industrial design

Being a Maker

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor. I was always drawing designs for gadgets and contraptions I wanted to create. The only one I can still remember was intended to enhance my snowboard. I’d developed a small plastic part that would secure the baseplate. This is important because the baseplate keeps the bindings—the things into which you strap your boots—from coming loose. I wrote to Burton about it. They sent me a design submission packet, which I dutifully filled out and sent back. I never received a response.

At the time, that was all I could do. I didn’t have design experience. I certainly wasn’t in the position to call a factory and order a prototype. I didn’t have access to sales channels or the faintest idea of how that system worked. Had my fresh-faced fourteen-year-old self been around today, I would have gone online and found a community of makers with whom to discuss my design concept. Even in rural Vermont, I’m sure I could have tracked down a maker space with AutoCAD and a 3D printer.

I would have been able to print my part as a three-dimensional prototype and to test whether it actually worked. I could have set up a website through which to promote and sell the part. Or, I could have initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds and to test the market to find out whether other snowboarders had the same problem. Trust me; it was a problem. The Kickstarter would have succeeded, and on Alibaba I would have been able to find a company that could mass-produce it. The experience would have shown me how easy it is to create real things that are used in the world and inspired me to look for other problems that need to be fixed. It would have been glorious.

Okay. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened exactly like that. It’s hard to run a Kickstarter for what is essentially a modified screw, but—you get my point. We’ve reached this incredible age of small production, in which the tools are available to almost everyone. What an amazing inspiration for a kid to be able to create something that is used by thousands. Rather than these decisions being left up to CEOs and design teams who are insulated from the true users of products, these days every user is a designer. It’s exciting to imagine how much the pace of innovation will increase with the democratization of these tools. It’s a pivotal time.

I want to be part of it, but I’m starting slow. I recently joined TechShop and last Saturday I took a beginner soldering class, which blew me away. I gained a totally different understanding of how electricity works and can be manipulated. Did you know that a short is a circuit without enough resistance? Because the power coming out of the socket is too strong for most devices, they need resistors (small components that hold the flow of electricity at a set level) so they don’t burn out. So a short circuit is one that is not holding back enough power back. Seems quite straightforward, but before that class, I thought a short circuit was a break, or something that’s burned out. It’s fascinating to think about the river of power that flows through everything we use. With dams and eddies holding it back to ensure that exactly the right amount reaches where it needs to be.

Incredible. Mundane to some. But truly incredible to me. I couldn’t be more excited.