Make Better Stuff empowers people to make products, services, and systems that strengthen human relationships. We reach people by way of hands-on workshops in creativity and collaboration; in posts on this blog (scroll down for posts); and in an advisory board comprised of academics and professionals in the arts, technology, and business.

I’m Xanthe Matychak, founder of Make Better Stuff. I’m a designer and educator working at the intersection of creativity, technology, and sustainability. I’ve shared my work at national venues such as SxSW, World MakerFaire, and TEDx. Let’s make something amazing together.

Write me at xanthe.matychak@gmail.com

‘Great Artists Steal’ and other insights from Chris Rock

Artists who have been at it for a while have great insights on the creative process. This NYTs interview with Chris Rock is from November 2014, there’s some great stuff in here if you listen carefully.

1. Great Artists Steal. This is something I have a hard time convincing my students of. They think if they steal that they are not being original. Not true. Great artists steal. All of the time. There are no new ideas so get over it. Steal. And you might as well give credit bc the phrase “Great artists steal and hide their sources well” is dead in the age of internet. Inspiration is everywhere. Let’s celebrate it.

2. Don’t fall in love with your first draft. Amateurs fall in love with their first drafts. Artists don’t. They push it out like the ugly thing that it is, then they get on with the work of iterating through many more drafts. If you’re a writer, that’s rewriting nd editing. If you’re a painter, that’s sketching. If you make movies, that’s shooting and cutting tons of great content. If you’re an entrepreneur, that’s getting feedback and pivoting. Rarely do you nail it right out of the gate. So do your first draft, then move on.

3. If you hired an actor who doesn’t own their character by the end of the process, then something is wrong. To extend this to other art forms, if the members of your project team don’t eventually own the project, then something is wrong. Either they are the wrong team members, or you didn’t let go of control when they were ready to take it. As a leader, you have to start out by modeling investment in the project, the character, what have you. But then you have to watch out for that moment when your team is ready to take the reigns. Give it to them along with your faith and your support.

There’s a fourth point in here that’s not directly related to creativity, but kind of is bc it illustrates the importance of perspective. Chris Rock loves Kanye West. There’s a lot of criticism of Kanye in the news lately and all I have to say is watch that. He’s an important artist to a lot of people. He may not be for you, and that’s ok.

OK. If you have other insights on creativity, then please share in the comments.

Write-storming

If you read this blog, then you know that I’m interested in techniques for harnessing collective intelligence. Why? Because the complex problems we face require participation from a diverse array of stakeholders. Why? Because diverse participation, when done right, leads to better outcomes.

If you do a lot of team work, then you know that it’s easy to fall into the pattern of letting only half of the project team dominate the majority of the conversation. So a great technique for engaging the entire team, and thus arriving at more creative results, is write-storming. What write-storming does is it carves out time and space for all team members to engage in quiet writing and reflection. The ideas that individuals generate during a write-storming session can then be drawn on for group discussion.

I’ve been doing write-storming in one form or another for years but I really like how author Leigh Thompson maps out the technique. I’ll summarize here: Write-storming sessions are short, like 5-10 minutes. In a session, team members work silently to generate a lot of ideas on their own. Each idea should be written on an individual index card in legible hand-writing – I recommend all caps. Then the cards are collected, shuffled, redistributed, and read aloud for discussion. It’s important that the ideas remain anonymous so that the team can focus on the work and not on egos. The next step is for the team to categorize the cards and flesh out the ideas that have the most potential. I recommend fleshing out an array of ideas from safe&easy ideas to wild&challenging ones.

For more on the technique, check out this piece in FastCo called “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work.” And if you like that, you’ll want to check out the book Creative Conspiracy by Leigh Thompson.

Finally, if you have effective strategies for harnessing collective intelligence, or any insights into this problem, then please share them in the comments.

Reflection

It’s coming time to see all my people at the holidaze then hibernate for the winter with a few good projects. It’s time to look back at the year, remember what happened, and process it. Here goes:

LUNAR CLOCK, DEC 2013. This time last year I was finishing up a lunar clock that KR helped me with. This was a project that combined interesting media theory (a bit from Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock) with cool technology (laser cutter, arduino, and eagle). I enjoyed turning theory into a designed object–something I could hold in my hands. That’s me in a nutshell. In order to understand something, I have to build it and hold it.

GAME COURSE, JAN 2014. This year started with teaching a pilot course at Ithaca College called “Designing Games for Sustainability.” The class was small but we busted out two cool games. One was an arduino powered waste-sorting game and the other was a laser cut variation of Settlers of Catan called Wasteland. It was amazing to come up with cool ideas and then be able to manufacture and test them. Ideas into reality.

SUSTAINABILITY, MAY 2014. When the semester ended in May, I joined my ASU Sustainability crew at ISSST in Oakland for a great conference. And again in July for a desert retreat. Both gatherings were fun and enlightening in different ways. The former was in an urban setting and academic. The latter was in the desert and spiritual. What I love about these folks is that they value all of it. These people feel like home to me.

MIT >> POP UP DESIGN STUDIO, AUG 2014. In August I traveled with JC to MIT for a Scratch conference. There we met amazing people in the Harvard Grad School of Edu and were so inspired by their work that we came back to our makerspace and implemented a new project called “Pop Up Design Studio.” On the first friday of each month, we open our doors to the public and invite them to make art on the laser cutter. The combination of generosity on the volunteer side with creativity on the public side has been joy to be a part of.

TEACHING, SEP 2014. This fall I’ve been teaching 4 classes in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Ithaca College and loving every minute of it. As an introvert, teaching 80 students is intense, but there’s nothing I’d rather spend my energy on. The program and the students have this great mix of business and creative thinking going on. It’s a pleasure and a challenge integrating the two – the practical with the wild dreams!

UPCOMING, DEC 2014. In ten days or so I see my family for the holidays. When I get back, I dig into some juicy projects for the winter: product design, electronic music, and a few workshop gigs I’ve got cooking. Winter is a great time for projects. Then when the sun comes out in May, there’s time for being outside with nature and friends. I like seasons and the structure they bring to my year.

LOCAL FOOD. On the local food side of life, I enjoyed a farm share at Sweet Land Farm this past summer and am now a week or so into a winter share from Full Plate Collective. These things keep me connected to the soil, the water, and the air. I’m grateful to the farmers who put it all together.

Let me know how 2014 treated you and what you’re up to this winter.

XO

from ‘What We Know’ to ‘A New Aesthetic’

When we invented industrial manufacturing, we looked to Victorian era products and mass-produced everything from dishware to ovens with Victorian ornamentation. We did this until the Bauhaus came along and demanded that new technologies require a new aesthetic. The members of the Bauhaus “listened” to modern materials and processes and “heard” that they wanted to be simple and clean and not covered in lacy decor.

Another example: When we invented computing, we grabbed what we knew – a type writer and a TV set – and mashed them together to make a desk top computer. Only today are other types of computing starting to take hold. Google glass is a known example of mobile and hands free computing. Smart products with simple micro-controllers, another. Computing is finally moving beyond sitting at a desk or having your head down in a phone screen.

Today we have the desktop manufacturing revolution. There are all kinds of new technologies becoming available but none other has captured the publics’ imagination like 3D printing has. I think this is because the objects that a printer makes look like objects that we know from the store. Objects from 1950-2000 that are enclosed in injection molded plastic. Which is ironic because this late 20th c. aesthetic is the epitome of hiding a products’ inner workings from consumers–ironic because makers are interested in openness and product transparency.

We’re in that early stage of a new technology – making what we already know. It’s just what we do. In art school, that’s how I learned to draw – from copying 16th century masters. But I wonder how long it will take us to move from making what we know to demanding a new aesthetic–to listening to these new materials and processes and hearing what they want to be. And I wonder who will lead this change.

The Value of Dreaming

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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