Making Light – Made in USA is alive in The White House and in Ithaca


Earlier this month we traveled to The White House Office of Science and Technology to take part in a special kick-off event to National Maker Faire. We were thrilled by a panel focused on connecting makers with US Manufacturers. The panel was facilitated by JJ Raynor, Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and filled with ‘Made in USA’ trailblazers: Mo Mullen from West Elm Local, Bernie Lynch from Made Right Here, Matthew Burnett from Maker’s Row, and Althea Erickson from Etsy. All of these folks recognize the talent and creativity of our makers and inventors and are hard at work building bridges between makers and US suppliers and manufacturers. The discussion was inspiring!

As you may know, this summer Make Better Stuff is developing a product in the Southern Tier Hardware Accelerator in Ithaca, NY. We’re working on a light that aims to tune our bodies and minds to a slower, more natural sense of time. Above is an early prototype of a kit version. We are developing both a kit version for makers and hanging lamp version for public spaces. As far as the electronics go,  we’ve milled and populated some custom boards on the Othermill we have in the shop. We’ve tested them (they work!) and are ordering a few variations from OSH Park.

While we wait for the boards, we’re getting feedback from potential customers and we’re exploring a range of laser cut designs for the kit version of the light–which sits on a table–and the hanging version. We’re at the point where we need to start putting together a BOM (bill of materials) and that’s where organizations like Maker’s Row, West Elm, and Made Right Here can help us find US suppliers and manufacturers. It’s super exciting. Like a geeky dream come true!

If you’d like to read more about the Southern Tier Hardware Accelerator, then check out their blog right here:

More links:


The Best Ideas are Wild and Easy

One of my favorite workshops to facilitate is a brainstorming workshop. We’ve all participated in poorly run brainstorms so folks find it refreshing when I show them guidelines for how to run an effective one.

A brainstorm has two parts:

1. An idea generation part (divergent)

2. An idea assessment part (convergent)

Part two is often overlooked–people engage in part one and generate tons of ideas but when asked to choose which ideas to move forward on, we’re handed a sheet of little orange stickers and asked to mark the “best” ideas.

But what are the best ideas? Without criteria, this process is meaningless. Additionally, if we don’t have criteria for assessing ideas, folks will gravitate to either the craziest ideas that are impossible to implement or to the safest ideas. And if you’re gonna move forward on the safest idea, then you didn’t need to brainstorm.

So after a brainstorm, what we really need is criteria for assessing the ideas we generate. I like to use an evaluative matrix in which “safe ideas and wild ideas” are plotted on one axis, and “easy to implement, hard to implement” ideas are plotted on the other. If you do this, a bunch of ideas will end up in the “Wild and Easy” quadrant. I suggest that you choose one of those.

You want to move forward on ideas that are somewhat wild–this is why we brainstorm in the first place–but that are also easy to implement and test. Because prototyping and testing is where the design work really begins–when we get out of our heads, make something with our hands, put it in to someone else’s hands, and gather their feedback. How to assess that feedback, however, is another post. Stay tuned.

Happy designing!

Sneakers as a Tool for Learning Design Thinking

Today I’m running a “Sneaker Design Workshop” at the Juneteenth Festival at Southside Community Center. The theme of this year’s festival is “Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship” so I thought I’d bring a little entrepreneurial thinking to the table. In the workshop, we’ll use tools from Design Thinking (DT) to develop a concept and brand for a pair of shoes that carry a message. Think Tom’s Shoes “Buy One Give One” message or, of course, Nike’s “Just Do It.”

Sneakers are great carriers of messages. Just like graffiti on the El Trains in 1970s New York, sneakers are colorful and mobile. They have visibility and are great platforms for communication.

In this workshop we’ll use the five phases of Design Thinking to approach the project and then iterate. The five phases are: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I’ll flesh out the specifics below.

EMPATHIZE: Most often DT asks us to empathize with consumers. But there are other stakeholders to consider when trying to develop a great idea. For this challenge, I want the designers to identify a person or people that they wish to help. This desire to help becomes the cause of the brand. Like above with Tom’s Shoes, Tom’s aims to help people who can’t afford shoes with their BOGO business model. Furthermore, the aesthetic of Tom’s Shoes expresses humility and simplicity which are values in line with the cause.

DEFINE: Once the designers have identified a cause, they need to define the problem. Design Thinking problems always start with “How might we…” So their design problems will look something like this: “How might we create a sneaker brand that promotes ______ cause?”

IDEATE: Here’s the fun part. Once the designers define the problem, they need to engage in “out of the box” thinking to discover resonant solutions. What does a sneaker that promotes X cause look like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? How does it make the wearer of the shoe feel?

PROTOTYPE: You might think that a prototype would be a model of the actual sneaker. But in Design Thinking, we’re focused not only on creating great products but on creating great experiences. So we start with drawing storyboards. In the storybaord we explore quesitons like: How does a person hear about this sneaker brand? What do they do once they hear about it? How does the person feel once they are wearing the shoes? How are they now connected to the cause?

TEST: In our first test, we aren’t only validating our ideas but discovering its weak points. How do we do this? We share our storyboards and listen for feedback. Some feedback is prescriptive “You should do this or that,” while other feedback is descriptive “Something about this part doesn’t sit well with me.” It’s the designer’s job to elicit feedback, listen carefully, then interpret that feedback and go back to the drawing board for revisions or consider changes in direction (called “pivots”).

ITERATION: This isn’t a phase of Design Thinking but rather a mode that underlies the entire process. At anytime we might get feedback either from our own eyes when building a prototype or from our team or from potential users that causes us to make revisions. Being able to listen to feedback and revise is what separates amateur designers from the pros.

In the sneaker workshop, we’ll revise our storyboard and then design a profile of the actual shoe using brightly colored card stock. If we had all day, we’d prototype and test a few rounds. But today we’ll only do it once or twice, then present our ideas in short 1-2 minute pitches. I can’t wait.


The relationship between being creative and letting go

This past Friday and Saturday I helped out with a design-thinking workshop led by Tracy Brandenburg and Sirietta Simoncini and their graduate students in the Systems Engineering program at Cornell University. The workshop was held for dozens of executives from around the country.

Throughout the two-day workshop, the execs were asked to prototype their ideas in several forms: physical prototypes, storyboards, and skits. Each time the workshop participants had to present their prototypes, Tracy or Sirietta would call out a reminder, “OK. Once again, it’s time to let go of your prototype both physically and emotionally.” For some, this was easy. For others, this was really difficult. It’s hard to detach from something we just made and admit to ourselves “This isn’t done yet. I need help.”

In an art school critique, it’s often the case that students aren’t allowed to defend their work. “You won’t be there in the gallery to explain your concept to the viewer” so the reasoning goes.

Art students are trained to let go of their work.  My colleague from RIT, Roberley Bell, has an assignment in which her design freshmen work on a project all semester. Then on the last day of class, she hands out shovels and tells the students to bury their work in the ground. This may seem extreme. But compare the burying to the exercise from the professor she got the idea from — he hands out matches and instructs his students to burn their work!

And then there’s this experience I had as an undergrad in art school: I approached my professor with a print I had made and asked him what he thought. He looked at it for 10 long seconds. Then he picked it up, ripped it in half, threw it on the floor and said “That’s what I think.” For months I was shocked. But then I came to realize two things: 1. He was probably having a bad day and 2. He didn’t rip up my work because he didn’t like it. He did it to show me that I was being too precious about it. Harsh as that approach may seem, he effectively taught me to let go.

What makes this letting go even more difficult is that you can’t let go completely. You need to let go enough to gather useful feedback and listen well. But you also have to remember that you are the designer or artist or entrepreneur and your vision matters. When Project Runway contestants have a client challenge, their mentor Tim Gunn always has to remind them, “At the end of the day, it’s your name going down the runway. You want to please the client. But you also want to maintain your vision.”

Not easy.

A trick, I think, is to remember that feedback is essential but should not always be taken literally. For example, when someone testing your prototype says “This button should be red” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the button should be red. As a designer, you need to interpret feedback. “This button should be red” probably means, “I want the button, or the action the button sets into place, easier to find and use.”

Still, in order to get feedback in the first place, you need to let go of your prototypes, both physically and emotionally. You need to be open and vulnerable. You need to have faith that the feedback, once you interpret it, will help you develop and deliver something better that you are able to when working alone.

related reading:

After the Brainstorm

Brainstorms can be a lot of fun. But how often have you had a great brainstorm, spent all of this creative energy coming up with great ideas, and then did nothing with them? Too many times, right?

Here’s a worksheet that can help you capture the brainstorm and move forward.

1. THE PROBLEM IS _______.

Hopefully you were brainstorming on some type of problem. Restate it in an 8-10 word sentence. This is actually quite hard to do, just take it from A.E. who said:

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.

2. WE GENERATED [insert number] IDEAS.

The more the better, right? When a photographer gets assigned the front page of the NYTs, she doesn’t  go out and shoot one picture. She shoots dozens or hundreds, each one increasing the chances of finding that killer shot.


1. _____ and _____

2. _____ and _____

Criteria sets can be stuff like “Safe ideas & Wild ideas,” “Expensive ideas & Inexpensive ideas,” “High tech ideas & Low tech ideas.”

NOTE – “This will work & This won’t work” is not an objective criteria set. And if you already know what’s gonna work, you don’t need to brainstorm.


1. _____

2. _____

Chose two ideas because if you chose only one, you’ll go with the safe one. And if you’re gonna go with the safe one, then again, why are you brainstorming??

On prototyping: You can and should prototype ideas in a simple way at first. If you have an idea for a phone app, draw a few screen shots with pencil and paper. This is a prop that you can use for gathering valuable feedback when you test it. (Designers like myself love props).


1. If _____, then _____.

2. If _____, then _____.

A hypothesis is an “if, then” statement. For example, “If we introduce prototype A, then X won’t be a problem.” It’s very important that you refer back to the problem statement in your hypothesis. If your hypothesis and problem statement don’t match up, then you have some revising to do.