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Increasingly, we as makers are needing to become industrial designers. I used to teach a basic design course years ago and I made the point to my students that we really don’t become active participants in our world, moving from passive consumers to active creators, until we fully understand and engage in the designed world. Ultimately, we are all designers. And, of course, that’s what making is all about (understanding and engaging with the built world). Except many makers pay little thought to how things are designed, how they interface with their users, and how they integrate with the other artifacts in our world. At a staff meeting recently, somebody was commenting on how many projects we see that have no enclosure, no knobs, no thought to longevity and usability. Some of this is obviously because many of these projects are basically proof of “can-do” and they’ll likely end up in a box of other such projects — experiments — not part of one’s daily life. But hopefully, as the DIY/maker movement matures, this will be less the case. As we start thinking about using more projects in everyday life, and bringing projects to market as products, industrial and user-interface design becomes another skill set makers need to acquire.

So that got me thinking about sharing some of my favorite design resources and picking your brains for more. What are some of your favorites? Please share in the comments below.

MAKE – OK, this is tremendously self-serving, but I think a big part of design literacy comes from regular exposure to inspired ideas and designs. And we try and provide a steady diet of that here on Makezine. The first step to understanding design is understanding how things go together; how they were designed and built. We offer a lot of such inspiration and instruction here. There are, of course, many other sites about making things and ones far more dedicated to exemplary design. One of my favorites is…

Core77 – This is probably my favorite design site and I visit it on a regular basis. They cover all aspects of design, have great articles, designer profiles, design news, product reviews, you name it. If you’re trying to feed your head with design literacy, this site goes great with a morning bagel and coffee.

Here’s a great three-part Core77 interview with MAKE contributors Jeffrey McGrew and Jillian Northrup, talking about their design-build firm Because We Can.


The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman – Understanding good design is as much about understanding human psychology and human culture as understanding materials and how to manipulate them. Donald Normal is a cognitive psychologist who specializes in (and writes about) design and usability. Through his work, he’s been a big advocate of user-centered design (designing things for the actual user — radical concept). Norman now talks about how the academic design community has had little impact on product innovation and most of that innovation comes from technologists. This is Norman’s seminal book where he looks at good and bad design through a series of case studies and derives design principles from that exploration.

Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek – When I read this book as a teen, it had a huge, lasting impact on me. It makes me realize how fundamental design is to our human-built world and how design is so much a product (or should be) of context. The book is full of the most amazing examples of products that were build for one culture ending up far, far from home — some with inspired re-use results, some disastrous. Like his contemporary, Bucky Fuller, Papanek understood the power of design to change the world — or to destroy it. The first line of the book starts: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few…”

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine M. Benyus – One of my interests, especially in robot design, is in looking to nature for inspiration. In this book, science writer Janine M. Benyus does an excellent job of explaining what biomimicry is, what some of the successful designs are that nature has inspired, and where the future of this discipline may be headed. Another related book I highly recommend is The Gecko’s Foot: Bio-Inspiration: Engineering New Materials from Nature by Peter Forbes.

Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty, David Kadavy – I haven’t actually read this book, but I’m intrigued by it. It uses the hacker ethos to look at the designed world, with a focus on graphic/web design and user-interface. But really, it’s designed to get the reader to start seeing the world through designer’s eyes, which was the basic approach of my old design classes. If anyone has read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I asked our online team for some of their faves and here are a few:

Our Web Producer Jake Spurlock highly recommends Smashing Magazine, a web design and user experience e-mag.


MAKE contributing writer John Baichtal swears by Kuler, Adobe’s color selection tool that uses crowd-sources color combinations.


Castle designed in SketchUp for Linux

And Sean Ragan adds: Google SketchUp and Google SketchUp’s online 3D warehouse free model sharing repository. You can get to it from the drop-down “file” menu in the application itself, and there’s a “import into your current model” option. The database is full of great 3D models you can use for free. And if you model a common part or component you can upload and share it so others don’t have to repeat the work.


“Design” is obviously a very broad topic with many facets. These are just some of our favorite design resources, both theoretical and practical. What are some of yours?

This post is sponsored by Chevy Volt.

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.



  1. David Lang says:

    Very cool! This is valuable stuff. 

    Thanks Gareth!

  2. Armando Guerra says:

    There was an article I read about a chef who took up hunting to become more engaged in the culinary/sustenance/self-sufficiency experience, and this article really is the kindred spirit that proves the point. I remember when I was young my immigrant parents did not want me to “dirty my hands” to make a living, but how I regret the opportunities I passed up to make/grow/create things. I am trying to teach my daughter about sewing, and she is picking up crocheting from grandma. 

    Edit: said article can be seen at  

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      I’ve know several other chefs that have done that. So great. And there’s a chef/restaurateur at a country inn in Spain who designed and built ALL of the implements he uses in the kitchen, from the spatulas and the strainers to the grills/ovens he cooks on. I have to track that place down again. I saw it on No Reservation and thought it sounded so incredible it might be worth a pilgrimage — you know to cover for MAKE, of course.

  3. First of all: “Shaping Things” by Bruce Sterling. I can’t recommend it
    enough. I even bought a second copy just so I can lend it to friends and

    It blew my mind away, with a lot of concepts I wasn’t familiar with at
    the time, like the importance of metrics pertaining to objects,
    synchronicity and many more things.

    Also: every other book by Donald Norman, especially “Emotional Design” .

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      YES, Frederico! Great choices. I was actually going to put Shaping Things in the piece, but I ran out of time and had to publish it. That is a mind-blowing book. I think Sterling is one of the most inspiring thinkers on design today.

      I haven’t actually read Emotional Design, but I’ve certainly heard good things.

  4. Travers Naran says:

    The reason most makers don’t fancy up their projects is because it’s really, really, really hard unless someone’s showed you how.  Take a look at the cases available in most electronics stores–they’re fugly!  They haven’t changed since the 1970s, although there was one new case that almost looked acceptable.

    We need more articles on how to create nicer aesthetics without requiring high artistic skills (e.g., sculpting).  Articles on how to work with plastic casting kits, foam sculpting, etc. that other hobbyists like wargamers, model rail-roaders, and R/C customizers take for granted.  I’ve known them for years, and they don’t have greater art skills than the rest of us–they just learned how to “push paint” and other techniques for creating good results with minimal skill.

  5. John Buystuff says:

    Sean Ragan –> Where did you get “Sketchup for Linux” ?!?! Is there a release for native linux available?  Or are you running that in Wine? That doesn’t look like wine….that looks like a native application….where is this available?