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Material explorations

Our major challenge in this strand isn’t “how do we make a phone out of wood?” A mobile phone isn’t just a physical form, so instead we need to investigate how wood affects the networks of people using and creating the phones. Once we’ve researched this, we can design a mobile phone that illustrates those changes, and build it properly. This brings us to the real challenge: How do we even begin finding the answers?

One significant strategy we use is a particular approach to material exploration (another, the use of design briefs, I’ll come back to in a future post). Sometimes thinking can be done with your hands, through a process of making, and through considering the object when it’s finished

Sometimes our best thinking can be done with our hands, through a process of making, and through considering the object when done. The physical object tends to differ from the imagined one, and that difference challenges us to understand and develop it.

Thinking though making

For example: Let’s stick with wood, and say we want to make a wooden phone. We’re attracted by the potential of the warmth and textural qualities of wood. For instance, contrast the particular appeal of wooden toys and their clunk-clunk with the slide-click of a metal keypad cover on a sliding mobile.

Wood is actually one of the materials we explored, and we tried two distinct approaches. We made the simple shape of the mobile phone, and also some larger-scale pieces to try out different wooden movements. We learnt quickly from this process. One point that come up: Although you can make buttons in wood, the build quality doesn’t give the fluidity of movement of plastic buttons. Ratchet mechanism and hinges feel more true to the medium.

From the final shapes, we’re now able to test our expectations. It’s one thing to imagine a wooden mobile phone—it’s quite another to hold it in your hand, and use it as a prop. Whereas we’d started on the warmth and mechanical qualities of the wood, another property now makes itself visible. There’s a gracefulness to the robustness of the wooden surface: A wooden table can show scratches and burns well and improve with age, whereas a scratch on my iPod drives me potty. The material can suggest new avenues that we hadn’t thought to explore initially.

These material explorations operate as catalysts with the ideas that come up from other strategies like brainstorming, and help us reach richer concepts. We can then dedicate the bulk of our time to building those out into physical working prototypes, which can then be used, we hope, as inspiration for designers.


There’s another aspect to the material prototypes I haven’t touched on yet, and that’s our relationships with craftspeople and product designers. We use experts to perform these material explorations, preferably whilst we sit with them. Eventually, we may be working with these folks to develop the major prototypes at the end of the project.

The material explorations let us test out different ways to communicate. It turns out that the brief you give to a material-oriented craft worker is a long way from the one you’d use to get the best out of a product designer… but that’s another topic I’ll be coming back to.

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