Arduino is Italian. It was co-created by Massimo Banzi, at Interaction Ivrea, a design school in northern Italy, as a tool for designers to create interactive experiences.
In March, I spent several days with Massimo, first at a makers conference in Rome and then in and around Turin, where the Arduino is made. We started at the FabLab in Turin, which had previously been part of a large Fiat factory, now vacant. Then we drove out to a countryside area where the early personal computer maker, Olivetti, once thrived.
After the computer maker closed its doors, descendants of Olivetti set up shop to manufacture the Arduino (the microcontroller that has captivated the maker world), which explains why there’s a small industry in the Piedmont region with all the machinery needed to make printed circuit boards (PCBs).
On the drive to the factory, I sat in the back of a Fiat and asked Massimo about interaction design, the Arduino, and design for makers.
Dale Dougherty: What is good design? What can makers learn to make them better designers?
Massimo Banzi: In design there are different fields, and like art, there are different movements. If you look at the design of Apple products, that design descends directly from the Bauhaus and their minimalistic, clean shapes that emphasized rationalism. You see it later in the work of Dieter Rams, a German designer, and Rams’ influence on Jonathan Ive (Apple’s senior V.P. of industrial design) and Steve Jobs.
Good design is about using the minimal amount of stuff that you need. Also, if something is visually simple, it encourages people to use it.
DD: What about the intuitive sense of design?
MB: Design can be used to make an object desirable. You can make an object so that others are attracted to it. You might say it’s beautiful, that it’s striking a chord in you, that you want to have this thing.
I tend to think that people who come from an engineering background value adding multiple options, as many options as possible, making the object customizable. In my opinion, design is about finding a way to say “no,” deciding which things you’re not going to put in the product.
We get a lot of criticism at Arduino because we refuse to apply some of the modifications that users submit to us. As a result, people get disgruntled and they move to other open source projects. We try to explain to them that we’re trying to keep the system clean and consistent. We don’t want to confuse people.
When I was trying to learn Perl years ago, I saw that you could do the same thing in five different ways. This was completely illogical to me. I said, “Why?” Then I came to understand that in the world of geeky programmers, each one of them has their own preferred way of doing things, and the language had to cater to them.
In design, I think if you have to cater to everyone, you become useless. Nobody will connect to your product. If you design something around yourself or some person, then you’ll find some people who will connect to that, because the product you design has a personality.
DD: What is interaction design?
MB: I have a fairly light definition. Interaction design is the design of any interactive experience. It can be the interface of an object, say a device with three buttons. That interface can be very bad, an unsatisfying experience, or those same three buttons can create a really nice experience. Everything is an experience, an interaction between you and something, and that experience can be designed. That, for me, is the general definition.
In my case, interaction design tends to be about technology. A lot of the experiences you have today are enabled by objects that contain electronics and sensors. Technology enables the communication between you and the device, or you and a service.
The interaction designer must know design but must also understand technology enough to know what kind of experience you can create with a certain tool.
It’s also about understanding business models. You have to understand how the business model is tied in to the experience because it might define what you can create.
DD: Is this kind of design more about functionality than aesthetics?
MB: In the world of design, you have different points of view. For some, it’s about the visual appearance. For others, it’s about functionality. It can be about solving problems. For some people, before you design something, you have to have a debate about the context in which this device will be used, how it will impact people’s lives.
One of the classic points of view is that form follows function. Others say that form follows fiction. First you create the story, and then the shape and direction come out of the story, the narrative that you create.
Sometimes technology is described simply in terms of what it can do, where perhaps interaction design focuses on what a human being can do or wants to do with it as a user. Something that’s designed purely from a technical point of view doesn’t always work — the engineer wants to solve a problem but doesn’t go the extra mile to figure out how a person will use it.
DD: How do you teach interaction design?
MB: It’s all about iterations. You start with sketches and prototypes. Then you have different fidelities. You might start with cardboard, as an example of a low-fidelity proto-type. When you stuff some electronics in there, the prototype starts to behave like the thing you want to design and so this becomes a high-fidelity prototype.
These iterations allow you to try the prototype with people. You want to figure out how people behave when they’re using the thing you’ve designed. Gillian Crampton Smith, the former director of Ivrea, used to call this the “crafting of the interaction.” So you’re crafting the interaction in the way an old-style designer would craft the shape of the object.
It has been said that in interaction design, you’re not asked to design a vase for flowers. Instead you ask yourself, “How do I arrange flowers around the house, or how do I enjoy flowers and plants in my living space?” During the design process, you might not come up with a vase. You might find yourself designing something completely different. It’s good to take a step back and look at things differently.
Where I teach, every class is hands-on. It’s always about making a project. Since I believe that interaction design is about trying things with people, the more you want to make your product perfect, the more you need to be able to play with the product. This means that the shorter each iteration, the more experiments you can do. The tools that we use are chosen because of their ability to shorten the loop.
Arduino was successful in interaction design because you could iterate very rapidly around hardware and software until you got something that was working. You could also put it together with other parts.
DD: What was the path that led you from Ivrea to Arduino?
MB: In the beginning, I started teaching my students the same way I was taught, just copying what my teachers had done. After a couple of lectures, I realized it wasn’t going to work. I started to explain what electrons were, Ohm’s law, they didn’t understand. Then I realized that’s not how I learned. The way I learned was through experimenting. When something didn’t work, I would go back and try to understand why. So that theory became useful to me, and it matched reality. Then I started to teach like that and make everything much more hands-on.
Arduino came about because we wanted to iterate quickly. We wanted something that would be cheap to deploy. We wanted something that a student could use to make a circuit. I also wanted open source software because I didn’t want people to have to pay.
So Arduino has an IDE that’s cross platform. We had a board that was easy to assemble. We had a little bit of documentation.
[At this point Massimo interrupted the conversation to point out a Fiat prototype on the road. It was covered in cloth so no one could see its shape.]
DD: How did the team come together?
MB: Arduino started as Wiring, an electronics prototyping platform, which a student of mine was working on. When it was finished, I was committed to using it in school because the only way to try it out was to get it in front of people. Wiring had a more expensive board, about $100, because it used an expensive chip. I didn’t like that, and the student developer and I disagreed.
I decided that we could make an open source version of Wiring, starting from scratch. I asked Gianluca Martino [now one of the five Arduino partners] to help me manufacture the first prototypes, the first boards.
Then I invited Tom Igoe from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program to come visit Ivrea and work on a project. I had met him and liked him. So he came over, and we ended up using the first Arduinos [to design interactive lamps for Artemide]. Tom liked the concept. He said he’d bring it back to New York and start playing with it.
The idea was to make a board with the minimum number of parts, a PIC processor that would be cheap. I wanted them to cost $20 a board. That’s the price of a pizza dinner. So a student could afford to skip pizza and spend the money on a board.
The first run of pre-assembled boards was 200. Fifty were bought by Ivrea. Fifty were bought by Sweden. The other 100, we said that we hoped we could sell them. And we sold them. From then on, we had people asking us for boards. When I started to see what people were doing, I knew that Arduino was going to make a difference.