Prototyping burnout? Try building and discovering for the fun of it
There are two flavors of anti-typing I enjoy. One is taking things apart; the other is building things from kits.
BY JEREMY LOSAW
Prototyping can be very rewarding, yet it is just as often a slog.
Prototyping is discovery though doing. It requires seemingly endless cycles of building and testing in pursuit of making a new technology work. Weeks, months, and sometimes years of building prototypes can be frustrating and lead to innovator burnout.
When I find this happening, I turn to activities I call “anti-typing.”
These activities are more about building and discovery for their own sake, free from having to create an innovative and monetizable solution.
Two fun flavors
There are two flavors of anti-typing I enjoy. One is taking things apart; the other is building things from kits. Both are rewarding in their own ways because they can build skills and be a restorative tonic for inventor burnout.
Taking apart products is a great way to learn how products are engineered to be built at scale—and also a lot of fun. It often takes years for a product to make it into the marketplace, the result of myriad decisions from engineers, designers and marketing professionals along the way.
Looking under the hood is a joyfully voyeuristic activity that reveals clues about how a product was made.
You can see details of how the parts were molded and the witness marks on the inside of the parts from unpolished steel tooling. You can observe the way plastics are ribbed out, how the screw bosses were formed to keep consistent wall thicknesses and respect the direction of how the tool opens and closes. You can see the electromechanical systems with the requisite motors, gears and switches to make it perform its intended function.
With so much creative problem solving housed inside of every consumer product, it is no wonder you often hear engineers and designers say they took something apart “just to see what was inside.” Even taking apart broken products is a useful activity; you can find clues as to how it was used or misused and how it may have broken.
This may reveal the cause of failure. More important it may also provide inspiration for solving problems in your prototyping activities.
A broken lesson
A kitchen mixer of mine recently failed. After making a cheesecake and not letting the cream cheese soften enough, the mixer took extra stress from the unsoftened cream cheese stuck to the blades. After that, it started making grinding noises and only one of the mixing blades would spin.
I suspected the gears had failed. This was confirmed when I looked inside to see that one of the drive gears had damaged teeth that were keeping it from spinning.
There was no way to fix it, but it was a great way to see what parts were vulnerable to non-standard use and to get to see the guts of the product.
Recipe for learning
The other kind of anti-typing I like is building something from a kit or a recipe. When you build a kit or use a tutorial to build something, the result is known and there is a fixed endpoint.
Although you are not iterating to find a solution to a problem, it is a way to prototype a process and learn tools that can be useful when working on a real innovation.
For example, you may buy a bag of chocolate chips from the grocery store and use the recipe on the back to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. The process is defined; the end goal is a known state.
However, after making that recipe a few times, you have gained the experience using the tools and going through the process. Then you have the confidence to start tweaking the recipe. For the next batch you may add a dash of cinnamon, a little more butter to soften them up, or some coconut flakes.
The kit—in this case, in the form of a recipe—provides a formula that helps you familiarize yourself with a process that once known can be manipulated and improved.
A known result
What I love about building kits is that the pressure is off. With a known and desired result, there is no anxiety or ambiguity about the next step.
Kits provide guardrails that allow you to enjoy the experience of creation without the expectation of solving a problem or the fear of a bad design decision.
When you build an electronics kit, you are unburdened from having to calculate the resistor values, spec components for a PCB, or develop custom code. You can just enjoy the build and explore the fully developed code to see how it drives the function of the circuit.
When you build a model racecar, you are unburdened from the pressure of having to design the full-scale car with the expectation of winning a race. You can enjoy seeing the design of the car in 3D and imagine the design decisions that led to the final result.
We can often fall out of love with or be burned out from our passions from time to time. Prototyping is no different. Stretching can relax our muscles, and meditation can soothe our minds.
Similarly, anti-typing activities can help re-energize us by bringing back joy to building things and giving us new knowledge for accelerating our prototyping pursuits when we are ready to begin again.