What do you make?

Charlene Lam‘s story-telling at the IDEO Make-A-Thon reunion last week was really entertaining. Her talks allowed me to reminisce and make me think back to my ‘making days’.

Charlene is a creative who works with materials and textiles. Her company Creative Clerkenwell looks to connect creatives in London and will feature at the Clerkenwell Design Week in May. Charlene told a great story of the things she makes. Meet the ‘operation red rabbit‘:’To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, a warren of red rabbits were made from papier mache and placed around the streets of East London’.


Charlene’s story telling inspired me to question what I make…

When I was about 9 years old my dad bought me a hot glue gun. Accompanied by a scalpel and balsa wood, I used to enjoy making structures and boxes. They weren’t anything in particular but I loved it. My dad enjoyed encouraging my creativity and I loved making things – it was a win-win!

A number of years later, I took the then called ‘CDT’ craft, design, technology A Level
and discovered the wood work and silversmith workshops. I’d find any excuse to turn objects on the lathe or make pieces of jewelry.

Then I went to university and built on all these skills by discovering the soldering iron. It’s amazing what you can create by soldering an electronic circuit board together…! I designed the ‘anti-theft handbag‘, a biometric handbag which only opens when the correct finger is scanned. I thrived on making prototypes and models.

One theme I have carried through all my life is enjoying making birthday cards, wrapping paper out of old paper and making purses or small bags to hold objects. Give me an old piece of card, scrap material or unusual packaging and I can guarantee it will be kept for a rainy day.


When I graduated from my undergraduate degree, however, I moved into London and no longer had the space for much model making or workshop equipment. Life changed too and London had lots to offer and plenty of places to explore. My interests also change slightly. I became very interested in sustainability and reusing objects. It was Victor Papanek’s ‘The Green Imperative‘ that changed my view on ‘life’. I started to view objects and consumerism in a different way and set myself the challenge of not buying new clothes for a year. I found this remarkably easy and I got a real kick out of rediscovering my wardrobe again.

So, this is where my ‘I make….’ story comes in.

I (like to) make old clothes comes to life. Not buying new clothes did nonetheless mean I could continue indulging in my love of buying from charity and vintage clothes shops. There’s something really exciting about knowing that a piece of clothing has a story behind it, is cheaper than its original price and has potentially been saved from landfill. The only problem is that most people are turned off buying second hand because of the smell, it may not fit properly or more often than not, hasn’t been displayed in a way that they can relate to.

Talking of clothing with history, DoTheGreenThing recently created Glove Love ‘an initiative where we take lonely single gloves that have lost their original partners, wash them and then pair them with brand new glove lovers’. The best bit about buying the gloves is the lovely message that comes with them. Each pair of gloves is tagged telling you a story of where they were found. Seriously, it’s worth £5 to just read the story (and to have an odd pair of gloves with a Do The Green Thing label on them).


I don’t often find a garment of clothing fits perfectly but that’s where a pair of scissors, needle and thread and accessories come in handy. I wish I had taken “before and after” photos of some of my creations but instead will have to list them out and hope you can use your imagination.

– The ugly 70s dress that ended mid calf: 15cm off the length gave it a new lease of life.
– The shoulder padded ‘Dynasty’ dress: removing of the shoulder pads and a brooch made it this season.
– The 80s pencil skirt: a tuck in the top made it sit higher and therefore more flattering.
– The black, sleeveless, moth eaten, shapeless dress: stitching up of the holes and a retro belt transformed it.
– The boring tweed jacket: now with red button holes made it this seasons must have.


Sometimes a new belt, change of length, additional stitching or different combination of accessories can transform an outfit. Trust me, it’s very satisfying when people ask where an outfit is from and the answer is ‘part charity shop, part old garment, part hand-me-down’.

I worked on a project a couple of years ago which is very relevant to this love of making old clothing come to life. In collaboration with [re]design, we took ‘Chalky Van’, the chip-fat-powered-chalkboard VW van to the Vintage Festival at Goodwood. I facilitated a few engaging sessions with the festival goers around the reuse of clothing. The most insightful was when I placed a nasty old shirt on the van and asked people what they would do to give it a second life. People of all ages came to write or draw their answer on the van.


Some of the best responses that really touched me were:
‘use the buttons as eyes for my puppet’ – girl aged approximately 6 years old.
‘blow my nose on it’ – man aged approximately 50 years old.
‘tie a belt around it and wear it with my tapered chinos’ – girl aged approximately 25 years old
‘make a scarecrow’ man aged approximately 30 years old.


I’m clearly not the only person who sees the value in an old piece of clothing!

Making old clothes come to life is a passion I have. I will never have a fashion label from it, nor will most people ever realise the story behind my wardrobe but it does make me happy knowing that I wear second hand clothing. Keeping spare buttons, boxes of material and never throwing away clothes my infuriate my boyfriend but that’s the designer in me….! Forever curious about what I can get my hands on next and adapt.

IDEO London host a story-telling evening

IDEO London hosted a really inspiring reunion for the Make-A-Thon event back in February. The theme of the evening was story-telling and of course, in true IDEO style, there was story-telling and more.

First up was Brendan Dawes talking about Popa, the iPhone camera button. Such a heart felt journey of a fun idea to create an attachment to turn your iPhone into a cool camera.

Brendan travelled miles, experienced the power of twitter, went through highs and lows but in the end has produced an amazing Kickstarter ‘tech gadget’ as a one man band. I am now, even more than before, inspired to start a crowd funded project…My only complaint is that I want one and have to wait for the next batch 😉 @brendandawes

Then we heard from Jeremy Innes-Hopkins who had me engaged when his talk about having the opportunity to design a phone for Nokia demonstrated how a vibrating phone sounds different on different materials.  Inspired by the Nokia 7110 phone in The Matrix movie which activated at the click of a button to an opening facia, Jeremy’s prototype was a playful phone which flipped up 90 degrees when it rung. Unfortunately Nokia snubbed Jeremy’s prototype which was a silly move considering Jeremy’s design was receiving more hits (on his website) than Nokia were with their latest phone launch…! @JeremyIH

Haiyan took us through the incredible story of how she created an online Geigermap which became a phenomom in Japan. She wanted to use the uninspiring, hard to interpret data produced by the government into a visually useful and easy to use, informative map. The power of crowd sourcing proved incredible and although it needs close monitoring at times, shows that a single idea can scale and escalate beyond your initial idea. Haiyan went out to Japan and met people who now rely on her map to understand radiation levels in and around Japan. Heart warming. @Haiyan

Ben Redford intrigued us with his story of Olly and Polly finding love.

Tasked with the job of designing a tangible output for a digital input, Ben told the story of prototyping devices that produce a smell when a tweet is received. Ben showed images of excellent prototypes which consisted of Pringle crisp packets and Magic trees through to ‘at home’ injection mouldings. Demonstrating a working prototype of Polly, the bubble gum spitting robot was priceless! She turns your tweets into sweets. @bredford2

Fergus Doyle told his story while standing on a kite board. Although the story was about him teaching people how to kiteboard, the underlying message was about people’s habits. It resonates well with a previous post I wrote about how we are creatures of habit. You can assume people will do something because everyone else has done it in the past but there will always be one person who acts out of character because of a habit they are use to. In this case, Fergus found himself running fast after a new kite boarder who was used to being on a snow board and bombed off in a different direction! @junkafarian

During the break we had a team challenge to build the tallest tower out of spaghetti, masking tape, string and a marshmallow on top. I heard there was a prize for the most daring tower which we, unfortunately attempted, and failed.

Tom Hulme led his talk in by reinforcing the importance of prototyping, testing, prototyping, making. Apparently MBA students will always agonise over the process and drop the marshallow on the top at the very last minute. Their average height is 20cm. While kindergarten kids will build a bit, test it and build again taking the marshmallow up and up. Their average is 30cm. This TED talk on the subject by Tom Wujec is well worth a watch.

Tom gave us all a piece of paper and tasked us to work out how you could insert an inflatable rubber ring through a small hole to fit around your heart. After a few shout outs, Tom explained how he was playing around in class one day trying to work this problem out. He came up with the answer of creating folds all the way around the ring to reduce the diameter of the ring to the size of the hole it needed to go through. From playing around in class to work out how to solve the challenge, Tom now has his name on a Coronary Heart Disease instrument patent. @thulme

Jude Pullen, the very talented cardboard engineer showed images of a dinosaur model he made as a kid and of his excellent Sponge Bob outfit for his work Christmas Party.

I have never seen cardboard used so creatively. His love for cardboard engineering was shown off when he passed around small structures he had made which demonstrated how perfect curves and unusual shapes can be created. He was inspired by the website ‘sketch a day‘ and decided to create a set of YouTube videos which shows others how to make these structures themselves. Thanks for sharing your skill with others, Jude. @Jude_Pullen

Last but not least was Charlene, the new Yorker who came to London knowing only that she wanted to do something creative. When Charlene heard the term ‘designer maker’ she felt she had found her destined job title. Then faced with the question of ‘what do you make?’ Charlene had to question herself but luckily did not give up on her love to create things. She took us through a wonderful story of playful, creative and unusual objects which she had made and will promote making at the Clerkenwell Design Week this May. Check out the lovely imagery of her making – the po-tatoe is well worth a look. @CClerkenwell

Charlene really got me thinking about what I make. My first reaction was ‘I used to make lots of things’. That was when I had space, a loyal glue gun, soldering iron and spare time. But the more I think, the more I realise I do make things, they just use different skills and are focused around different things these days. The next blog post will focus on Louise and making!  Thanks for the inspiration, Charlene, it is so valuable to question yourself from time to time.

My take-aways from the evening were –

  • Persevere: if you have an idea, a dream, a passion, you can make it happen. Be prepared for ups and downs and an interesting journey. Be playful, make things, sketch ideas and talk to people.  You’ll learn more than you thought from all of your experiences.
  • Look around you: what do you need to make your idea happen? I bet if you take a step back and reflect on what you’re trying to achieve that the answer will appear. A ‘normal’ journey is unheard of when you hear stories of success.
  • Question yourself: is what you’ve set out to achieve what you want or is that simply your starting point? Why can’t you do something different? Terminology can be twisted to suit anything.
  • Think ‘now’ then multiple that: remember that an idea may start off small but the power of the Internet and social networking can scale it within minutes. Be ready…
  • Ask yourself who’s in your team?: you may begin on a journey with only a few people in mind but if the idea is good, your ‘team’ of stakeholders and end users will grow. Make sure you acknowledge them and take them on the journey will you.

When’s the next event?