Introduction: How to Create a Project Brief From an Obsession With an Entire System

About: Designer / maker

How do you narrow down from all possible things to several possible things? This is not rhetorical, I would really like some advice.

Right now, I am doing a residency at Auodesk's Pier 9 prototyping facility, which is a really cool opportunity and provides me the space to figure out some of the stuff that has been kicking around my brain. And now I am faced with turning my series of obsessions, ideas, dreams and hobbies into a project. This is a pretty good problem to have but I want to be systematic, make informed choices and above all else document the process.

So, I am creating this probably not helpful to anyone else instructable on how to create a project brief from an obsession with an entire system.

I am obsessed with stuff.

Like, objects. Material culture.

Where stuff comes from, how it gets made, how we use it, how it gets to us, the environmental impact, the cultural implications. All of it.

I've done a lot of work over the last few years writing about this stuff, coming to the conclusion that the world of industrial design needs to celebrate systems solutions that tackle waste and environmental impact. However, this work has been very cerebral and now I feel it is time to actual do some of the industrial designing.

Step 1: Read a Lot

I read a lot. I really like to read. I read non-fiction and novels and articles and anything I can put my eyeballs on. Most of all, I like to read things that interrogate our relationship to stuff.

I made this reading list trying to categorize some of my favourite things I've read.

Also this bibliography, that has overlap but other things too.

For me, reading is the best way to gather information and understand what is happening in a system.

Step 2: Write a Lot

Over the course of a few years, I wrote five essays about my relationship to objects and entropy. This work is a self directed exploration of the question: "How might we use design to reframe systems of production, products, and methods of consumption to create a paradigm of resource stewardship which could protect the biosphere and build more resilient human communities?" The essays explore the concept of kipple, or useless objects, in the context of maker culture, gentrification and mass production.

You can read them here.

So, these are the assets I have coming into this project:

  • A lot of information that has been deposited into my brain
  • Some synthesized information coming out of my brain

What next?

Step 3: Look at Underlying Causes

In an attempt to narrow things down, and understand this system in more granular detail, I did some mapping exercises with my partner. They're also a designer, and a big nerd so this is what we do while hanging out.

We worked off the Problem Definition worksheet from the DIY Toolkit. Most of these tools are intended for international development organizations, but they are essentially a series of design research prompts, and I find them more concise than other human centered design toolkits.

Here are some of our thoughts transcribed:

Key Issue: Linear Product Lifecycle

Why it's important:

  • wasted finite resources
  • accelerated consumption
  • poor waste disposal
  • bad environmental outcomes
  • companies less responsible
  • household debt
  • aspirational consumption

Social / Cultural Factors:

  • growth mindset
  • globalized free trade
  • precarious poverty
  • climate change denial
  • generational entitlement
  • not caring about developing countries in developed countries
  • "this is fine"
  • multinationals can't be held accountable by governments
  • .....the list goes on

For all of these problems, we could only think of a few actual initiatives that are tackling issues of product lifecycle and consumption. Patagonia and Philips are some corporations that are experimenting with prolonged product lifecycle and producer responsibility. There is a growing zero waste and minimalist movement. But in the face of really entrenched problems we couldn't see a lot of progress being made to fix anything.

Step 4: Make a Mind Map

For the most part, I am interested in the built world, the capitalist structures that connect the pieces, and the environmental impact of it all. The idea, or dream, of a circular economy is not something I actually see a lot of evidence that it is currently fitting into this system. (I know, companies like H&M say it is a priority for them, but I don't actually think that is anything more than PR.)

I don't think I got much clarity from this exercise, but as a visual thinker its valuable to look at the ideas spatially.

Step 5: Go Look at Some Shipping Containers

I really believe in learning from the place where you are situated, and that context is a really valuable teacher. All that to say, I've been spending time at the Port of Oakland and that is informing the work I am doing and would like to do.

Here are some of my initial ramblings.

Step 6: Look at What Exists in This Realm

I have found it valuable to look at projects that have been successful in exploring the built world.

Here are a few I like!

Some other things that seem important to the project at this time:

Step 7: Pare It Down

While I accept at some level the smart thing to do would be to condense all of these ideas into one project, that is not what I want to do.

I like to do everything at once in a wild cacophony of approaches. So, I will likely continue on that track. Here are my two statements for the work I would like to do.

Exploration #1:

How might exploring geography and shipping data provide a window into the global impact of shipping and logistics? Starting from the context of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean, what stories can I tell about the history, present and future of trade?

Exploration #2:

What might be a successful intervention into the world of commodities to create a shift toward a circular economy? What product, service, or cultural shift could be facilitated to change consumer and corporate behaviour? How might this story be told through speculative prototypes?


What either of these approaches look like in actuality is still up in the air, but from here I can start to decide on initial investigations, explorations and prototypes that clarify and refine my thinking. Ideas around output and eventual exhibition still to come.

I've started with some initial explorations cutting steel on the waterjet and laser cutting forms of the Pacific Ocean. Having a prototype / materials first approach is important to this investigation because this work has been so academic for so long. Time to bring it into the physical realm.

Please don't hesitate to send me your thoughts, interesting projects, things to read, or more.

Step 8: Seek Inspiration (Go to the Prelinger Library)

While digging into the work of Situated Systems, I read about the Prelinger Library, an independent research collection that is privately held but made available to the public. Oh wow! San Francisco is really cool. This is just the most San Francisco thing, in the best way.

"Megan and Rick Prelinger are interested in exploring how libraries with specialized, unique, and arcane collections can exist and flourish outside protected academic environments and be made available to people working outside of those environments, especially artists, activists and independent scholars. The Prelinger Library is an appropriation-friendly, browsable collection of approximately 40,000 books, periodicals, printed ephemera and government documents located in San Francisco, California, USA, run by Megan and Rick Prelinger." -Exploratorium

So, as soon as it was open to the public (they have limited hours as they are a private collection), I headed over there.

When I showed up on a Wednesday afternoon, founder Megan showed me around the library and helped me find cartographic and historic information about the San Francisco Bay. It turns out that she and her partner had created a installation for the Exploratorium that explores the history and geography of the port. While that is an amazing thing, and meant she had lots of excellent information for my project, it did dawn on me that I was seeking to make a project very similar to their's.

But, there is nothing like stacks of information and ephemera to provide information. In my wandering, I came across a map of San Francisco's trade routes that was unlike any map I'd ever seen.

Megan recognized it, and identified it as the Butterfly Projection. I had a new lead!

Step 9: Research the Butterfly Projection

I was so struck by the lovely map I found in the archive, I had to figure out where it came from!

It turns out the Butterly projection was invented by Bernard Cahill in 1909, who lived in Oakland and worked as a architect and cartographer. His map enabled all continents to be uninterrupted, and with reasonable fidelity to a globe. While he spent much of his life trying to have this map adopted as a global teaching aide, he was not ultimately successful. The imprecise Mercator projection is the world map that we see in most contexts.

Cartographer Gene Keyes has taken up perfecting and championing this projection, and is doing current development on perfecting it.

I spent a fair amount of time creating a laser cuttable version of the map.

Step 10: Pivot! and Determine Next Steps

So, I am already beginning to stray from my research questions outlined earlier. For the time being, my speculative industrial design is on the back-burner. And my mapping project is definitely becoming a cartographic investigation that expands beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.

I know I still want to look at shipping, but with my interest in garbage and manufacturing, and the broadening of scope I am now looking generally at material flows. From extraction to disposal, the movement of material resources globally can help tell a story about where we are as a planet, and uncover places where changes could be made.

I have materials and processes I want to play with, both digital and physical, and I want to tell a story that is timely and relevant through materializing data.

Things I know about this project:

  • I want to use the Cahill-Keyes world map projection
  • I want to use lumber and resin with the CNC mill
  • I want to map material flow data onto the map
  • Multiple maps may be needed to tell the story

Things I need support with:

  • Developing workflows to visualize data
  • Finding the right data sets
  • Determining what story I am telling
  • Developing CNC workflows (how best to create the toolpaths, workholding, registration, etc)
  • Material exploration advice

In one of the books I found in the Prelinger Archive, I read: Maps are moments in the process of decision making.

So, I need some help deciding.


Here are some texts that seem important to this project at this time:

Step 11: Get Feedback, Iterate, Get Frustrated, and on and On

I presented all of my work up to this point to the other Pier 9 residents and staff, and got some interesting feedback around people to talk to, contexts to consider and areas to consider.

Considering the waste being created by these processes, and considering what mapping data shows with the exclusion of shoreline and border data on a map.

From here, I started trying to try some of the processes I am interested in, and considering the future contexts.

I poured a fair bit of resin, and created a lasercut map where resin was poured into the void. I also made a globe out of leather, which I made an instructable for.

While these are interesting explorations, the butterfly map has started to become limiting. Also, I haven't moved any closer to actually mapping data on it or telling a story with that data. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, trying to create CAM versions of this map in the hopes of testing milling resin.

Working with Fusion 360 is something I am finding incredibly frustrating. I just can't get a handle on the controls. Every time I think I am doing something that should work - it well, just doesn't. I've probably spent three hours a day cursing at my computer for the last few days. Or week.

I was going to just make nicer versions of these explorations because I was feeling defeated, but I've been encouraged by lovely people to keep trying other things. So, onward. It's good advice.

I've also been playing around with tools that create STL heat maps from JPG images, trying to create a machinable version of a heat map showing shipping data across the Pacific. I just can't figure it out. I keep trying. I keep failing. ACK!

Oh my.

Step 12: Go to the Exploratorium, Have a Strike of Inspiration

After getting really frustrated staring at a screen, I decided to go out into the world!

I have been looking at the entire globe without constraining the context, but it's time to break it down.

I left Pier 9 to go next door to the coolest science museum - the Exploratorium. I went to go explore the Fischer Bay Observatory, where there is an exhibit called exploring landscapes. Looking out at the San Francisco Bay, there are maps, visual instruments and visualizations that speak to the geography and context across time.

I was particularly taken by Jane Wolff's Bay Lexicon project where she creates a language for speaking of shorelines and infrastructure.

I have decided that the language of science museum displays is the ideal method for telling the story I want to tell. Interpreting the message from a fine art installation isn't as precise as I want, and making consumer objects that critique capitalism is an absurd route I don't need to walk right now. Creating something that explores a problem space through interactive objects is an exciting idea - and what I have decided I would like to do.

My new research question is:

How can I create objects that express the magnitude of the global recycling trade and the impact of China's new legislation?

After I came back from the museum, I drew 5 sketches for my new imaginary show.

Step 13: Plan, Make, Iterate