Sunday, February 17, 2013

New Website -

As I begin a new project, I'm phasing out this blog and starting a new one. Come check out Make Better Stuff and continue the conversation.

My best, Xanthe

Monday, December 24, 2012

Toys toys toys

I'm developing a new project called Make Better Stuff, a series of toy-making workshops in which students design and build their own toys while learning social skills like teamwork, user interaction, and empathy. I've been thinking a lot about toys--about who designs them, who builds them (not elves), who plays with them, and how the design of a toy affects people in different ways.

Toys are designed by grown ups. Many of these designers work for firms who aim for high sales and low production costs. Then there are those who assemble toys, often foreign laborers who’ve moved away from their families to make money to send home, who might take a few night classes to try to move up in their careers. Then there are the recipients of these toys: kids who play with them. Different types of toys encourage different types of play.

A ball for example encourages a shared experience. It can be a competitive experience as in basketball, in which the goal of each player is to score for their own team and prevent the other team from scoring. Or it can be a collaborative experience, as in a game of catch, in which both parties want to toss the ball back and forth just because it feels good--that experience sounds and smells good too.

There are toys that encourage strict adhesion to the rules, such as a coloring book. And there are toys that encourage exploration and creativity, such as legos. (Even though they are marketed and sold in kits, they still end up in one big bin that kids make all kinds of fabulous creations with.)

But you know what there aren’t enough of? Toys designed by kids. So I look forward to exploring toy-design with kids. I’d like to know what they think about toys: the relationships that toys promote and how kids might create toys that make their own lives better. Sounds like fun, right?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Almost Perfect

As I embark on a new laser cutting project, I’m diving deep into patterns, tessellations, and polyhedrons. These are patterns of perfection, one unit exactly like the next. But the deeper I go into this research, the more I’m drawn to the theme of “almost perfect.” It’s popping up everywhere. In nature there is pattern and variation like in kernels on an ear of corn or in leaves on a branch. They’re all the same, but they are slightly different from one another. And in music there is the concept of “theme and variation.” The theme is the perfect and variation the imperfect. Alone they are flat little pieces but, paired, theme and variation create something rich, complex, and whole.

Christopher Alexander’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, is filled with imperfect patterns that help us to design better buildings, towns, and cities. “Something Roughly in the Middle” is a pattern from that book. The pattern doesn’t discard symmetry but asks us to play with it a bit. When designing a courtyard, he says, place a sculpture or a fountain roughly in the middle. Resist the urge to place it dead center.

Like I said, this theme is everywhere. I even heard super-model Tyra Banks tell one of her contestants on America’s Next Top Model, ‘You want your photos to be perfect, but not quite perfect. Because that’s what makes a great photo, when something is slightly off.’

So thank you, universe, for pointing out the almost perfect. And let me ask you dear readers, what are your favorite examples of “almost perfect”?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Repost: Interview with Red Hat designer, Mo Duffy

Mo Duffy is a senior interaction designer at Red Hat, a billion dollar company that is the world's leading open source and Linux provider. I met Mo this past spring when we spoke on a panel at SxSW. I was struck by her insights into her profession and how those insights relate to all design professions. Not only does she get into the nitty gritty of the politics of the workplace and the realities of usability testing, but she is a passionate advocate for open source and the democratization of design.

To read the interview, follow this link to industrial design super site Core77.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Cheese, Entrepreneurship, and 3D Printing

I've gotten pretty good at making cheese over the past month which makes me (and my friends) happy. I've been making bread and more recently gnocchi and I'm experimenting with alternatives to wheat for that. But really, the most exciting thing for me at the moment is that I'll be at the Finger Lakes Social Entrepreneurship Institute this weekend where we will use the Board of Innovation's "Business Model Canvas" to develop ideas for new businesses. I aim to explore a business based on managing volunteers or on collaborative consumption (sharing stuff). And then next week I'm speaking at the Design for Manufacturing Summit in NYC on how I've used rapid prototyping in the classroom. So yes, it's cheese, entrepreneurship, and 3D printing for me this month and I couldn't be happier.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What can you teach in an hour?

Yesterday my husband and I went to a cheese-making workshop at the first Fingerlakes Cheese Festival. Our teacher, Tom Pinello, did a fantastic job demystifying the cheese-making process. His delivery was calm and casual yet thorough. And he was open to questions throughout the workshop--we had many.

The most striking thing about this workshop was that it began with a room full of folks with little-to-no-knowledge of cheese-making and yet, 40 minutes later, we had made a ball of mozzarella cheese together.

This got me on a stream of thought about what I could teach other people to do in an hour. I could teach people how to run effective brainstorming sessions, how to analyze the sustainability of a product, how to use the elements of graphic design, or how to grill perfect pork chops.

Then I wondered what the people I know could teach other people to do in an hour. I have friends who could teach people how to use a sewing machine, how to conduct an interview, how to design a paper-based game, and how to grow garlic. I have friends who could teach people how to use commas, how to write poems, how to self-publish books, and how to edit video.

Then I started to think of creating a collection of one hour lessons. I'm aware of Freeskool and Ignite Talks and BarCamp and Khan Academy. I'm not sure if this project is different and I don't know if it has to be.

But here's the first step--what could you teach a small group of people to do in one hour?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Black, White, and Walnut

Just a short post from the road -

We visited the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth, MA yesterday. It was a small, unassuming home with Gorey-like scenes staged throughout: paper bats on the bathroom mirror, a fallen doll on the stairway, a miniature deathbed next to the telephone, and a big ole bear sitting on the sofa. White surfaces and antique walnut furniture provided the perfect "ground" for the black & white "figures" throughout.