Innovation Inspiration #011—Make Something

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It doesn’t have to be complex or fancy. It might even be the first thing you’ve ever built. But it must follow these rules:

  1. It must be your original design
  2. It must be scratch-built
  3. It must not have instructions
  4. It must be functional
  5. It should interface or interact with something else
  6. It need not have high design, but it should be presentable

1—Your Original Design

Don’t design this in the computer or even on paper. The idea is to start with something simple enough you can keep the whole design in your head. No, not even a napkin sketch! That will make you focus too much on the mechanical process of drawing and caring about too-small details.

You want to make your brain think about more important things, like “will it work”, “will it fit”, and “will it make me happy”.

2—Scratch the Kit

(Read: No model airplane kits.)

Building something from a kit is an assembly task, not a creative one (for the most part). You can look at books and magazines for inspiration, but you must build something unique.

3—No Instructions Available

(Read: Don’t use plans from Popular Mechanics.)

Make something that there are no instructions for. If you follow instructions, you’re making something that is somebody else’s solution to a problem, and you’re not thinking enough about the problem you’re trying to solve.

4—Make it Do Something

This isn’t art class. It doesn’t have to do something complex, but it should do something you care about, that solves a problem you find frustrating.

A ceramic ashtray might be functional, but it doesn’t do anything. Besides, you did that in junior high, anyway.

5—Make it Interact

One of the main goals of this exercise is to teach you to start thinking about systems of systems and design constraints.

6—Make it Pretty Enough for the Movies

Whatever you make, it should look just good enough that you won’t be embarrassed by it. Doesn’t matter if it still has rough edges.

Have you ever seen movie props? What looks great on 35mm film can look like a piece of junk when you get up close to it. But it looks good enough for the purpose. This is the goal—you should not spend any time making it look better than that.

In my youth, I was fortunate enough to see the Star Trek props on tour at the Yerba Buena Center (and have a Wookie Cookie macaroon for desert!). My boss, a huge Trek fan, refused to go because he knew of this “good enough” prop trait, and didn’t want the illusion from the movies to be spoiled. Learn from this example, and make it look good enough from say, 10 feet or so.

Do this a couple of times, following all these rules, and you’ll start to trust that you can make useful, interesting stuff without copying anything else.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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