Introduction: Materialstorming

This instructable will illustrate how (scrap)material can be used as a very inspiring source for designing products from websites over software applications to services and tangible 'hardware' products.

Basically this instructable will explain a method that I tend to use and like to participate in at the very start of a variety of projects related to human computer interaction. The main idea originates from the creation of low fidelity prototypes by using cheap materials to simulate some kind of interactivity, which is covered very well in Bill Buxton's book 'sketching user experiences'.

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Step 1: Materials

The first thing you need is a material table or material repository, as is often used in creative sessions and in creative techniques. What the materials are is not all that important - but the more diversity in colours, material properties, textures, hardness, etc the better.
Based on several sessions that I have been involved in, some very interesting materials are:
- Paper/Cardboard of different thicknesses and textures
- Universal glue
- Hot glue
- Magnets
- Clay (the Playdough type)
- Fabrics
- Felt
- Postits of different sizes, shapes and colours
- Preshaped boxes (of cardboard, wood and/or plastic)
- Plastic sheets
Excellent places to buy these things are art stores. Other very interesting places can be second hand stores or places where leftovers from production processes are sold (eg. "stichting scrap" in Rotterdam : link)

Step 2: Theme

Besides the material, it's important to have a theme or subject which you will be materialstorming about. The real strength of materialstorming is that you can come to concepts starting from a very conceptual or cloudy idea. Basically this theme would be a central term or concept, much like this is being done in 'regular' brainstorms.

Because materialstorming is all about working with tactile materials, just by creating objects and physical representations of an idea it becomes easier to talk about the concept. Therefore, materialstorming is something that allowed me to talk about very conceptual ideas with everyday people. During my research, using materialstorming facilitates the creation of a common design language amongst a group of people regardless of their experience or background.

Step 3: Create!

Now the fun part can begin, the creation of tactile objects that illustrate several ideas around a certain theme.

To get the most out of materialstormning, it's a good thing to just pick up a material and to not let it go before you created something out of it. Take your time to examine the shape, texture, feeling and look for combinations with other materials. To get familiar with the technique, it might help to first write some keywords on a sheet of paper that are relevant to the topic first or creating several moodboards related to the choosen theme.

Another tip to create interesting objects is to pick the material you like the least or the one that you would never pick. Doing this, you force your thoughts to think about something in a different way.

As a last tip, always remember you can rip things apart or think up alternative uses of a material. Often people "just" stick stuff together, which often leads to quite generic ideas and prototypes. An example is shown the picture below, where a piece of wood has been ripped apart first, this lead to the idea of fire.

Step 4: Example 1 : Physical Website

A first example of why materialstorming can elict new ideas is the physical website. The main idea was to create a website during a workshop on co-design techniques (held at MobileHCI 2008). As we at that moment had access to a whole bunch of materials we decided to, instead of immediatly starting to make wireframes, use a short materialstorming to come to the general concept of the site.

By exploring, touching and thinking about various materials we were able to not only think about the features of the website but also about the experience and look and feel of it. Obviously this was the materialstorming technique being used by a team of 'professionals' where it can give very richt information about a concept in a short amount of time.

Step 5: Example 2 : Objects in the City

The objects in the pictures below illustrate several ideas that were created in a project regarding Near Field Communication technology in a city context.
Our team of researchers worked together with everyday people from the city of Antwerp to talk about this technology. Our main question was "how would you like to communicate in the city?" Whe choose to run trough a very 'analogue' process before explaining them the eventual technology we had in mind.

During one of our sessions we used the materialstorming technique to get a better understanding of this theme, in the end the results of the materialstorm have been the most inspiring for the team. Mostly becasue 'real-world' artifacts were created that each have their own stories and ideas behind them.

Step 6: Conclusion

Using the instructable I tried to quickly give an overview of "materialstorming". I'm convinced that this method is being used by other people and research groups already but I'm also sure that materialstorming is a technique with such a lot of potential and possible richness that it's interesting to think about the 'best practices' of the method.

Some of the things that make materialstorming a powerful method to use in a design process are:
- Materialstorming is a perfect way to include people that are not familiar with design and design processes in methods like participatory design. As people know that they are just making mockups, we noticed that they tend to be more
- The method is closley linked to bodystormning and acting out. Once a tactile object has been made, it's perfect to be used in bodystormning or acting out techniques.
- Besides creating a common design language, it becomes easier to talk about the experience of a design by using various material characteristics.
- Based on the first prototypes, other evolutions can be made that could - depending on the context - be made interactive using arduino and/or other open source hardware tools.

To conclude, I'd like to add a quote by Yoko Ono which truly captures the spirit of materialstorming and DIY in general;
"I admire most creative people and most creative efforts because I like the idea that they're doing something. Even if it's crap, I like the idea that they're doing something." -- Yoko Ono

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    2 Discussions


    Cool instructable... I think material stroming applies really well to the likes of building a website, things where your product will end up intangible, just because it isn't going to be a physical object is no reason not to consider it as one at points...


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Brilliant!! In addition, using materials entirely unrelated to your subject can lead your thinking outside the proverbial box. In the website example, the hole-punched ribbon representing the vertical bar suggests a pattern, a set of elements (the holes), or a set of functions (seeing through the holes) which may suggest a design for the real vertical bar in ways you have not thought of before.