Introduction: How to Design Almost* Anything

For someone who's never built anything before, the ability to take a billet of aluminum or slab of rough cut lumber and turn it into something useful can seem like a magical power only a select few possess. The ability to take abstract ideas and turn them into a unified plan for a physical or even intangible invention (in other words, designing) must seem even more terrifying. But designing shouldn’t have to be such a scary endeavor. As complicated as the skill may seem, even the best designers are using a simple process that anyone can learn. This is the same secret** process used by big design companies to create unique solutions to all sorts of problems. The first step is to not worry that you don’t know the final answer. Instead stay focused on what you need to do next. With a bit of patience you’ll eventually find yourself somewhere new and exciting!

I mostly build instruments [You can see some of the instruments I build at] so I’m going to use one of my more ambitious projects, a portable practice violin, to illustrate some of the steps. This process is most often used by companies developing new or improved products for sale to consumers or other businesses. Some of the steps may not pertain to an individual maker creating for his or herself. Still, it’s a versatile process that can help anybody create a unique solution to almost any problem.

*I added the almost for those of you who want to make a teleporter or time machine. It’s a great place to start for any project, but won’t help you break the laws of physics.

**Ok, it isn’t actually a secret. In fact one of the largest design companies revealed their process in a news segment a number of years back. This process is loosely based on the design process used by many of the top professional design firms and is often taught in top design colleges.

Step 1: Planning

For small projects it is best to keep planning simple and open ended. It isn’t too hard to burden yourself with more work planning the project than planning would ever save you. I usually prefer to work without a set schedule save for an end date if necessary. It’s best to stay nimble and let the project take you where it wants to go. You’re likely to end up with more interesting ideas and be happier with the end result this way.

A simple step I would recommend for anyone is to write out a short list of goals for the project and the problems you want it to solve. This should not be a rigid list: Hopefully it will change as you learn more about the problem you’re trying to solve. But, it is a good way to keep focused on what you’re trying to accomplish. You should come back to it occasionally to add new discoveries and make sure you haven’t drifted to far from your original goals.

Making anything tends to be a very different process when working with even a few other people. It means many more ideas but adds the challenge of managing people’s differing goals and expectations. Designing for a paying client adds yet more individuals whose opinions you have to take into account. Where planning may be trivial or unnecessary for a small, personal project, coordinating with other people can make good planning absolutely critical. A detailed Gantt chart can help keep everyone on the same page as far as due dates. Sadly, there isn’t a chart that would make managing other people’s differing interests and goals any easier.

Step 2: Research

The first step is to get a good look at the lay of the land. Someone else may have already made something that does exactly what you want. There’s no shame in using an existing solution if it would be easier and more cost effective. (There’s maybe no shame, but also no fun!) Learning from failures and building on other people’s discoveries is a great way to leap frog ahead. But research shouldn’t only mean cracking a few musty books or surfing to the ends of the web. Original research is going to be your most useful tool. Since you’re trying to create something new, existing research can only be of so much use. Some methods for collecting original research:

Create a survey with relevant questions about the needs of someone who would be interested in what you’re making. Make sure you add a few open ended questions like ‘Are there any other features you would like to see this widget have?’ This type of question will often give you some of the most candid and interesting insights.

Ask users directly about their current experiences. People love to talk about the things they use and how they use them. Listen carefully and somebody might give you a great idea.

Ask a user to keep a log book of observations as they use the current solution. They should be especially careful to document any time something frustrates them.

Observe first hand how people use the existing solution and where it fails them. This could mean going to a public place where people would normally be found using it. Or you could ask a user to let you to ghost him or her for a few hours. Either way, be mindful that your very presence could change the subjects behavior.

Become a user! This is by far the most valuable way to experience the problems with what’s out there. For example, if you are making a violin, start taking lessons.

This type of research should give you a more realistic feel for what works and what doesn’t in the real world. Hopefully these observations will lead to some unique and truly unexpected ideas. For example, if you find out people have been using the existing solutions in ways no one intended (or have been using it in the ‘wrong’ way), that is a very useful result you can build on. For my portable violin project, I emailed a survey to the orchestra members at my school. Once I had a working prototype I went to an orchestra meeting and met with a few violinists one on one to get more direct feedback.

Step 3: Ideation

This is a good time to forget most of what happened in the last two steps! No really, I mean it. More importantly, it’s a good time to forget about what you could actually make, what everyone wants the final version to look like and what you think it should do. Ideation is all about coming up with as many ideas as you can without any judgment despite how crazy, simple or painfully practical the idea may be. Here are some useful exercises:

Stay inspired: Many people think looking at other people’s work is some form of cheating, but this isn’t school: Short of exactly copying someone else’s design there’s no such thing as cheating.

Choose your inspiration wisely: Creative output is a product of the inspiration you seek, better inspiration will lead to richer ideas. For example, make sure you don’t just look at toasters if you are trying to design a unique new toaster. Inspiration can come from anywhere; often the best places are unexpected.

Talk to people: It may seem obvious, but throwing ideas around with people (again without judgment) can really help bring the group to new places none of you would have gone alone. And the wider the range of experiences your team has the better.

Fully immerse yourself: I usually feel like my best ideas come after I’ve had some time to really load in all inspiration and ideas surrounding the problem. I see it as reaching a kind of critical mass after which a lot of interesting ideas start coming to you really quickly. Learn as much as you can about the problem and see what pops out.

Don’t try so hard: It can be hard to come up with great ideas under pressure. Many of your best ideas will likely come when you don’t expect them. The shower seems like a popular one for a lot of people. All you need for this to work is to be open to ideas as they come to you and be prepared to record them, no matter where you are. Just be careful if you start ideating while driving!

There are many useful exercises for concept generation: the only hard rule, as difficult as it can be, is to not judge any idea right away.

Step 4: Choosing a Concept

So you have some great ideas, but no clue which one is best. You have two possible directions.

Quantify: If you are obsessive (or honestly don’t have any idea which concept to choose) this is your method. Write down the most important things a great design needs to do. Does it need to be easy to take apart? or loud? or safe for children to use? or safe for adults to use? Once you have a good list of criteria, rank each concept from 1 to 10 in each category. The highest score wins, it’s that simple!

Trust your instincts: Forget all the paperwork. You’ve spent a lot of time with the project at this point. You probably have some strong gut feelings about the concepts. Trust those instincts and go with the idea that seems most promising. If a few ideas seem promising and it wouldn’t be too time consuming or expensive, it may be best to make a simple proof of concept for the top few ideas. Whichever seems most promising at that point is almost certainly going to be your best bet.

Step 5: Prototyping

'Fail early and fail often' should be your motto for this step. Depending on how you plan to make prototypes, you may need detailed, dimensioned drawings or you may want to start with rough sketches. But sometimes the best option is to skip drawings altogether. The sooner you actually make something the sooner you can see if it works or what it will take to get it to work. You get a lot more information from building a crude prototype than any amount of planning will get you.

I certainly gained some experience with failure during the violin project. The neck joint on my first violin prototype slowly pulled apart soon after I strung it up. I fixed that problem with a quick modification. It wasn’t long after I restrung the violin that the tuner block broke in half. Still, the prototype did its job by teaching me about the types of forces I was dealing with. And for the brief few hours I was able to play the incredibly awkward creation, I learned that despite this version's ‘failures’ it would be possible to make a portable yet practical violin that small. Concept Proven!

Step 6: Concept Testing

This isn’t just a step: It’s something you should be doing throughout the process. Test concepts, prototypes, proof of concepts, sketches and anything else you make on anyone that will listen as soon as they happen. Use the network of people you created during the research stage to casually run ideas or more formally test finished prototypes. This can be a painful task since you’re looking for off the cuff opinions of something you have spent a lot of time and soul to create. Here are some tips for getting better feedback:

Be realistic about people’s responses. This can be a truly difficult skill to develop. You love your ideas and believe in them so it can be very tempting to take every bit of positive feedback as proof that everybody loves what you’re doing. The truth is most people feel they need to be at least a bit positive or they will be seen as rude. On the other hand, strong negative reactions probably mean the person has a grudge against you or is a curmudgeon. Best to avoid these people altogether.

Ask focused questions. Most people won’t say your ideas are bad outright. But with more focused questions they may say they don’t like how a certain part of the design works or looks. Keep to the facts and people will be more likely to give you their actual opinions.

Don’t ask your friends and family. These people unfortunately tend to be fairly nice to you. This can be great as a self esteem boost, but is not helpful if you’re looking for a reality check. Even many acquaintances will sugar coat their responses forcing you to decipher what they really think.

Pay strangers to test your concepts and prototypes. This is an unlikely option for independent makers, but if you have the budget it can be a great way to get candid feedback. Since you are paying these individuals to tell you what they think, many of the social niceties that people usually adhere to no longer apply and you will get more (hopefully even brutally) honest feedback.

Who cares what other people think. Sometimes the best way to make something amazing and completely unique is to make it for yourself and yourself alone. If you believe in what you’re doing and truly need what you're making, there’s a good chance there are others out there who would also benefit. Many companies are started in just that way.

Step 7: Dealing With Negative Feedback

It’s worth saying that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ feedback. Some feedback may be more useful than others, but you can always learn something no matter if the feedback is positive, negative or neutral. Still, if you’re feeling discouraged by what you’re hearing from people keep these points in mind:

Most people won’t be able to see the possibility in early stage ideas. If people give you a lukewarm reaction to a crude model, idea or drawing you’re really excited about, keep at it a while longer and see if people start to react more favorably as you refine the idea or design.

Experts don’t know what they are talking about. If you want to make the revolutionary product of twenty years ago, listen to experts. If you want to make something radical and unique they are the last group to ask. They are experts specifically because they believe in current solutions and have a vested interest in those solutions staying relevant.

People can be fickle. The reasons for someone not to be excited about your idea can be really odd. Try teasing out what they really think with more focused questions.

A little negative feedback isn’t even the worst thing you could encounter. Luke warm is by far a worse reaction. If you’re making something truly unique and earth shattering it should be polarizing. Some people (especially an established industry) won’t like what you’re doing. It’s better to have half the people love it and half hate it than to have everyone be completely indifferent.

Realizing that people aren’t hot for your idea can be hard, but this isn’t a fatal condition. There were a lot of ‘that’s cool’ type reactions to my violin, but many fewer, ‘I want one now, where can I buy it’ type reactions. As unique as the design is, it really only has an appeal among a very small niche within an already small group of violinists. This type of reaction isn’t a death blow, but it should be taken to show how many (or few) people would really want what your making. Of course if it’s being made for you, who cares if anyone else likes it or would use it?

Step 8: Iteration

If you don’t have a solution you’re really happy with or if no one loves your prototypes yet, don’t worry. Hopefully you’ve learned something important from your failures thus far and can use that knowledge to make something great. Don’t be afraid to iterate within each step throughout the process or go all the way back to the beginning. If you decide to shift your focus to a new idea or problem that you discovered along the way, then you should celebrate! You now have information that very few other people have access to; an admirable position to be in indeed.

Step 9: Implementation

In practice there’s not such thing as a final version: the next version is always going to be a little bit better. Still, at some point you have to implement all of the great ideas you've been working through into something real and that other people could use. The best way to begin down this path is to start using the prototypes you make as soon as possible. Much like the limited betas computer programmers use, you can figure out what works and what needs tweaking as you go. How do you decide that your creation is ready for other people to use? It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should definitely be safe. It should also be less frustrating to use than existing solutions or not using anything at all.

I built four different versions of the violin before making a ‘final version.’ [Check out the practice/ travel violin page on my website for more pictures of the final version.] The key is to do a better job each time you make a new version and pretty soon you’ll be creating some truly amazing things. Good luck and keep designing!