness, depending on your viewpoint. Stout is betting on the former.
Fifteen lucky students will fare forth to retrace the development of all manner of things, writing a few papers along the way. The adventure will lie not only in the direct knowledge they uncover, but in the peripheral accumulation - the questions they ponder, and the things they learn on the way to looking up something else.
"If you empty your pockets or purse you come up with a variety of common objects (keys, coins, combs, cosmetics, pencils, pens, pocket knives) that you could be curious about. Take the pen - from ball point to fountain pen, to quill, to stylus, and what before that?
"Or take the knife and fork," Stout proposed. "Why is it that Westerners developed these utensils, while the Oriental uses chopsticks? What did people use before these things? Did religion play any part in it? What about agriculture? When you research, you find out all sorts of other things.
"When I first suggested this class to the dean, I said I couldn't find any books on the subject. How wrong I was! I have found more than 30 books that should help," he said, pointing to a shelf filled with intriguing titles.
His growing collection of reference books includes histories of a wide range of civilizations, stories of customs and their development, everyday life in bygone cultures, travel, discovery, technology, tools and machines.
Let your mind wander over such titles as "Pebbles to Computers: The Thread" by Blohm; "Life and Work in Medieval Europe" by Boissonnade; "Connections" by Burke; "Mechanization Takes Command" by Giedion; "The Second World Almanac Book of Inventions" by Giscard d'Estaing; "Psychology of Everyday Things" by Norman; "From Stone Age to Silicon Chips" by Williams; and "In Search of the Dark Ages" by Wood.
Stout has even come up with a textbook for the class - "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things," by Charles Panati.
"The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings," said fellow Scotsman and Edinburgher Robert Louis Stevenson - a philosophy to which Douglas Stout appears to subscribe in full.