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.

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One of my favorite workshops to facilitate is a brainstorming workshop. We’ve all participated in poorly run brainstorms so folks find it refreshing when I show them guidelines for how to run an effective one.

A brainstorm has two parts:

1. An idea generation part (divergent)

2. An idea assessment part (convergent)

Part two is often overlooked–people engage in part one and generate tons of ideas but when asked to choose which ideas to move forward on, we’re handed a sheet of little orange stickers and asked to mark the “best” ideas.

But what are the best ideas? Without criteria, this process is meaningless. Additionally, if we don’t have criteria for assessing ideas, folks will gravitate to either the craziest ideas that are impossible to implement or to the safest ideas. And if you’re gonna move forward on the safest idea, then you didn’t need to brainstorm.

So after a brainstorm, what we really need is criteria for assessing the ideas we generate. I like to use an evaluative matrix in which “safe ideas and wild ideas” are plotted on one axis, and “easy to implement, hard to implement” ideas are plotted on the other. If you do this, a bunch of ideas will end up in the “Wild and Easy” quadrant. I suggest that you choose one of those.

You want to move forward on ideas that are somewhat wild–this is why we brainstorm in the first place–but that are also easy to implement and test. Because prototyping and testing is where the design work really begins, when we get out of our heads and gather feedback from people outside of our project. How to assess that feedback is another post. Stay tuned.

Happy designing!

Last week The White House hosted its first ever Maker Faire, a celebration of individuals and groups of people who work on DIY projects. The title of this post is a quote from the president at the event. It couldn’t be more right on.

from The White House web site:

America has always been a nation of tinkerers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. But in recent years, a growing number of Americans have gained access to technologies such as 3D printers, laser cutters, easy-to-use design software, and desktop machine tools. These tools are enabling more Americans to design and build almost anything….

…The rise of the Maker Movement represents a huge opportunity for the United States. Nationwide, new tools for democratized production are boosting innovation and entrepreneurship in manufacturing, in the same way that the Internet and cloud computing have lowered the barriers to entry for digital startups, creating the foundation for new products and processes that can help to revitalize American manufacturing.

Here in Ithaca, I’m proud to serve on the board of our local makerspace, Ithaca Generator. It’s a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to explore twenty-first century tools and technologies that have the potential to revitalize American manufacturing. We’re open to the public so check out our events calendar and come on down!



Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick visits Ithaca Generator

Ithaca Generator featured on page # 14 of this WH report:

Today I’m running a “Sneaker Design Workshop” at the Juneteenth Festival at Southside Community Center. The theme of this year’s festival is “Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship” so I thought I’d bring a little entrepreneurial thinking to the table. In the workshop, we’ll use tools from Design Thinking (DT) to develop a concept and brand for a pair of shoes that carry a message. Think Tom’s Shoes “Buy One Give One” message or, of course, Nike’s “Just Do It.”

Sneakers are great carriers of messages. Just like graffiti on the El Trains in 1970s New York, sneakers are colorful and mobile. They have visibility and are great platforms for communication.

In this workshop we’ll use the five phases of Design Thinking to approach the project and then iterate. The five phases are: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I’ll flesh out the specifics below.

EMPATHIZE: Most often DT asks us to empathize with consumers. But there are other stakeholders to consider when trying to develop a great idea. For this challenge, I want the designers to identify a person or people that they wish to help. This desire to help becomes the cause of the brand. Like above with Tom’s Shoes, Tom’s aims to help people who can’t afford shoes with their BOGO business model. Furthermore, the aesthetic of Tom’s Shoes expresses humility and simplicity which are values in line with the cause.

DEFINE: Once the designers have identified a cause, they need to define the problem. Design Thinking problems always start with “How might we…” So their design problems will look something like this: “How might we create a sneaker brand that promotes ______ cause?”

IDEATE: Here’s the fun part. Once the designers define the problem, they need to engage in “out of the box” thinking to discover resonant solutions. What does a sneaker that promotes X cause look like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? How does it make the wearer of the shoe feel?

PROTOTYPE: You might think that a prototype would be a model of the actual sneaker. But in Design Thinking, we’re focused not only on creating great products but on creating great experiences. So we start with drawing storyboards. In the storybaord we explore quesitons like: How does a person hear about this sneaker brand? What do they do once they hear about it? How does the person feel once they are wearing the shoes? How are they now connected to the cause?

TEST: In our first test, we aren’t only validating our ideas but discovering its weak points. How do we do this? We share our storyboards and listen for feedback. Some feedback is prescriptive “You should do this or that,” while other feedback is descriptive “Something about this part doesn’t sit well with me.” It’s the designer’s job to elicit feedback, listen carefully, then interpret that feedback and go back to the drawing board for revisions or consider changes in direction (called “pivots”).

ITERATION: This isn’t a phase of Design Thinking but rather a mode that underlies the entire process. At anytime we might get feedback either from our own eyes when building a prototype or from our team or from potential users that causes us to make revisions. Being able to listen to feedback and revise is what separates amateur designers from the pros.

In the sneaker workshop, we’ll revise our storyboard and then design a profile of the actual shoe using brightly colored card stock. If we had all day, we’d prototype and test a few rounds. But today we’ll only do it once or twice, then present our ideas in short 1-2 minute pitches. I can’t wait.


This time last year I did a workshop with the 5th graders at Fall Creek Elementary on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of toy design. LCA is a tool used by sustainability engineers to assess the impacts of industrial products, services, and systems on the environment and on people. Even though I don’t normally work with kids, I love working with this bunch. It’s such a great exercise to prepare content for 5th graders. It forces me to be clear and to get to the point!

Last year I started the workshop with a belief I have: I believe that kids can make better toys than the ones they can buy in stores.

I made three discoveries during this workshop that confirmed my belief. I’ll list them here, then flesh them out below:

1. All of the students picked up LCA quickly

2. At least half of the students knew what a 3D printer was

3. One of the students made an amazing insight about USE phase of LCA

1. INTUITING LCA.  To teach LCA to this group, I held up a plastic french fries toy and asked “How did this come to be in the world?” Their answers sounded a lot like the phases of LCA: Design, Pre-production, Manufacturing, Sales, Distribution, Use, Durability, End-of-Life (EOL). Of course I had to give them prompts every once in a while, but overall, it came from them intuitively. All they needed was to be asked the right question.

2. 3D PRINTERS. You may wonder what 3D printers have to do with kids making toys. Well, up until very recently, if you wanted to manufacture something, you needed millions of dollars and connections to all kinds of equipment and services that were hard to access. Plus, even if you made something, you had no way of selling or distributing it to the people who wanted it. Enter the desktop manufacturing revolution. Today kids have access to the tools of production and distribution. And many of them know it. They expect to be able to come up with an idea on the computer and manufacture it on a machine in their garage, online service bureau, or local maker space. So not only can kids come up with better ideas for toys, they can actually manufacture and sell them. Incredible.

3. USE PHASE of LCA. So the use phase of LCA looks at the energy or resources that a product uses while in the hands of the consumer. A great example is a washing machine. If you are assessing a washing machine, yes, all of the other phases of LCA are important, but “use” is huge because the machine is used daily for many years. Thus, we want to know how much energy and water is used in each wash. But with a plastic french fries toy, it’s hard to assess the use phase. Except for one student who said, “What about the message that the toy conveys while in the hands of the user?” I almost fell over. Yes, plastic french fries promote values about nutrition, don’t they? The values that an object conveys while in use is huge and I’m going to cover this explicitly in this upcoming workshop.

All of that said, when I asked them to come up with an idea for a new toy using at least one phase of LCA as inspiration, that connection didn’t happen for a lot of them (at least not during the 50 minute session I was working with them). And I get that, it’s a lot to synthesize in a short amount of time. So this year I might prepare a pair of worksheets to help them synthesize more quickly. One worksheet for the plastic french fries (the before) and another worksheet for their toy invention (the after). I’ll ask them to highlight the LCA phases they took inspiration from on the “after” worksheet. A lot to pack in to a 50 minute session. But they are young and full of creativity. I think they’ll do great.


LCA on

online 3D printing service

Marketing fast food to kids

…so we might as well get good at it.”

This is the opening line to chapter four in Chris Anderson’s book Makers: The Next Industrial Revolution. Okay, I buy it. But just how do we get good at design? C. A. says that we need to learn to use software and hardware of the maker revolution. You can teach yourself or pop into any makerspace for classes on Arduino and 3D Printing and so on.

But there’s another thing that makes us “good at design.” And it’s not something you’ll likely find in a class at a makerspace. It’s the human side of design. And I argue that human centered design (HCD) skills are just as important as tech skills if we want to be designers who make stuff that matters.

To develop HCD skills, I propose we understand and practice three principles: Expertise, Empathy, and Emotion. I’ll flesh these out a bit right here:

EXPERTISE. In David Weinberger’s book Too Big To Know, he argues that the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge and expertise as we transition from a world in which knowledge is disseminated by individual experts via paper to a world in which knowledge is shared through and created by a network. He defines this transition  here:

This transition from expertise modeled on books to expertise modeled on networks is uncomfortable, especially now as we live through the messy transition. We know the value of traditional expertise. We can see a new type emerging that offers different values. From credentialed to uncredentialed. From certitude to ambivalence. From consistency to plenitude. From the opacity conferred from authority to a constant demand for transparency. From contained and knowable to linked and unmasterable.

So if we’re all designers, the first thing we have to understand is that we aren’t 20th century design experts; rather, we are 21st century networked designers. And thus we need to transition from experts who know it all to designers who know how to harness the collective intelligence of a network.

EMPATHY. This transition is uncomfortable, Weinberger warns. How do we let go of our know-it-all status and harness the collective intelligence of our networks? First we have to believe that diversity of perspective will lead to richer solutions than solutions designed by a lone genius. If we believe that, then we are open to gaining empathy for multiple stakeholders in a problem.

How do we do that? We talk to people. And we don’t just listen to what they say, we observe what they do. We listen for the messages between the lines. Or listen for what’s not being said. This close listening will help us gain insights into multiple ways to approach a problem.

And btw, we don’t get these insights from online surveys or conference room focus groups. As entrepreneurship guru Steve Blank says, we need to “get out of the building.” Visit people in their homes, at their places or work, on the street. If we’re trying to design a grocery store experience, well then we best be spending a lot of time at the grocery store.

EMOTION. Once we gain empathy for the people we are designing with — note that I didn’t say “the people we are designing for” — then we can design something that resonates. Why is resonance important? Because despite what classical economists would have us believe, we aren’t only rational. Pure functionality isn’t the only thing that engages us. We respond to emotional details in products and systems. The brainy quotes printed large on each Adafruit invoice, that’s an emotional detail. It’s a wink, an intimate gesture from the company to the customer that says, “Hey, you and I know each other, don’t we.”

Brainy quotes are one way to design for emotion. Another is less explicit: implied metaphor. Implied metaphors in design compel us to transfer to the new design the positive qualities of a familiar thing. Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design, says, “Its easy to design a toaster that will last twenty years. It’s harder to design a toaster that someone will want to keep for twenty years.” So we need to look for metaphors for things that get better with age, and ask ourselves as designers how we might design those qualities into our work. A wooden laptop might make you want to keep it for longer than a metal one that scratches more easily, because it has taken on an heirloom quality for you.

Now that’s good design. Learn the tech tools. Yes, you must. But also learn humanity in design by redefining expertise, gaining empathy for all types of people, then design with emotion.


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