Make Better Stuff Lab – favorite bits!

This fall I’m thrilled to be teaching a “Make Better Stuff Lab” at Ithaca College. In the course students will survey a brief history of American manufacturing through a sustainability lens, then imagine the future of American manufacturing by designing, manufacturing, and selling sustainably designed gifts at First Friday Gallery Night in December. We’ll be designing up at IC, sourcing FSC veneer from Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY and small batch manufacturing and selling at the local makerspace Ithaca Generator.

For the course, I’m putting together some of my favorite videos about the good and bad of design and manufacturing and thought I’d share them here. If you have videos you think we should check out, then please post in the comments.


Two videos here, one by economist Juliet Schor and the other by urban activist Majora Carter. Both paint pictures of what the future might look like especially if we believe this: We don’t predict the future. We create it.

Juliet Schor, A Plenitude Economy

Majora Carter, Greening the Ghetto


Two videos here, the first by photographer Ed Burtynsky who has captured the environmental effects of mining and manufacturing in haunting photographs. The second is a video by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff from his book Life, Inc. He opens the book with a powerful story about being mugged in his neighborhood on Christmas Eve and the surprising, market driven responses he received from not one but two of his neighbors.

Ed Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes

Douglas Rushkoff, Life Inc.


We close with three videos by Industrial Designers who are reinventing how things are made. Yves Behar, founder of fuseproject, is on a mission to make sustainable design that is a joy to engage with. Jane ni Dhulchaotingh, founder of Sugru, makes a product that helps us repair or refit the products we already have. And finally Matthew Burnett, founder of Maker’s Row, connects designers with manufacturers close to home.

Yves Behar, fuseproject

Jane ni Dhulchaotingh, Sugru

Matthew Burnett, Maker’s Row

Some of the solutions in this last section might seem small compared to the overwhelming problems discussed by Burtynsky and Rushkoff. But I’d argue that this is how effective change happens: start by changing the small things that we can and building up from there. The road is long and we’re in it for the long haul.


From Maker to Manufacture – we speak for the trees!

oak maybe

This summer Jenn C and I are taking a prototype that we made at Ithaca Generator makerspace and developing it for local manufacture and distribution at Rev Ithaca Startup Works in their Hardware Accelerator Program. What’s a Hardware Accelerator Program you ask? It’s like an arts fellowship for product developers. The program offers space, support, materials, and knowledge so that folks can take their prototype to the next level.

The prototype we have is a smart lamp that celebrates leaves. Why leaves? Because civilized people can identify more corporate logos than leaves and that ain’t right.

At present, our prototype is low resolution: the electronics work but they are enclosed in a yogurt container. (It’s empty and clean but still!)

We’ll share evolutions of the product as we go through them. In the mean time, if there’s a leaf that is your favorite, post a pic in the comments. We are collecting…

photo: scanned oak leaves collected from Taughannock Falls State Park in April 2015

The Value of Dreaming


If you read this blog, then you know that one of the things I do is teach people how to brainstorm. I pride myself on not only giving people permission to suspend their judgement and generate 100s of wild ideas, but on giving them assessment tools for these ideas. After a brainstorm, I ask folks to plot their ideas on a grid with “safe ideas” and “wild ideas” at the ends of one axis and “easy to implement” and “hard to implement” at the ends of the other. Now, since I’m usually working with people who have to build their ideas, I ask them to choose an idea in the “wild and easy” quadrant. This is so they can move forward with a wild, creative idea that is easy to build and test a minimum viable product (mvp).

But this semester I am teaching Brand Design. The project for the semester is for students to make a brand book for a company that they imagine. So we started the project by brainstorming on what they would like their companies to be. As usual, after their brainstorms I asked them to plot their ideas on the grid I describe above. But when it came time to hone in on an idea, I realized that they don’t have to build the companies that they are dreaming up, so they don’t have to consider how difficult it is to implement their ideas. I realized that they can and should choose an idea from the wild and hard to implement quadrant. Why not?

This insight immediately reminded me of the work of Syd Mead, pictured above. Mead created concept work for the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and later did work for the films Blade Runner and Tron. Mead never had to implement the concepts he came up with. He was paid, and paid handsomely, to dream.

A few years back Roger Martin, then dean of the Rotman School of Management, wrote a piece called “Reality is the Enemy of Innovation.” In it he laments the lost art of abductive reasoning, which calls for constant adjustments to your conclusions after each iteration, like Dr. House does when exploring treatments to complex medical conditions. This form of reasoning allows us to ask the question “What might be?” We’ve replaced abductive reasoning with more one-dimensional methods like inductive and deductive reasoning. These methods are valuable, for sure. But do they encourage us to explore our dreams?

Another related piece popped up in my news feed this morning titled, “Is There a Creativity Deficit in Science?” It points out the irony that the researchers who have the most predictable ideas get funded but that what we need for innovation is to fund researchers who have unpredictable ideas. That starving artist thing ain’t no joke. Artists are able to do what they do because they distance themselves from market constraints.

Which makes me wonder, when we shoot down an idea because there’s not an obvious market for it, are we robbing ourselves of those ideas? When we kill dreams, are we killing the seeds of potential solutions to the complex problems we face? And if that’s what we’re doing, how do we make it stop?

related reading:

Syd Mead

Reality: the Enemy of Innovation? 

Is there a creativity deficit in science?

Abductive reasoning

House and Philisophy

Lean Startup MVP