A Lesson From Maker Faire

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This month, we had the pleasure of exhibiting at Portland’s annual Mini Maker Faire held at OMSI. We described our project, Construct-A-Comic, as a digitally enhanced, do-it-yourself comic strip kit. At our booth, visitors could use a few different storytelling tools to create their own three-panel comic strip.

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A set of paper props and characters with mix-and-match heads provided the cast for the comics. The skeleton and crocodile were particularly popular with the kids.

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We set up a mini stage with projected video backgrounds that could be adjusted to different scenes, everything from a carnival to outer space.

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Once the stage was set, we recorded the visitor’s creations in a panning video and posted them to Instagram.

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That gives you a basic idea of what was set up at our booth. But there’s another aspect of our project that I’d like to talk about here. It’s something that I feel Construct-A-Comic exemplifies well, not necessarily because of what it is, but because of what it empowered people to do.

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There’s a French word, bricolage, that describes the act of using whatever you have on hand to make something. Someone who performs bricolage, or a bricoleur, draws their materials and resources from a limited pool to achieve the ends of their work.

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As an after-hours passion project with little budget, Construct-A-Comic was definitely an exercise in bricolage. Thanks to a set of talented volunteers from our studio, we were able to pull together our project from whatever we happened to have in our Lab. This is what you’ll find all over Maker Faire: groups of bricoleurs who are passionate about the act of making and embrace the challenge of working with constraints.

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But the idea of bricolage can extend beyond the physical things we make. In his book The Savage Mind, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss uses the metaphor of intellectual bricolage to describe what he sees as a valuable means for humans to make sense of the world:

[The bricoleur] derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he ‘speaks’ not only with things… but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities. The ‘bricoleur’ may not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it.

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Put another way, this is a philosophy of process over product. There is something immensely valuable, but sometimes difficult to quantify, in the process of making things, and not just in what you end up making. The process of encountering and working with constraints should be celebrated because that’s what makes our activity inherently satisfying and meaningful.

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I think part of what makes Construct-A-Comic special is the small way it encourages the kids who use it to engage in their own intellectual bricolage. We set up a space where we offered them limited tools and asked them to make something of their own. And they didn’t disappoint:

Our ability to freely engage in bricolage seems to dull as we get older. We become more tied up in believing there is a “right” way to do things and complain about the compromise when we are forced away from it.

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But that flexibility of the bricoleur to see multiple possibilities in a limited set and adapt to shifting conditions is what I consider a good design skill. So, for designers especially, I think there is something to be learned from these kids who fearlessly created stories out of whatever we gave them. This is the lesson from the Maker Movement: you can shape our world meaningfully, not in spite of the constraints you will encounter, but because of them.

If you’d like to see all the stories our visitors made during Portland’s Mini Maker Faire, go to instagram.com/constructacomic.

— Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer

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