MAKE BETTER STUFF (MBS) explores the intersection of creativity, technology, and sustainability.

Run by designer-educator Xanthe Matychak, MBS began as a TEDx Talk in 2011, evolved into a blog and workshop series in 2012. 2015 has been an exciting year:  We were invited to The White House, we began developing a physical product using MBS design principles, and we’ll be teaching Make Better Stuff courses in The Dept of Environmental Science at Ithaca College. 
Make Better Stuff design principles: 
  • Manufacture in Low Batches – make only what you need
  • Source Locally – know and love your suppliers
  • Make with Responsible Materials – make stuff with renewable or reclaimed materials
  • Inspire Positive Behavior – make stuff that helps users be better citizens of the world
  • Make it Easy to Upgrade and Repair – make stuff that gets better with age!
  • Make it Accessible – make stuff that was previously hard to engage with
  • Celebrate Nature – make stuff that celebrates local ecosystems
  • Celebrate Culturemake stuff that strengthens human relationships
  • Make it Hackable – make stuff that’s modular and enables creativity and co-creation

Have a look around this site and get in touch. Let’s make something amazing together.


Make Better Stuff Lab at Ithaca Generator


Last night my students from the Make Better Stuff lab at Ithaca College hosted a public laser cutter demo at Ithaca Generator for First Friday. The Make Better Stuff Lab is a course that I wrote for IC freshmen in which they learn about sustainable design principles and then design and manufacture a product that uses those principles.

During the demo I fielded a lot of questions from observers there about the students’ project. Great questions. I thought I’d post them here:

WHAT IS THE ASSIGNMENT? This project started with a walk in the woods. In teams of two or three, students picked out a leaf from their walk, researched that leaf, then created designs inspired by that leaf.

WHAT ARE THE CONSTRAINTS? All good projects have constraints. There are many for this project, some that are plain old sustainable design principles and some specific to a class of 20 manufacturing a product. All the constraints function to help exercise the students’ imaginations–constraints help us push materials, processes, and ideas beyond the obvious.

WHAT ARE SUSTAINABLE DESIGN PRINCIPLES? There are many. But with this class we are working with the following:

  • Celebrate nature
  • Use responsibly-sourced materials
  • Optimize your design for manufacturing
  • Minimize packaging
  • Turn something old into something new

WHY DO WE MAKE THINGS THAT CELEBRATE NATURE? Last year we hosted laser cut design studios at the generator where the general public made designs and cut them on the laser. Most folks would make beautiful geometric designs, but every so often someone wanted to recreate a corporate logo. Most corporate logos are designed by large marketing teams, but we don’t want to unselfconsciously promote corporations at the expense of celebrating nature. I’d rather promote originality. What we make is what we value.

WHAT MATERIALS ARE YOU USING? We are using FSC Ash veneer that we ordered from Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY. Veneer is super thin slices of wood that come rolled up but can be flattened out, cut to size, and cut on the laser. It’s a beautiful material, it smells great, and the kind we ordered is FSC approved, FSC standing for Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that sets standards for responsible forest management.

HOW DO WE OPTIMIZE FOR MANUFACTURING? The laser cutter can cut very intricate designs, but it can also create a lot of waste material as by-product and it uses a lot of energy. To address these downsides, the students lay out their designs so that there is minimal waste. Some even used the negative space created by their primary designs to make more designs. As for efficient use of time and energy, we don’t etch because etching can be very slow and there are too many students. That said, I’d like to know how much etching can be done for the same amount of energy used to cut at 60 speed/60 power/500 frequency for ten minutes. That would be good to know.

HOW DO WE MINIMIZE PACKAGING? Packaging serves two functions: it protects the product (in shipping and in the store) and it tells the story of product. So the students have had to design packaging that both protects and sells the product, using minimal materials. Many of them have creatively used recycled card stock for packaging.

HOW DO WE TURN SOMETHING OLD INTO SOMETHING NEW? There are at least two approaches to this: 1) take a discarded object and create a design that gives it a new use. Some of my students, for example, are taking old jelly jars and designing votive shades that transform them into candle holders. 2) build into one design a second use. Some students, for example, embedded flower seeds into their packaging so that when it’s composted it will sprout flowers.


So that, in a nutshell, is what we’re trying to do in Make Better Stuff lab. In December we will have a gallery night sale where students will sell their products. To prepare them, we had Emily Cotman from The Science Center and Stephanie Meyer (pictured above) from Museum of the Earth sit down with them and give them feedback on the types of products that sell in their museum shops. Emily and Stephanie were so generous with their time, and their feedback is just what we need to make it through the final stretch of this project.

Keep an eye out for our DIY Gift Sale in December at Ithaca Generator. Happy making!

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.

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:

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

3D Printing – what’s the big deal?


this post first appeared at

It’s likely that you’ve heard of 3D Printing by now. But for some, the technology still seems mysterious. You may have questions like, “What exactly is 3D Printing” or “Why does 3D Printing matter?” Below are some answers.

HOW THE TECHNOLOGY WORKS. 3D Printing is kind of like a hot glue gun that has the brains of a MRI. Each printer has a heated nozzle in that is fed filament. The heated nozzle extrudes hot plastic  that quickly cools into a solid form. But a 3D Printer isn’t guided by a person’s hand like a glue gun is. A 3D Printer is guided by the X, Y, and Z coordinates of a digital 3D image. It uses these coordinates to move the nozzle and print bed so it can recreate accurate, tangible 3D objects.

A TECHNOLOGY DEMOCRATIZED. 3D Printing has been around for years. But recently the technology has experienced a “democratization.” What does that mean? It means that the technology has changed in two ways:

  1. It’s become really inexpensive
  2. It’s become pretty easy to use

When a technology becomes cheap and easy to use, more and more people get their hands on it and start using it. Thus, it becomes democratized.

WHAT DOES THE TECHNOLOGY AFFORD? For what 3D Printing lacks in speed, it makes up for in customization. If you have a broken part on a stroller, for example, you can 3D scan the broken part, repair the part in 3D software, and print a new part. So it keeps us from having to throw out an entire product just because one little piece is broken. Another custom application we are seeing is the printing of custom prosthetics for children. Before 3D Printing became cheap and easy to use, prosthetics weren’t attainable for children because they would be outgrown at a pace that made the cost not worth the investment.

WHY DOES 3D PRINTING MATTER? It matters because in a pre-3D Printing world, if you wanted to design, make, or distribute a product or part, you needed access to expensive software, machinery, expertise, and distribution channels. Those barriers are dissolving. Now all you need is access to the internet and a device to work on. You can literally design a product on your phone and upload it to a 3D Printer anywhere in the world for manufacture. This opens up the field of product invention to everyday people. And as we’ve seen with previous democratizations of technology like video, everyday people make a lot of cheezy stuff (cat videos), but they make important stuff too (citizen journalism).

HOW CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT 3D PRINTING? We have two 3D Printers at IG. But better than machines, we have a wealth of expertise. At present, IG Board Member Chris Westling is teaching a class on 3D Printing. He also takes the 3D Printers out on the road: Chris was recently a hit at STEM night in Caroline Elementary Schooland I bet you’ll be seeing him at Ed Tech Day at Ithaca College. Additionally, on Tuesday nights he hosts an open house at the makerspace. Come on down and check it out.

If you’re more of a “learn on your own” type, we recommend you have a look at thingiverse – an open source library of 3D objects. Then hop over to tinkercad and do some of the tutorials to learn the basics of 3D software. Then come on down to IG to print your file or upload it to a service bureau like shapeways.

Do you have an invention you’d love to design and create? If so, share it in the comments!

image from: