A friend of mine sent me the above video the other day, and it's one of the most delightful things I've seen in a while. Over Easter weekend, the U.K. design studio Seaweed conducted a one-day toy hacking workshop for girls ages 8 to 11, to teach them what many designers are just figuring out: making things work is a key part of the design process, and it can be really, really fun.
Using the prototyping platform Arduino (what the girls are calling "the brain"), they learn how to hack their stuffed animals to make new toys that are responsive to their environment. Arduino is an open-source hardware and software platform used to prototype physical interactions with objects that have electronic inputs and outputs. Arduino makes it easy to explore and test different behaviors – how an object's sensors detect physical stimuli (inputs), and how it responds by controlling lights, motors and other actuators (outputs).
In the workshop, the leaders introduce the girls to physical prototyping using project examples that they understand: a chicken who flaps her wings furiously when her eggs are stolen, and a claustrophobic pig that says, "Argh you're killing me. I can't see anything!" when something gets too close. The girls then work in teams to design their own animals: they generate concepts, which they illustrate with scenarios, try storytelling and practice giving constructive feedback, and think through the details of the interactions they're designing using if/then statements similar to pseudo-programming code. The girls also explore a bit of circuit building on breadboards, adjusting timing variables to fine tune their interactions, and I think a few even get to try soldering wires!
The results are astounding, to me anyway. I had no idea kids that young could be so articulate about their ideas, and I certainly had no concept of electronics or input and output when I was their age. This gives me hope for a whole generation of designers growing up with an awareness of not only how things work, but also the types of design decisions that (can) go into defining what an object does and how it behaves. This will make them not only better designers, but also more demanding consumers, which bodes well for the future of interaction design.
Jennifer Bove is a founder and principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco and on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's Interaction Design MFA department in New York. She travels, a lot.