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For our last special theme of the year, we’ll be looking at the tools we all use to come up with the projects we pursue and how we manage them. We’ll be looking at physical tools, such as notebooks, drawing tools, whiteboards, and the like, but also, things like brainstorming and project-management software, and the more intangible aspects of design, invention, and dreaming outside the box. We want to explore the creative side of making.

If you have favorite tools, from the physical to bit-based to even more intangible thought “tools,” we’d love to hear about them. Please leave your recommendations in the comments or email me.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. Kathryn Small (Robots & Dinosaurs) says:

    My iPad has become a fantastic tool for creativity :)

    When I’m drawing, I have a full set of colours and brushes to choose from — without having to carry around a huge pencil case. I can make hundreds of drawings for dozens of projects and take all of them with me wherever I go — without having to carry several notebooks. Plus I can easily email designs to people, rather than… well, scanning each page individually, I suppose.

    I also love being able to look up projects on the fly. The other day I was buying wool for a knitting project. I didn’t really know what I needed. So I pulled out my iPad, showed the website to a sales assistant, and she knew straight away what I wanted. It also means that if I’m at the store and something’s on sale, I can look up projects which use that item.

    Lastly, I like to keep .jpgs of projects that I like. Mostly it’s sewing and embroidery. When I’m looking for inspiration, I can flick through hundreds of photos and find something that moves me. I love having this database wherever I go :)

  2. Dave H says:

    Probably my most-used tool is the Web. If I get an idea I can search to see if someone has already done something similar, or find the resources I need to make it become real.

    For my work in software design, I find Visio to be a real help. I use it to model data and process flows. Being able to drag an object across the page and have all the connections follow it saves a ton of redrawing on my part. (If anyone can recommend a FOSS replacement for Visio, I’m all ears.)

    If I’m doing a design “unplugged,” (i.e. without a computer), I like a big quadrille desk pad (22″ x 17″ sheets of 1/4 inch graph paper) and my trusty Pentel 0.5 mm mechanical pencil with HB lead, and a pen style retractable eraser.

    1. DanYHKim says:

      http://live.gnome.org/Dia

      “Dia is roughly inspired by the commercial Windows program ‘Visio’, though more geared towards informal diagrams for casual use. It can be used to draw many different kinds of diagrams. It currently has special objects to help draw entity relationship diagrams, UML diagrams, flowcharts, network diagrams, and many other diagrams. It is also possible to add support for new shapes by writing simple XML files, using a subset of SVG to draw the shape.”

  3. Funky Space Cowboy says:

    I create mainly in wood, mostly by hand and as a result the final details in many of projects are designed on the fly around the material I have available. When I’m doing conceptual drawings I like good old graph paper, a ruler, a French curve, flexible drawing curves, dividers, protractor and compass are my most used tools. When turning the design into a real thing I heavily use a bevel gauge, more dividers, outside calipers, inside calipers and vernier calipers (direct readings of mating pieces is a very quick way to size mating pieces) and a striking knife for marking the wood. Marking and cutting gauges that can be set once and locked into position securely are invaluable for consistent, repeatable layout marks when transferring the design from paper to wood.

    A crucial mental skill when designing in wood is grain matching. It’s very common to make a wide panel out of several narrower boards (think large table top) and if you do it poorly it looks like a lot of narrow boards glued together. Patiently examining the material available allows a good craftsmen to ‘paint’ with the wood grain and hide or highlight differences in way that makes the panel look purposeful and unified. On the last large table I built I literally spent an entire weekend of shop time staring and rough lumber and rearranging them on my bench until I settled on the right grain pattern for the table top that matched ornate 18th pattern it was based on.

    Finally the most important tool I’ve learned to use in design and I think this applies to any material you work in: Patience!

    Cheers,

    Josh

  4. DanYHKim says:

    Well, I really mean ‘junk’. That is, junk is the stuff you can’t figure out what to do with it. Garbage is stuff you throw away.

    Having junk means you can take it apart, scavenge parts, see how it works when you do *this* to it. With the freedom to break it, junk allows you to be creative and daring.

    This is actually born out in the study of evolutionary genetics. Genes that are replicated in the genome, due to some mistake in DNA replication, are available to be mutated without deleterious effects, since the other copy is sufficient to maintain the critical function. The ‘extra’ or junk gene is available to gain new functions that may become important at some other time. Similarly, a pile of junk lets you mess with stuff and create new, exciting stuff.

    . . . or more junk and garbage, in my case.

    1. Kathryn Small (Robots & Dinosaurs) says:

      Totally :) The Sydney hackerspace has a Junk Room, which is full of old electronics, hardware, CRTs (ugh: when will people start throwing out plasma screens), and random donations.

      A typical trip to the Junk Room goes like this: “Hey, did you know you’ve got X in the Junk Room? Why would anyone throw that out? Why, I could use it to make … ” :D

    2. Alpinebutterfly says:

      Junk… or thrift stores… things that are no longer being used by other people. I hang out after small auctions as well, always creative inspiration left behind there. Trying to give old things a new life.

  5. Alan says:

    A few years ago, I stumbled onto a project organizer and information manager called org-mode. It runs inside Emacs. Though it does everything in plain text files (the only computer file format that can be considered archival), it allows extremely sophisticated project structures and agenda management. I try other organizers occasionally, but always find myself coming back to org-mode.

    Like anything Emacs-related, it has a steep learning curve, but it’s one well worth climbing.

  6. clide says:

    Most projects are worked out in my head before they get transferred to anything else. I’ll think about a project for a while and if I can’t quite work out how to do something I’ll file it away in my head and come back to it later. I use a notepad application on my phone that just lists the projects I would like to work on at some point in one or two words each. Sometimes when I go to start thinking about a design again I find that a problem I had previously been having has already been fixed somewhere in the back of my head.

    The internet it great for inspiration. Sites like Make are great for seeing what others are doing and drawing from other people’s work and methods is always helpful. The web is also tremendously helpful when researching a specific project to see current designs related to your project. Although often overlooked Google Patent Search is amazing. It takes some effort to interpret patents, but it is usually worth it.

    I typically design a project around the tools and materials I have available, so that ends up driving many of my design decisions. This is where a pile of junk like DanYHKim mentioned comes in handy. Sometimes a project comes solely from picking up and thinking about what you can do with some piece of junk.
    “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” – Thomas A. Edison

    If I am making something mostly with hand tools I’ll usually work straight from the design in my head and work out the fine details as I go. You just have to be careful and think about how each part will affect the rest of the project. Occasionally I’ll scribble down some measurements with a very rough drawing on a notepad.

    When working with more complex and precise projects or projects that can use computer driven tools I’ll use Alibre Design to make the necessary models and drawings. Then it is simply a matter of converting and transferring those drawings to the computer driven tools.

  7. Gareth Branwyn says:

    These are all really great ideas, resource suggestions, and tips, folks. Keep ‘em coming. I’ll round the best of them up into a post.

  8. Alpinebutterfly says:

    I use free mind a lot when I have to get the organization of a project going. I also use it to map brain storms. It’s a free, pretty easy to use program, that allows you to put thoughts in order, and then find the links between them. I also use it when planing for the future, to see what I want need to focus on now… and what I can save for later.

  9. Superpants says:

    I have a number of things that I find useful in getting ideas, other than the obvious of this blog!

    Scrapyards are great for finding random oojamaflips and whatchamcallits that may one day come in handy and therefore get added to the pile of junk. Sometimes I find the use is really obvious, like the explosion proof lights that I replaced the inners with colour changing LEDs- other things like the beautifully machined titanium strut out of an aircraft are still waiting to be turned into something.

    I find jotting a list of random ideas down as they occur helps- it means ideas had during the day at work or elsewhere don’t get forgotten- there are ideas on my list that have been there 10 years that still haven’t made it to fruition and may never, but if I never know when I may find the perfect part to bring it to life.

    Art exhibitions and theatre always end up sewing ideas in my head.

    As I enjoy photography I love to browse Flickr and Deviant art and have plenty of ideas from these. There isn’t any set method to this, but favourites of peoples photos I enjoy are always a good starting point.

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