⌘-X ⌘-Z In Hardware



“Sketching”, as I’ve learned from Mike Kuniavsky/ThingM’s Sketching in Hardware workshops and from Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Interfaces is a useful trope to help capture some of the fresh ways that design, physical and functional prototyping can be stitched together. Bringing together user experience, hardware prototyping and appearance design through sketching seems like it could be a powerful approach to a broader kind of design practice. More “function” than what surface design achieves (beautiful finish but inert zombie models), and more appearance finish than what you find in some of the hardware sketching communities (spot-on, functioning prototypes shoved in an old cigar box.)

I’m eager for new practice idioms, besides the connected-boxes that separate engineering from user-interface design, from marketing, for example. The “sketching” notion might at least loosen up the approaches to making new things by making it less formal and more exploratory.

At the edges of the various practices is where they’re being brought together in a way that compresses time, expertise and tools so that rapid prototyping becomes rapid production. For example, I’ve written about how amazing it is that I can take an idea that sort of jumps into my head, quickly “sketch” an electrical circuit that articulates that idea, send about 10k of files off to a guy in Toronto who sends it to his guy in China who makes the thing and sends it to me FedEx. The whole loop takes 48 hours. The critical path is the delivery time and my own ability to design the circuit.

That’s the electrical engineering. On the other end, the surface engineering, rapid plastic printing makes it possible to do the equivalent production process as the printed circuit board, only you’re designing/engineering the thing that the circuit board fits into — an enclosure, or a toothbrush handle, or a game controller..whatever it is.

Sketching implies iterating — erasing, redoing, trying again, fitting new ideas into a prototype with whatever is at hand. Often — more often than I’d like — something comes back that has a problem, probably because I’m moving so fast. With the printed circuit boards, a bit of rework can be done which makes things look messy, but in a good way — it shows the hand-crafted aspect of these things, that there’s something human about them, both in the design mis-take and in the “patch” to close a bit of material.


I’m finding the same possibility for ⌘-X and ⌘-Z in the physical object world. Things come out slightly larger or smaller than you expected — although the machines are spot-on, I often am not — or I’ll make something with a bit more material with the expectation that I’ll whittle it away with a bit of sand paper or an X-Acto.



For example, here I made these two sort of mounting bosses that hold the PCB in place with a sort of snap fitting and that are also used to hold an external on/off slide switch on one side, and the USB receptacle on the other. They’re straight through extruded cuts, with all four sides closed so the fit is nice and snug.

While I was assembling the first unit I realized that having that closed cut makes it so that you can’t easily remove everything if you need to, like..remove everything. For whatever reason. Basically you thread the connecting wires through, insert the switch or USB receptacle, solder the wires to the board and you’ve handcuffed everything in place.

That’s no good.

So, I scalpaled one wall out to see if I could get a good fit with the USB connector with closer to 3ish walls. It’s better, but still a bit loose.



I needed something to attach to my shop coveralls to sustain the laboratory story. These are pretty sweet. My guy down the street did them..they clean clock. One other narrative arc in the Near Future Laboratory project — fashionable laboratory garments.

The Face of the Faceless User Interface

User Interface

User Interface

Ironically, a typing command user interface to do set-up stuff and manage the Flavonoid device itself. There were enough unknown variables in the design of the device and enough of my own obsession with preferences and configurations and such all, that I spent some time creating a configurable device.


Here at the Near Future Laboratory, Nicolas and I are interested in digital devices that are essentially faceless. Just blank, “blind” devices, like Sascha’s awesome “Blind Camera” project. They are intriguing because of the way they run counter to intuition and thereby raise questions and immediately make their expression curious and unknown, hopefully opening the possibility for accepting new kinds of interaction rituals besides just pressing little plastic squares and such sorts of interactions that we’ve come to expect.

The irony is that there are enough variables for parameterizing the device’s functionality that I needed some way to manipulate them, at least at the start. So, I created this behind-the-scenes interface for adjusting the properties and behaviors of the object. Most of the time you would not access this at all, certainly not while carrying the Flavonoid device with you.

The Elusive Final-Final


In a meeting yesterday with a couple of collaborators, I realized (again) that I have been over-iterating these Near Future Laboratory projects. I make small changes given any reasonable or ridiculous excuse to do so. The iterations and re-workings and editions and variations expresses themselves in all kinds of peculiar ways. For example, this thing here — a small bugaboo in the latest circuit for the Flavonoid board. I mean..it’s not a show-stopper. I can fix it in 47 seconds with an X-Acto and 5 millimeters of 30 gauge, but the first thing I do is start a new schematic with the expectation that the next run of boards will have the next version of this design. I mean..when’s enough enough? Part of this has to do with a wide-eyed fascination with the process of making things and refining them and learning along the way. I don’t think it’s about finding perfection for this or that project, but about finding ways to understand and experience the process of making things so that there is more to say about what goes into expressing ideas through artefacts. When I “finish” a batch, it feels satisfying and a bit deflating at the same time. Is that it? A bit like writing about an idea or expressing some sort of social theory through words or writing a little sci-fi novella. What do you do when you finish the draft? I guess you go back over it and polish. Send a few copies off to trusted “gentle readers” for discussion and comment. Sometimes the draft gets hidden away in the attic and forgotten. My dissertation hid away for about 10 years when I literally forgot about it. I’d only find it when I moved to a new home maybe once every two or three years! It’s a bit reassuring to see some similarities in the process of creating artefacts that also hopefully tell stories, like writing about ideas for the imagination. Having something — a thing/object/artefact — that activates the imagination can hopefully be as powerful. Of course, the storyteller has to be a bit magical with their words as well. Therein is the real scary challenge.

Finish Without Function


The first time I went to an Art Center College of Design exhibition of their Product Design division, I was stunned. Man. What finishers! Hey, look at that vacuum cleaner looking thing! That could be sitting on the shelves at Target, I swear!

I had no real exposure to design, practically speaking. There was a short-lived subscription to I.D. as I contemplated a path through design-as-the-future-of-imagination for a dissertation chapter, but that was it. As I cross off a bunch of things on my little index card of goals and look at the ones for the next few years, I’ve been thinking hard about “design” and what I can learn from its history, tools, personalities and approach to making things.

What has raised my attention has been a few overhead words and conversations about a convergence amongst industrial design, research and the DIY communities that seems pretty intriguing. I overheard Bill Moggridge at last summer’s Microsoft Research symposium thing, calling for design students to do more than the surface — to make their prototypes “real” so that they can experience in a practical way what the artifact expresses, or does, or how it performs, so as to get real feedback from even a couple of people. He said this a few times while jurying some student design competition that Microsoft had put together. And then there was a recent visit to Intel’s People and Practices Research, where it was suggested that this is a general course of interest — to not just do paper prototypes, but to have an ability to rapidly design some far-flung idea to help explicate or investigate a research topic. Same goes for some other research and design labs I’ve come into contact with.


This sounds about right. Rapid design and prototyping methods have slipped below all the usual barriers to entry — cost, complexity, access to tools and communities, etc. It’s almost as if you can make a prototype as real as the real thing. As more digital kids come up in a culture of DIY design I might expect that Industrial Design, as taught at places like Art Center, will have to integrate more “function” below their incredibly finished surfaces to take the designs to the level of engineered reality. I was recently introduced to this distinction when a first-class model maker reminded me that what I do below the surface actually closes the gap between finished surface and functioning object. Much of what he sees are surfaces that need to account for the “engines” below the surface that make the thing actually work. Real nuisance things like mounting bosses, clearances for layers of material, tolerances for incursions that arise from incredibly thin surface-mount designs, etc. Mixing engineering with design was always something that I find myself doing — it’s hard to imagine just the surface.