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Artisan’s Asylum and the Importance of Design

October 2, 2012

Long time, no posts… I’m back!

In his Code+Printing post, my friend Vitor Pamplona wrote about the revolution that will happen when we empower local users with ways of printing their own custom circuit boards. A couple of weeks before that post, he led me and some friends in a visit to Massachusetts-based Artisan’s Asylum, a non-profit-oriented fab lab. Fabrication labs are these semi-public spaces organized as idea-making workshops, full with carpentry tools, laser cutters, 3d printers, water-jet cutters.

At the Artisan’s Asylum, local artists, hackers, inventors and makers can hire a small cubicle workspaces, where they also keep personal tools and goods. Everyone is encouraged to share ideas, promote courses and so on. For us brazilian students and faculty, who struggle to maintain specialized labs, a space like that seems to be the ideal tool for solving the systematic lack of innovation in our society, specially in the academy. That was my opinion when I used to be a regular visitor at the MIT Media Lab’s fab lab as well.

So here it is:

A Fab Labs is the ultimate tool for empowering inventors and alike to come up with their amazing ideas…

Or is it?

I have a more down-to-earth opinion.

The first time you go to a place like that you become very impressed with all the machinery and the possibilities. You even become a bit jealous that we don’t have more widespread access to such labs. It feels that everything would be possible if a fab lab was present in every medium+ town.

Then I realized that something was missing, even at the huge Artisan’s Asylum: the place is full of interesting artists and inventors, most of them making stuff out of garbage, but there seems to be an universal lack of profitable ideas! Apart from Vitor’s own EyeNetra, which is already leaving the Artisan’s Asylum, I realized probably none of the ideas there would become widespread consumable goods.

Of course, that’s actually not the goal in the first place…

It became apparent that the Artisan’s Asylum format was indeed very interesting as an answer to the problem of disposing consumer electronics and appliances. Instead of ending up in landfills, broken stuff is made useful by these post-modern manufacturers, who render a new inverse interpretation for the term Long Tail.

It is an important achievement in itself, but it also means that the Artisan’s Asylum cannot survive without the indirect help of large-scale manufacturers, which make goods (primers, consumable, whatever) become cheap and accessible.

But not all fab lab ideas are only hippie-art-piece-making. So, what is in EyeNetra that some of the other ideas were lacking? My guess is the combination of three things:

  1. Entrepreneurship and ambition (that I might discuss in a later post);
  2. Good engineering (which you’re all very familiar with, so I won’t talk about it);
  3. Proper DESIGN (which I’d like to discuss now).

It appears that things go well only when these three things happen to be in harmony and balanced. I’ve been thinking about this for a while: Engineers make stuff that works (mostly hardware), software engineers make software that works (not always), but none of them translate ideas into great ideas. Designers DO

*as a side-note, entrepreneurs have the skills to make peopleware work, and thing then happen.

Some engineers (software included) happen to be self-taught designers, and I’m an advocate of the universality of access to knowledge. But I can see the difference  good design schools can make to a whole region/country. In Rio de Janeiro there’s ESDI (first design school in South America, inspired at the german Bauhaus). There are design schools in every (semi) developed city in Brazil: São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Recife, etc.

That’s been the goal of an experiment I’ve been assigned for the past few months: I’ve been helping create a design team at a local company, and the short term results are already present (and amazing). The design team not only helped create better products, but is also inspiring others to come with out-of-the-box ideas and further develop their own ideas.

Design alone is no silver bullet, of course. Vitor was keen to tell me that half of Artisan Asylum’s users are actually designers! So, don’t forget that the three things (engineering, design and entrepreneurship) have to be in balance.

But my advice for now is: embrace design!

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 2, 2012 3:00 am

    Artisans is a playground for gown ups. There is no other goal. It is not an incubator. It is not an accelerator. It is a place for bright people to create. To have their dusty space. To play around like kids, breaking and rebuilding things. Some use as a inspirational environment, some for serious business. In the end it does not matter. The goal of the space is to have fun. 🙂

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