Making & the corporate office

(This was originally written for and published in last month’s in Andrew Sleigh’s beautiful zine Hot Glue)

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I’ve worked for all sorts of businesses: large, medium and small and they all share a common aspiration: to be more like start-ups. You can’t swing a cat without taking part in a meeting where organisations wonder how to become more agile, fun and disruptive like start-ups appear to be. The maker movement has created a whole new set of aspirations.

To make means to invent, to be engaged in the manufacturing of new ideas and products. It means to act in the world, with your hands and with tools which are cheaper and easier to access than ever before. This is such an important idea even Obama announced a National Day of Making. “Makers” describes the collective notion of people solving problems together but alone too. The ideology of making is very much about learning step by step, using new tools and trying things that have never been tried before. This makes a lot of business sense. By building a maker-friendly environment a business can increase their competitiveness, support employee training and identify talent among the various layers of management. It supports the idea of organisations as meritocratic environments of innovation and not political or bureaucratic ones. More often than not though there is a little bit of cargo culture happening inside already creative businesses who get on the maker bangwagon.

Someone buys 3D printers only to have them sit there being unused. They build “workshops” which are essentially a meeting room turned into a storage unit for the latest gadgets on Kickstarter. They run hackathons where more post-its get used than solder. They have curated showrooms to show other people’s work. In short they don’t end up making at all. Building a maker-friendly environment is a holistic exercise of redesigning your own internal culture. Here are some easy first steps to help you do this.

 

Building a maker space

You have to create a space that is going to be both useful and used often. This may be tricky when you may be running out of meeting rooms, but control the urge to make this anything other than a dedicated space for work that isn’t meetings. This space shouldn’t be “bookable”. It should be open for people to use whenever they like. If they want a meeting, they can go somewhere else. A lot of indirect value is derived by working next to someone building something quietly. Make sure this space isn’t anywhere near people working on laptops as the noise of laser cutters and 3D printers, sawing and generally making is going to be disruptive to them and you don’t want to create a culture that says that the noisy people aren’t working as hard as the others.

Buy tables and chairs on wheels that can be moved around easily. Have power sockets on the floor and avoid carpet (no one likes to vacuum random chips and cables). Make sure you have lots of natural light coming in (don’t set this up in the basement, this isn’t the 90s) and whiteboards everywhere. Add some lockers and shelves so people can leave projects nearby or stored safely out of reach. The visual accumulation of work is how progress is felt on a project and in a space. This is good. You can clean things up when you get to the end of a project.

When you’re not sure about what to put in your maker space, let people bring their own things, you might find out your organisation is full of secret tinkerers. Let your organisation shape the type of making you do, don’t let yourself be influenced by visual lifestyle maker culture. Most of the 3D printers you see in offices never get used.

 

Train & hire well

When you’re making a maker space, the first challenge is to not create a knowledge gap inside your organisation between people who don’t know how to make things and people who have been tinkering on weekends for years. Instead of creating ghettos of geeks, you want to train your entire organisation in using the tools you end up working with. You’d be surprised how many people can’t even work a power drill. If every new staff gets an induction in the space and gets an hour or so with someone who is using the space to make something, you are creating a link between your day to day job and the act of making. You’re allowing people with no technical experience to understand the creative and innovative potential of making rather than rule it out as “a waste of time”. You are also creating champions for the space whose work can be seen as it grows and changes. Keep the space really organised, and if you can afford it, have a technician take care of the space and ordering things as ideas emerge so you can keep the tools in the space relevant and interesting.

 

Champion the work

This could be out of a text book on social media, but championing the work you do inside the maker space has to start with very small everyday actions. A good way to start is having demo times once a week where the business comes together in that space and gets an update on what is being built. People can ask questions of the maker and propose projects they might want to work on to find collaborators. This meeting has to happen in the space as it gives it credit and says that this is part of doing business. Building a visual history of the work done is important. Starting an Instagram account for the space which people can post to and use the same tag is a great way to spread the word across staff and the outside world. Printing out pictures of new tools and posting them in the kitchen means people can share the progress and improvements at their own pace. Not everyone in your organisation is a maker but they should know what’s going on too. Avoid long newsletters, no one reads them now. If the work done isn’t mission critical, create a blog for the space which has a different identity to the rest of the business so employees can create their own voice through it and can gather interest from the wider community and potentially present it at tradeshows and conferences.

 

Making is as much about a process of interacting with space and tools as a way to produce new ideas. Ignore the people aspect of this and you end up with a glorified meeting room. Apply too much pressure on the space being worth the investment and you strangle good ideas before they have the time to blossom. These types of spaces are crucial to organisations who want to foster a renewed sense of identity, creativity and fun in their team, but they are hard work. On the other hand, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You’ll find that if your maker space is successful, new ideas will be brought forward, prototyped well and people will collaborate with each other more, a real maker community.

The cost and time to make things

So last week I launched sales for a limited edition of the Good Night Lamp. This is both an exercise in pig-headedness and a suicidal financial exercise. What prompted this? Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of this idea. There’s only so much time you can spend trying to turn lights on and off, but in those ten years, I’ve learnt a lot about the conditions that need to take place in order to make things.

So I’m making them with an M2M partner Eseye and Tom Cecil who has been making our prototypes since mid-2012. Noone else.

They are retailing for £279 which is shocking some but the truth is that making small batches of things costs a lot more than people think, especially when there’s wood involved which is why we’ll move on, if those 100 sell, to cheaper materials. Why sell 100? Well mostly to live up to expectations, PR during all those years, and for myself as a designer.

Financially, it’s a ridiculous exercise in a way. The average product on a John lewis shelf costs 25% of retail price to make. Retailers usually take a 50-60% cut to place the product on a shelf. This set of lamps is costing between 86% (for EU customers) & 96% (for UK customers) of the retail price in costs and doesn’t include any assembly time. Here’s a handy and honest breakdown.

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It’s pretty silly really, but I think they’ll make people happy and work really well. Yes I’ll be assembling them myself or with friends probably, but hey I started Tinker by selling Arduinos in the front room of a flat in Hackney in 2007. Been there, done that. It might become a collectable item, who knows. I’ve got 36 sets left to sell on that batch so tell your friends and head to the website for more details.

A map of UK maker spaces

As part of my work with the Connected Digital Economy Catapult, I’ve been putting together a map of hacker / maker spaces in the UK. These spaces are really important in linking a person with a project idea to a community with resources. Maker spaces are also more than physical resources, they can be a platform for someone to meet like minded people in their area, find co-founders, find the impetus to work on a project that’s been sitting on the side of the kitchen table, or even find the necessary resources to start a business. I’ve only mapped out the physical spaces for now (mostly for the purposes of the report I’m writing) but if you want the complete list of people who also just meet and hang out have a look at the Hacker Space list.

To make & to make better.

In the little insular community that is the building I work in, you acquire habits. Surrounded by talented peers, constantly admiring others and wanting to do work that is as good, as challenging, as great, your expectations of others start to change. I’ve found myself asking “so what do you do” instead of “how do you do” much more often and becoming more and more critical of my time and how I spend it, both as a manager and as a designer.

It’s easier to just spend your days consuming: email, other people’s music, other people’s links, thoughts, etc without ever creating yourself. The head space necessary to create, to design, to act in the world is, if you let it, much smaller than it was before. Made me nervous all of a sudden. An informational backlash if you will.

You are defined by what you make, and you define yourself by the act of making. Lack of definition is just a by-product of not spending enough time contributing to those infamous 10K hours. So here’s to more making.

Know your food

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After Open Sauces in November, I got interested in food again, especially the way food is presented and communicated in the context of supermarkets. There’s something deeply depressing about the presentation of fruits and veg in the UK and there is also something cultural about that presentation. When I lived in Italy, access to certain vegetables was nearly impossible. In the UK, some of my American friends can never find the right types of chilis. In a way, global is a term more easily referring to people than our food, and I consider that a good thing.

Following on from that, I wanted to get back to the essence of what food was before it reaches our markets or our local corner shop. There used to be a simple understanding not only about where food came from, but how it actually grew and how it was harvested.

2 ideas surfaced: New guerrila food labels and a new way of displaying fruits and vegetables. In a day I managed to make the first one happen, the second one I would need a partner company to try this out. If you own a cool organic fruit and veg store or stall in London please get in touch!

Idea 1:

I thought I’d design a simple food label that would come on top of existing labels, something you could keep if you wanted to that would give you at least 4 pieces of information you didn’t know.

1. What the name of the item is, and its latin name. Why? I thought it was odd we’re quite willing to learn about plants and flowers in this way and not everyday items. Is it because they’re not posh enough?

2. What the item looks like “in nature” or in its more natural environment, with roots, leaves, the whole lot. The idea is to show how it looks before it’s been cleaned up for public display. We often may forget that some thing grow under the earth or on its surface, as a fruit in a tree or hanging from plants. Zuccini for example, is more or less and un-ripened pumpkin that is picked early enough for it to still be soft. Its the same family as the cucumber, but people don’t usually eat it raw.

3. When and where it was discovered. Fruits and vegetables don’t carry history with them, but it’s fascinating what you’ll find out about how Ancient Egyptians treated the onion.

4. Any other piece of random information or history. I wanted to make sure to pique someone’s interest enough that they’d want to know more or keep the label. I found out that the asparagus plant is protected by the tomato plant from insects for example.

All pictures of the project are on Flickr and were professionally executed by Matt Biddulph :)

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Open Sauces toast

I had the extreme pleasure of attending Open Sauces in Bruxelles yesterday which was organised by the great people at fo.am. I was invited to give a toast and did so on a course that was served with a plate from the Topoware collection. I thought I’d archive what I said.

Before I take a bite

I’m thinking about

– what i wish i hadn’t eaten yesterday
– what i will eat tomorrow
– the millions of obese children in the UK

– how i used to be able to carry a really heavy laptop around all the time
– how its so easy to get kids to exercise but not adults
– how many staircases will i have to go up and down to  burn this off?
– how I wished we weren’t so addicted to elevators and escalators

– how i should make an effort to eat more locally
– i hope the people involved in picking this food were well treated
– i hope the food miles of this meal aren’t too high
– how much of this will end up being thrown away
– could i have grown it myself?
– how much did this cost?

–  how many calories this is anyway
– i wonder if the ingredients list is lying
– is this part of my 5 a day?
– is this too much? not enough?
– how much salt is in this?
– how much sugar is in this?
– what kind of vitamins am i getting from this?
– am i equipped to digest this?

– how my mother told me its not polite to leave food in your plate
– how certain foods stopped being part of my diet after childhood
– how I can still remember my mom’s chicken sauce recipe just by thinking about it

And then I take a sip and take a bite and let my tongue do the thinking for me.