Author Spotlight: Randofo



GIF: "randy" by Audrey Love
Randy Sarafan (randofo) is one the most original and prolific authors on Instructables.
A pillar of the maker community and pioneer in technology, Randy has been making robots and blowing up the electronics scene at Instructables since 2006. He's published everything from basic electronics to exploring new innovations in 3D printing. He's inspired, educated, and entertained millions of viewers with his often-quirky projects exploring accessible media and technology. With 225 projects published on Instructables (and many, many more projects documented on other platforms), I had the opportunity to interview Randy and discover more about this creative (and sometimes elusive) inventor.

Hi Randy, thanks for taking the time to have this interview.
Let's start with something basic, You're a technology whiz - what came first for you, electronics or Instructables?

Electronics came first. I actually did not start using Instructables until after college. I needed to document some information for a workshop I was doing on hacking a USB keyboard, and my friend suggested I try using Instructables.

You cover all areas of electronics, with beginner electronics and Simple Bots to more advanced Arduino projects. What do you like working on most?
Personally, I like things that are simple - or rather - elegantly solved. Even if I am making something nonsensical or elaborate, I usually seek the easiest possible path to get there. That said, this is not necessarily a rejection of craftsmanship. I still believe in taking the time to do the best job that I possibly can.

Which of your projects best illustrates a problem that is elegantly solved that also has fine craftsmanship? Why?
I think Simple Bot: Walker is a good example of this. I reduced a relatively complex machine down to some really simple and readily available items. Beyond that, I think my execution was pretty good. It really comes down to paying care to every aspect of the build, attention to detail, and aesthetic consideration. The finished product should look beautiful (at least to yourself).

Randy inside a photography light tent

"I'm constantly thinking about ways I can improve my projects...often it is about spending as much time documenting something as you spend making it. Every photo should get as much love, attention and post-processing as the intro photo."

You have over 225 projects on Instructables to date, what advice can you give authors who want to take their project to the next level?
I always try to make each project - no matter the subject - better than the last. I'm constantly thinking about ways I can improve my project. Often it is about spending as much (or more) time documenting something as you spend making it.
Another thing I firmly believe is to provide as many photos as possible so that each step tells a visual story. Someone trying to copy your project will never fault you for having too many photos, but they will complain if you have too few.  Also, every photo should get as much love, attention and post-processing as the intro photo.
I learned while writing 62 Projects to Make with a Dead Computer that both the images and the text have to be self-sufficient. In other words, people should be able to roughly follow the directions from the images alone, and people should also be able to follow the directions from the text alone. Even though this rule proves more important for print than online mediums, I try to stick to it as much as possible because doing so provides a better reader experience.

You constantly push the envelope with new media and electronics - where do you draw inspiration from?
Largely I draw inspiration from everyday experiences and what I observe around me. I also read a fair amount. My favorite thing to read is fiction, but I sometimes go through phases where I will read a lot of theory and/or history related to a single topic. Beyond that, I also like to write. I prefer fiction, but I have been known to write in all kinds of genres (and varying levels of seriousness). Writing helps me organize my thoughts and make the occasional leap of logic that I find useful for my work. I also frequent a number of design blogs. I've never really managed to steal any particular ideas from these sources, but I do like being aware of current trends in aesthetic.

When I have spare time, I like going for long walks. I live near the beach, and this is conducive to long pointless walks that clear out my head in a hippie-Whole-Earth-Catalog-sort-of-way. A while back I realized that I get good ideas when I'm in the bath. I don't know why this is so effective for free association, but it is. I try to take baths when I can, and bought waterproof notebook for this purpose. I highly recommend waterproof notebooks; and use pencils - not pens.

What are some of the places your projects have ended up?
The Clap Off Bra alone has appeared on the Today Show, Tonight Show, The Lorrain Show, and The Jeff Probst Show. Beyond that, my work has ended up on so many blogs, and in so many newspapers that it is hard to keep track. I also regularly have my own Simple Bots booth at Maker Faire and in the occasional museum and gallery show.
I had a pretty nice interview on a New York Times podcast once, but I have yet to get any mention in the print edition. If there are any New York Times columnist reading this, I would love an article ;-)

"Technology shapes us, but we also project our own social reality back upon it. Simple Bots are a really good example of this; they are just household items, yet, that does not stop people from perceiving them as alive or projecting personalities upon them.
This is something I explore rather heavily in a lot of my work"

Can you talk about your most underrated project?
Arduino Controlled Robotic Drum Kit. This was on my to-do list for a very long time, and I think this was one of the most successful things that I have made. It worked very well and it is a lot of fun. Even the documentation came out pretty well. Nonetheless, relative to some of my other projects, very few people have looked at it. It kind of fell flat. Perhaps I need a better video of the drum playing itself.

You've explored the intersection of electronics and human interaction before with Energy Saving Light and EMG Biofeedback, can you tell us more about how you think technology and humans will interface in the future?
I think technology shapes us, but we also project our own social reality back upon it. This is something I explore rather heavily in a lot of my work. Simple Bots is a really good example of this. They are ultimately just some household items quickly fastened together and motorized. Yet, that does not stop people from perceiving them as alive or projecting personalities upon them. There is a lot of superstitious behavior in terms of people's relationship to technology. Culturally, we tend to be weary of superstition, but I am not sure that superstition is necessarily an entirely bad thing; and it is definitely something I am interested in continuing to explore.

Let's talk more about Simple Bots. At what point did you know you wanted to spin the concept into it's own eBook?
After I made the initial 6, I realized that I was onto something good with them. It was not my initial goal to ever write another book when I started making robots, it just seemed like the most obvious thing to do at the time.
Get the Simple Bots eBook! Download it in Kindle, iPad, and PDF format.

Any notable projects that you just can't seem to finish, or get to turn out right? Any big failures?
I have two that are gloriously unfinished. One is an analog synthesizer that is spread out on breadboards across my desk that has been sitting or a year and a half. Sooner or later I will finish it. It will be Epic.
I also have been turning a scanner into a camera. It is 75% of the way there. This one has been "in progress" for about 2-3 years. I intend to finish this one shortly. I hope.

My biggest failure was the 3D Printed Robot that I published recently. I worked on it exclusively for almost 4 months and seemed to hit a dead end in every direction I headed. Perhaps someone will learn something useful from my documentation and go beyond what I did. That said, I don't think I am going to revisit any time soon.

With over 200 published Instructables, all the projects made from 62 Projects, and an entire army of Simple Bots... What do you do with all your projects after they are made?
I put them in my apartment. I try to do so in an orderly manner, but to be honest, a lot of them are just sitting on the floor of my studio. They take up a lot of space. The room is getting to be pretty much unusable. One of these days I am going to build display shelves for my projects. I just need to design a set of shelves that is uniquely mine. This is something I am still figuring out.

"To relax, I like to hike, write, read, and think up more projects. I am also quite addicted to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time."

Randy relaxing with pizza, his guitar, and video games

What's next for Randy - any big projects that are in progress you can talk about?
I have a lot of big projects in the works. I am currently gearing up to build a large-scale walking robot. Beyond that, I am just exploring many different directions and just kind of seeing where they take me.

What do you do to relax/not working on projects?
I like to hike. I like to write. I like to read. I like to think up more projects. I am also quite addicted to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

What's the best feedback you've ever received?
I was once described in the press as a "known gentleman." I liked that one.