Breaking things to make things

Rediscovering the curiosity for how things work

When my son was in kindergarten, his classroom included a take-apart table where kids could crack open old typewriters, cassette recorders, clock gears, switches and dials to learn in a very hands-on way. This simple break-down exercise allowed them to see inside how things work, and showed them that the designed object is nothing without the elements inside.

In some ways, we have lost the curiosity for how things work. We expect objects to simply turn on and off without tracing the path back — not just in the classroom, but in the workplace, too. In my home, we often talk about how light switches, TVs, electricity, and anything hidden away in a box or in a wall works — and I have lost count of how many times we have taken apart the piano. This type of experimentation and theorizing — even if we don’t fully understand the entire process — is necessary to learn and grow.

I have a visualization exercise where I mentally take things apart and put them back together on my daily commute: paths of people in spaces, electrical wiring from street lamps through concrete, car engines, building structures, wireless device connectivity, placement of subway tunnels and testing out variations in flow. This take-apart mental exercise — and curiosity — helps keep a sharp focus on how people move in spaces and has aided in my own problem solving design process.

This is also the basis for how we work at Fjord. Our mantra is simple: we break things so we can make things. If we understand how something works, we can break it and put it back together in a way that makes more sense for people or adds greater value to their lives.

Put it Back Together

As part of Design Studies at Fjord, we run through things we see and use, take apart how they work and observe how people interact — in this way we can identify and remove unnecessary steps to create better products and services. We are always looking for more fundamental explorations.

Almost by definition, designing services and products for the Internet of Things requires taking things apart. For example, as we take a smoke detector, shoe, table or coffee cup out of the system and replace it with something that can communicate with other objects, report its position, time of day and temperature, the value of take-apart thinking becomes clear. It helps break down service utility into component parts to see if we even need them. Most of the time, we find at least one or two steps we don’t need.

Looking at the components we have taken apart, we can see new useful combinations, which can improve scenarios we are already living. For example, the water line going into my refrigerator — can that be connected to my oven to provide moisture for specific baking recipes? A timer and status bar on my oven — can that be applied to the refrigerator to let me know when ice cubes are going to be ready? Can we take a slider from a volume control and apply that to an oven for simpler setting of temperature and time? The act of looking at the component functions separately and putting them back together starts to elevate new uses for existing or emerging needs. The same is true of service actions. Looking at steps, re-sequencing and repositioning can lead to surprising and often much better results.

By thinking through behaviors and objects, we get much closer to shifting small elements to make workspaces, communities, cities and countries into smarter connected environments. It also helps us identify where a “smart object” may be unnecessary or even detrimental.

Workshopping the Process of Breaking and Making

In workshop sessions with clients and teams, putting yourself inside the scenario and walking through how it works, tracing back the interaction of mobile devices to a server, data collection, multiplying interaction of people, connection with physical objects and imagining what users are seeing can help identify the one or two missing pieces that can unify the entire experience. Using methods like physical journey mapping, where we create physical models of these environments, is just one way to guide the exploration process. Creating ‘making’ activities requires us to first break down the objects and environments so we can envision how they come back together.

Very often, we get stuck on the assembled object or well-worn service path for us to see the possibilities. The fascination with taking thing apart is centered on the pursuit of how things work. This is exciting, valuable and leads to incredibly useful new products, services and insights.

This originally ran on LinkedIn.

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