Build to Learn revisited


Recently I’ve been working on some lamp projects with a friend of mine. It’s a funny project for me because I’ve been known to say in the past that it’s unfortunate how designers spend so much of their creative energy on making chairs and lamps. A visit to design week in New York will confirm this fetish that designers have. You’ll see more chairs and lamps than anything else. But I’ve come to appreciate designing lamps as an exercise in the exploration of tools and materials.

This past weekend I visited World Maker Faire in NYC. The makers at the fair aren’t into chairs and lamps per se but they have their own fetishes: LEDs, microcontrollers, 3D printers. They get teased in the press because the things that they make seem silly. But what the journos may not understand is that these makers are building to learn. They are exploring new tools and materials to see what they can do. Just as an artist might do color studies with paint or form studies with clay, the makers are exploring the possibilities and limits of their medium. The point isn’t to make something useful or functional; the point is to build to learn — to explore and discover what the tools want to do and what the materials want to be. Tim O’Reilly once wrote that the way we play with new technologies is like how babies play with blocks. They start by putting them in their mouths. Only after months or years of exploration do they build anything meaningful.

At MakerFaire I caught a great talk from tech writer Clive Thompson about new literacies. He’s studied the democratization of several technologies: writing, photography, video, and video games. And in his studies he’s noticed two things that occur when technologies get into the hands of everyday people: 1. People do weird things with them (LOL cats, for e.g.) and 2. People move from using tech to talk to other people to using it to talk to themselves, to figure things out.

The lamp on the left is an exploration in laser cutting. We’re trying to figure out how to get the most bang for our buck with a desktop manufacturing tool that cuts flat planes. We’re also exploring the software, how to draw files that take advantage of the laser cutter’s strengths. And finally, we’re exploring the material itself, in this case 3mm plywood. We’re asking questions such as: What are the minimal requirements for holding the pieces together without glue or hardware; for making an object that is balanced; for using the minimal amount of material.

The lamp pictured on the right is just a quick spontaneous experiment with tyvek and LEDs. We’re asking questions such as How does the material take the light (beautifully, don’t you think?) and What kind of shape does the material want to hold? We’re letting the tools and materials lead rather than assuming that the ideas we have in our heads are complete. We’re building to learn and learning a lot.

Writers do this too as they write. In a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Munger writes 10 tips on how to write well. He debunks the myth that writers write to say what they know. Instead, they write to learn. Here’s a taste:

Nearly all of the best scholars are profoundly changed by their experiences in doing research and writing about it. They learn by doing, and sometimes what they learn is that they were wrong.

So the next time you want to figure something out, consider building something. Make a game or a video. Explore a material  you’ve never used before. Put your knowledge and expectations aside and just play and “listen” with your hands. With patience and persistence, you’re bound to discover something new.

related articles:

New York Design Week

Dinner is Printed – NYTs

Clive Thompson at World Maker Faire

Michael Munger – Chronicle of Higher Ed

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