Maintaining Communication and Tribe in Makerspaces

Every makerspace I’ve created has started out with very small, organic growth. Meet as a small group of folks in a coffee house or a restaurant and brainstorm what the organization could become. From there scale up and, if you’re doing it right, become a group of 30, 40, 50+ people and so on.

As the organization grows it becomes hard to have that same community feeling as the small room of people. In-person meetings, while still important, are no longer sufficient to maintain group cohesion. The organic nature of things somehow begins to feel more forced.

This is the challenge of managing a large egalitarian-leaning group: everyone is equal and communications are flat. Flat communications, unlike schemas more pyramid-oriented (top-down), are noisy. So we look for tools to keep everyone connected. We try social media, chat clients, forums, wikis, and everything in between.

But these also seem insufficient. So where do you go from here?

By abstracting up. Fragmenting the growing group into somewhat smaller nodes, and giving: a) people within those nodes means to communicate with each other, and b) each node the ability to interface with other nodes. Nodes can be anywhere up to 30 individuals, and people can shift between them.

The answer doesn’t lie in more structure from the top down, but in structure across the base. This reduces noise while maintaining the flat nature of the organization.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Metaphysics of Objects – Book Selections

As mentioned before, I’ll be teaching a Metaphysics of Objects course at DePaul this coming fall as part of our new Industrial Design program. One of my projects this summer has been to put together relevant literature that supports the course as it’s framed: a class where making is central, and supported by the philosophical tenets of speculative realism. (sidenote: I am still looking for works to draw from, so if you have any suggestions, hit me up on Twitter)

Here are the works that are central to the course:

Selected readings:

The challenge now is to create course projects that guide students through the philosophy, helping them develop metaphorical frameworks for creating objects in practice.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

NYT Piece – Where Are All the Bob Ross Paintings?

From the New York Times:

The Smithsonian also acquired fan letters sent to Mr. Ross, including some written after he died of lymphoma in 1995 at 52. “These letters help reveal the significant impact Ross has had on diverse individuals and communities, helping them to express and feel better about themselves,” Mr. Jentsch said.

The paintings and other objects officially became part of the museum’s permanent collection on March 22.

Best part is at the end when, in an interview, Ross says his paintings will never be in The Smithsonian.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Hiring Process

The rapid expansion of our innovation space offerings at DePaul has led to many scaling issues, and one of them is hiring. A few months ago I hired ten new employees (to a total of 16 reports). This was a massive undertaking, and as I filtered through applications and ultimately interviewed dozens of candidates, the inadequacy of my hiring processes became apparent. I knew what kind of employees our spaces needed, and had a decent set of questions, but it didn’t feel like there were any verifiable metrics for me to judge candidates on.

Now, as we look to potentially further expand at DePaul, I’m again faced with this problem. Only this time I have a potential solution thanks to this HBR podcast, which is the real reason I’m writing this. Anyone who’s hiring folks should check this episode out. It goes into some depth on developing metrics and standards for hiring that aim to give employers reproducible results. Check it out.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Critiquing Contemporary Design Philosophies

Most contemporary design philosophies (whether processes, schools of thought, or otherwise) follow the subject-object model. The subject-object model is both harmful and misguided. Harmful because it places us at the center of the universe, thus ignoring anything that isn’t us. Misguided because, by nature of placing things on the shoulders of our own perception, we leave the world open to the insidiousness of subjectivity.

Two examples of how design processes and schools of thought suffer from this:

  1. Agile methodology requires user stories. User stories are driven by the following format: “As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >.” In agile, the stories drive sprints, which drive the process. Stories are driven by user perspective, and thus are inclined toward subject-object thinking.
  2. Human-centered Design. It’s right in the name. People are at the center of the design process and research in this methodology. Problematically, this means that other things (the environment, animals, future humans even) are not given as much importance in the process (or, at least, are only given importance in relation to their usefulness to humans).

I’m currently writing a paper that analyzes these two problems and proposes an alternative way forward for, specifically, the design of things. More to come.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Idea Realization Lab Annual Report 2018-2019

A while back one of our Lab Specialists at the IRL, Claire Rosas, came up with a great idea to release a report summarizing activities at the Idea Realization Lab over the last year. After a lot of hard design and compilation work from her (and the rest of our student workers!), we’re pleased to release the first ever annual report for our space. Enjoy!

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Insight, Bias, and Dynamic Systems in a De-centered World

We are not at the center of the universe.

The de-centering of humans from our understanding of the world will play an important role in the future of design. Whereas most current design paradigms operate under a human-centered ontology, much contemporary philosophy runs contrary to that point of view (this is at the heart of our ID 101, Industrial Design course at DePaul). In a world where the human is no longer at the center, we must recognize that an object’s meaning isn’t simply juxtaposed against its human usefulness. Objects have many unknowable qualities that we cannot, or have not yet, perceived.

This simple point, forwarded by thinkers like Ian Hodder and Graham Harman, brings us to some interesting questions. In Hodder’s Entangled, he shows us a picture of a Mesolithic site with an interesting twist. “But we can do something subversive — put in an object that does not fit. This is absurd. A concert piano? Suddenly, the things, including the piano, force us to look at them more carefully.” In making this point, Hodder touches on an important aspect of art that Harman points out in Object Oriented Ontology. Namely, that art gives us peripheral awareness of the qualities of things that can change our understanding of what that thing might offer. We can gain new insights (Hodder might call them schemas) into a thing by imagining the abnormal.

So, humans are not at the center of design, objects have unknowable qualities, and we can gain insights into those qualities through different exercises. What follows is a roughly formed thesis built on this foundation that explores what it would be like to have the ability to tinker with the qualities of things:

  1. This idea of gaining insights into a thing’s qualities has fascinating implications for designers. If you understand that you’re only interacting with certain qualities of a thing, but realize that others might exist, then you can gain insights (through creative process or otherwise) that change your understanding of its shape.
  2. These insights, by nature of being a certain snapshot of one’s mindset, are time-bound. They are a particular understanding of a thing at a particular point in time, and as such, may change over time in the mind of the designer. And yet, once the designer takes this understanding and uses it to create another thing, that ontology is codified into an object. We often refer to these as biases.
  3. Here is the biggest leap. By imbuing an object with electronic bits, we can add new affordances (or qualities) to it. Janet Murray’s four affordances of computers gives us some direction on this, in that “everything made of electronic bits” can potentially have these qualities: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial. These affordances give us the ability to change the qualities of electronic things on-the-fly. As computers increasingly become embedded in non-electronic objects, then, who’s to say that we won’t have the ability to change the qualities of all objects around us as needed? To expose otherwise hidden qualities?

As a designer, the question then becomes how to approach 1, 2, and 3. How do we gain insights into an object’s qualities, understand where our biases come from, and meaningfully design objects that reflect both the qualities of the thing as we understand it, and its new electronic qualities?

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

We’re Designing Embedded Systems All Wrong

One of my primary projects this summer is to research embedded hardware design processes, toy design processes, and to develop a framework for creating embedded, interconnected toys that addresses both practical design and ethical considerations. This comes out of a need I’ve identified through co-designing and developing several projects in the field (Thotcon 0xA, Thotcon 0x9, Thotcon 0x8, Big Data Outbreak, for instance). Namely, we have processes for creating software and processes for creating hardware, but when you’re looking to do both, combined and at scale, there’s not a lot of literature out there on how to proceed.

That’s not to say the literature doesn’t exist. The body of knowledge on the topic of embedded systems design can be found, for instance, but is fairly sparse and mostly uses an adapted version of agile (typically XP). Additionally, most of the research looks at the design of objects from a human-centered perspective, which has its own limitations when we’re talking about designed objects (not necessarily humans) interacting with other objects.

Suffice to say, I find most of these approaches to be lacking. My experience developing for embedded systems has led me to the following conclusions:

1) Applying software development processes to hardware and firmware development is insufficient. The feedback loop with software is much tighter and easier to control than with embedded systems. With embedded systems, debugging contains both a physical and digital element. Additionally, the loop between writing code and testing code is dramatically different when, ultimately, that code must move to a separate platform for testing. I suspect there may be some connection points here between six sigma and agile processes.

2) Thinking about the design of ubiquitous systems from a human-centered perspective is totally flawed, and yet, most of the literature out there makes this mistake. It seems to me that in order to design objects at scale that work together, we need to move beyond the human, which is just one component. How do those objects work with each other? How do they work with the rest of the world? This line of thinking quickly veers into the realm of object-oriented ontology (OOO).

3) There are important ethical considerations to be addressed when we begin to put embedded, interconnected systems into the wild at scale. By their nature, these systems add a layer of hidden qualities to the physical world by embedding computer algorithms and data stores into the world. Of course, objects already have many hidden qualities, but embedded systems allow those qualities to (theoretically) be controlled by others invisibly. As my advisor at DePaul says, an embedded system represents a snapshot of a particular ontology at a particular point in time, with the value judgements of that snapshot being encoded into the world. This line of thinking connects to what David Rose calls enchanted objects.

As part of this summer project, I’ll be re-designing the Thotcon 0xA badge to make it more of a consumable product — this will be my case study. I’ve also been assembling current literature on embedded design, OOO as applied to design, and ethical considerations of developing toys and hardware systems. And so, to close this post out, here are a few whitepapers and books that I’ve found useful (The Limits of HCD, by the way, is a “shots fired” kind of piece and I love it):

  • Enchanted Objects: Innovation, Design, and the Future Of Technology
    David Rose – Scribner – 2015
  • Object-oriented Ontology: a New Theory Of Everything
    Graham Harman – Pelican, an Imprint Of Penguin Books – 2018
  • Educating the New Makers: Cross-disciplinary Creativity
    Mark Gross and Ellen Yi-Luen Do – Leonardo – 2009
  • Piloting Lean-agile Hardware Development
    Maarit Laanti – Proceedings Of the Scientific Workshop Proceedings Of Xp2016 on – Xp ’16 Workshops – 2016
  • The Limits Of HCD
    Vanessa Thomas-Christian Remy-Oliver Bates – Proceedings Of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits – Limits ’17 – 2017

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

The Educational Makerspaces Interview Series

I recently completed a series of four podcast interviews with folks from higher ed, K-12, and libraries who all run makerspaces and are involved in the educational advancement of making. You can check out all four episodes on This Should Work*, but here they are in sequence:

Aaron Hoover, Olin College

Terry Steinbach and Betty Shanahan, DePaul University

Jeff Solin, Lane Tech

Sasha Neri, Harold Washington Library

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

TSW* 21 – Sasha Neri

This Should Work* has crossed the 20 episodes mark with this fun interview: Sasha Neri of Harold Washington Library. Check it out!

Sasha Neri runs the Harold Washington Library Maker Lab in the Loop of Chicago, Illinois and runs Chicago’s yearly Maker Summit. This is the fourth and final part of our educational makerspaces series, and I’m happy to have Sasha on to talk about how makerspaces work in a library setting, and the benefits they have for the broader community of patrons that libraries serve.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus