Design Resources for Makers

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.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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