Introduction: Design Your Own Functional Art!

About: Architect, DIY enthusiast, and dog lover.

I've enjoyed the fruits of Instructables as a member since 2007 and thought it was time to contribute to this wonderful community.  With that, I present you an Instructable on how to design and build your own functional art!

I really feel the need to start with a quote:
Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. -Steve Jobs

Since the beginning of quality art, artists have layered in technique and meaning, alike, in their pieces.  It's wonderful, and each viewer derives their own meaning in each viewing.

However, in our modern era, I've chosen (as have others) to be a little more literal with the layering.  In fact, I like to refer to anyone within proximity of these pieces not as "viewers", but "users".  That is, the piece responds to you, just as you respond to it.

Alright, that's enough intro, head over to step 1!  :)

Step 1: Materials

How about we get started designing?  Lets begin with materials.  As a computer technician, I was able to collect various (broken) motherboards so this will be one of my primary mediums.  I love repurposing material, especially when it was never intended to be used in its newfound manner.  I encourage everyone to recycle old plastic, wood, paper, carpet, and any part you salvage from the trash can.  Just be sure to give it a nice cleaning, beforehand.  :)

When I designed this piece, I wanted something that was beautiful during the day and came alive at night (or when the lights dimmed).    I decided on a LED marquee.  Doing some research, I found various methods that could achieve this: arduino, pre-made matrixes, custom-from-scratch builds, etc.  Ultimately, I decided on using the hardware/code found in NerdKits Marquee LED Array.  In turn, this gave me a scalable 21x5 matrix that I could work with.  There are tons of ways to achieve this and I encourage you to find what fits you and your budget best.  I had never created an LED marquee before so don't let it scare you.

Material recap:
Approximately 10 motherboards
1 - 4x2 (or wider) backing mdf/plywood
Approx 55' of 1/8" Basswood strips (2" deep or larger if you want to cut down, as I did).
Hardware: (threaded rod, nuts)

Estimated Costs:
Bolts/Nuts - $10
MDF - $10
Basswood - $60
Recycled Material (I chose motherboards) - $0
Electronics - $135
Total - $215

Step 2: Grid, Baby, Grid!

I like grids and hard edges, so I started experimenting with grid sizes that would look good on the wall and not hurt my wallet too much.  18" x 48" served best and, in hindsight, I would recommend this to you, as well.  4' wide is a pretty standard size of MDF or plywood so it won't break the bank.  This also gave me a 2"x2" pixel size.

I wanted the motherboard panels to fit well within their wooden cubbies, but still allow light to pass through so I had to be very careful with this part of the design.  I went through several iterations and settled on the configuration you see in the images.

I also wanted to start looking at how I would hold these panels on.  Threaded rods were the cheapest route to take.  I'll get back to these in a few steps.  I just wanted to point out what the you see in the images.  You'll notice that I only have one rod, per panel.  Originally, I had two, but I found that this doubled the price (obviously) and also restricted some of the light output.

Note: You can see in the image that I digitally "sketched" my ideas.  What you don't see are the several iterations that were either unsuccessful, too costly, or just plain ugly.  I highly recommend recording your design ideas in one format or another.  Don't hesitate to grab an pencil start with some hand sketches and, if you like, pull them into digital format.  You don't need to be an artist to design.  Plus, this not only gives you record of your idea (disregard if your memory is 100% perfect, unlike mine), but it allows you to step away and then come back with a fresh set of eyes to self-critique.

(Also, when you finish your creation, get famous, and become rich, you likely be able to sell those napkin sketches for a pretty penny :)

Step 3: LED

Another crucial element that dictated the size was determining what I wanted the marquee to display.  I wanted to keep it versatile so I realized I needed at least 5 pixels high.  As you can see (I turned certain pixels red to read: H E L L O !), this allows for full text and keeps a top and bottom border to frame the text, when scrolling.

Step 4: Design, Complete.

So now the design accounts for the MDF back plate, basswood lattice, motherboard panels, LEDs, and threaded rods.  Here's a quick look at each layer.

You'll notice that the basswood extends past the upper and lower edge of the back plate, but stop right at the edge on the left and right.  This is balanced by the motherboard panels which extend past the left and right, but do not breach the upper and lower bounds.  I've never really been particularly fond of strict "framing".  While this piece does definitely have a rigid, rectangular shape, you could make the case that these edge conditions give the piece a "soft" edge.

Regardless of how you define it...I really like what it adds.  :)  Be sure to look at all 10 images in this step.  The iterative process gives a great look at the piece, from start to finish.

Step 5: Drilling, LEDs, and Lattice

It begins with drilling the holes in the back plate.  If you're willing, head over to your local large format printer and print off your LED and thread pattern.  Tape this down and drill through the holes (try and keep all holes as perpendicular as possible).  Measuring each out will work just as well, though.

LEDs & Electronics
Note, I could probably do an Instructable on this part, alone.  Not because its incredibly challenging, but because there are a lot of fun details that go into it.  However, I don't want to discourage you from adding this to your design.

So it's at this point that you'll want to install the LEDs and the electronics.  Following the instructions I linked to earlier, you'll be able to recreate this step in a few hours.  Be meticulous, LEDs must be attached in the correct manner + & -.

In the end, you'll get to see this:

What we have here is a marquee thats being driven by text from a laptop.  I'm sending the data (and power) via USB cable.  The possibilities are endless!  You could display temperature, time, RSS feeds, song data, etc.  I'm personally using it to pull local temperature data from an RSS feed.  I throw up a personal message when I have parties or want a change in scene.

Next, you'll want to take the basswood panels and cut them down to 2" strips.  If you have access to a laser cutter, I highly recommend using it to cut the interlocking voids of the panels.  I used a table saw and it became rather tight as I put more and more pieces together.  See the images below on how I recommend doing it.  I located a helpful video to give a better understanding of how this works:

Assembly of the lattice is trivial once everything is cut.  I recommend applying a light stain with a glossy topcoat to allow for the brightest pixel possible.

Step 6: Cut!

Cut Time
Time to cut the material you chose to use as panels.  Again, I used motherboards because I had them available and because I'm a nerd.  

Whatever you end up cutting, take care in making the squares regular and precise.  You don't want the light to be blocked in any  single pixel.  And luckily you have a top and bottom row of lightless panels, so any oddities can be placed here without anyone noticing.  :)

I used a dremel to cut these pieces out, but that doesn't mean that's the only way.  Use what works best for you!  However, as one member pointed out, if you're going to cut motherboards, you should use lung protection, safety glasses, and wear long sleeves.  I've made this mistake before (wore safety glasses though) and spent the next 48 hours scratching my arms and coughing up a storm.

Safety first.

Step 7: Threaded Rods

When I drilled the holes, I did so slightly smaller than the rods.  This was so that the rods would self-tap a little and not require any additional stabilizing bolts/glue.

You'll also notice that some rods aren't at the same height as others.  This is to give the facade of the panels a slight undulation.  It's very faint, but noticeable.

For the drilling of the panel pieces.  You'll want the holes to be exact.  It was at this point that I was really glad I only went with one rod, per panel.

You don't have to worry about mirroring the holes, either.  I set up a jig that allowed me to throw the panel in and drop down the drill press.  Each panel was exact and over 150 panels were drilled (made extras, just in case) within an hour.

Attaching these panels is then very simple.  I chose acorn bolts to secure the panels down because they're inexpensive and they look good.  Secure each panel in the order you pre-determined and fully tighten.

I recommend to also attach mounting brackets to the back at this point.  I didn't, and it was tricky to attach the mounting hardware (wire and hook) to the back, post-assembly.

Step 8: Almost There...

Final Steps
It is at this point you can attach the lattice.  The way I did it was to remove two of the panels at the top and use a small angle bracket to secure the lattice to the back plate.  You can do one on the bottom as well, if there are any gaps. 

The next steps are interchangeable and don't need to be performed in any particular order:

Pat yourself on the back.
Hang it on your wall.

Now What?
Again, the possibilities are endless!  Connect it to wall power and have it cycle through pre-defined messages, connect to your computer and pull data from the web (i.e. RSS, e-mail, SMS, etc.), or turn it off and enjoy the beauty of the materials.  Last month, I gave a similar, recycled motherboard piece to my brother for Christmas.  It was a big hit!  I mean, who doesn't love something that's personalized, artistic, functional, and recycled?  That's something for everyone!  I'm considering turning that piece into a future instructable.

Well, here's a video of the final product.  I apologize for the quality of my camera in low light.  The room appears darker than it is, but the lights are essentially dimmed to a level to comfortably watch TV.

Thanks for looking!  Questions/Comments are welcome and appreciated!
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