How to be Seen

Early on in my days as a maker, I really struggled with documenting and publishing projects. Almost everything I make starts life as something I wanted to build, something I wanted the experience of playing with. Most often I build because building things is gratifying in and of itself, and the other aspects (recognition, money, internet fame) are ancillary. However, only ever being beholden to myself made for some pretty shoddy documentation. I have few if any photographs of my projects from college and my record of things before that is more or less nonexistent. Over time I’ve discovered that a huge motivating factor for me getting things well documented, taking time out to photograph a project in progress, and updating my records, is having other eyes on me. Having other people witness my work validates it, gives it context, and creates a network of fascinating relationships and interactions that help fuel the next piece.

I don’t think I need to emphasize how important documentation is. Objects have a nasty habit of being pretty solid and aren’t often seen hurtling through cables at the speed of information. I know, Thingiverse is neat, but if you truly want to convey the awesomeness of something to another human, it’s infinitely more likely that they’ll extrapolate the fact from a picture than take the time to print and assemble your design. So, if you want the world to feel the impact of your handmade steam powered arduino based self balancing stainless steel unicycle junkbot, you’re going to have to show them… by force if necessary.

How do you get the motivation to properly photograph every step of your process when you know it’s only going to be another message in a bottle thrown into a sea comprised of messages in bottles? How do you spend all the extra time when it’s being poured out into the land of wind and ghosts, never to be reclaimed, precious hours of your finite and fleeting life glugging down the swirling drain that is the dark sucking void called the past? You start by just doing it. Let me enumerate.

Pick up the Camera

One thing that’s been cool in my career as a person who puts stuff together is that as I get more people looking at current projects I can direct them to older ones that I’m especially charmed by. It’s really rewarding when I get a message that someone made their own version of Bokode @ Home or got their modded their guitar hero controller to light up. I still get them from time to time. My early projects built the foundation of readers and fellow makers that provide advice, attention, and support that fuel my current projects. I couldn’t have built The Anywhere Organ, which got an infusion of funding from a Kickstarter grant a few months ago, past the initial sketches without the good folks over at The Awesome Foundation looking at my body of work and determining that their investment would be put to good use. My first forays into photographing and publishing my projects have really paid off with a long record of my history as a maker. They also helped me build up the chops, techniques, and tools to make the finished documentation prettier and less painful.

Just break out that camera. Hit record on that webcam. Can’t stop every couple of minutes to take shots of what you’re working on? You can take timelapse from just about any usb camera using Dorgem. Each time you photograph and publish your results you’ll find yourself wishing you’d taken something a different way, stopped to set up your project so everything could be seen clearly, or any of a hundred little things that would have made the resulting pics more clear. Don’t let it discourage you. Just file those dogging suggestions away for the next time and then implement them.

Look Around You

There’s more to getting the making>publishing>feedback synergy loop going than knowing how to use a camera and having an Instructables account. Take a look at your peers. Take a look at people who both have a really good running record of their projects and produce really polished descriptive displays of the final product and copy them tenaciously. Chris Eckert is one of the best people I know for this. He produces beautiful prototypes, his methods are really lucid and understandable, and the final product is always astounding. Chris tends to remain outside of the view of the camera. His photographs are mechanical, descriptive, and do a very good job of showing the level of detail and consideration that goes into his work. Missmonster is another of my documentation idols. Although she doesn’t have as much of a central feed to specifically document her progress on projects, you can easily pick it up from her twitter pics. Also, she’s very good about posting consistent updates, talking about upcoming projects, and publishing awesome final product photos with good tags and links. She’s also much more involved in her photos, appearing on camera, having friends shoot her with her work, posing with her newest creations. I feel that this gives the viewer a sense of her personality along with her work, which can be good for developing a long term devoted fanbase, which she definitely has.

Find Peers. Assimilate Them.

When you’re starting out it’s helpful to become part of the conversation to start getting people interacting with your work. If you’re just another voice in a sea of voices you can get lost in the noise, but if you get engaged with a community you can start meshing yourself with a network of other folks all helping one another rise above it. I still have friends from my days as a teenage forum lurking illustrator, asking for crits and offering up detailed advice with the folks at the now defunct eatpoo. It was like a micro internet, where I honed my skills, learned to take both the good and bad comments with grace, and figured out how to convey myself online. As a maker, you might look to the Adafruit forums, which are always super responsive and friendly, and the comment threads over on Instructables.

Bite off Manageable Chunks

I’ve made enormous projects. I’ve made enormous deals of documenting them. I’ve turned the whole resulting morass into enormous tutorials and enormous websites. But, no matter what I do, there are still projects looming over me that have been completed, are in the can, and are just waiting for the proper writing/editing/composing to get out there into the world. There’s this enormous weight, all the elaborate plans I have for how exactly the internet will see them, that it keeps the original ideas from seeing the light of day. This should be avoided at all costs. Release early and release often. Play with new tools like video editing or Make: Projects as a way of getting better information to your audience, but don’t let it heap up until the point where you’re starting new projects to avoid publishing the old ones. You can always go back and write the definitive guide to everything once you’ve gotten the ball rolling.

The only caveat I’d like to add is that you want to provide GOOD information. Blurry pictures, dark crowded rooms full of random electronics, and long rambling rants about your project won’t exactly stun the masses. Aim for short, sweet, and descriptive. Chances are people will find you through other folks blogging, tweeting, and putting your stuff on Facebook. Blurry pictures are better than nothing at all, but strive for things that make it clear what your work is about. It sucks to have BoingBoing do an article on your hand cranked expresso maker hewn from a single knotty pine stump and not have a nice leader picture for the top of the post.

Choose your Format

Text isn’t immediate. If your project needs lots of text to properly convey your concepts, consider condensing what you can into diagrams & graphics. Break monotonous blocks of text up with photos that demonstrate what you’re after. Chances are a long and detailed text description can be made into a short chalkboard lecture video. Your goal is to convey. Create what elements are necessary to easily guide the viewer to understanding you. Tutorials can give people a rich sense of how much work you put into something, the brands of problems you came across, and how you solved them. Don’t be afraid to show your failures. Documenting them will help other people avoid them. You might save your audience hours of eyestrain by taking a concept that would be multiple pages of text, links, and graphics, and making a video instead. This brilliant Astronaut Ice Cream tutorial by Ben Krasnow is an excellent example of something that could be a long series of posts condensed into a quick and engaging video. Avoid the one-take dark Cloverfield shaky cam demonstration and narration video. Don’t take a camera, talk at it, and then point it at a circuit. Take some time to plan how you’re going to demo your creation and shoot video that supports it, not makes it look like Zapruder footage.

Make it Central

Taking an occasional photo or transcribing shop notes into a blog post are leagues better than nothing, but chances are your entire audience is online. Your conduit from your project to your viewers will likely be entirely through the web. Even when you showcase at Maker Faire or a gallery space, thousands more people will be viewing your work through the media these venues generate. Consider the web part of the medium of your piece and documentation as central to its process as prototyping or construction. Your work is alive when it’s in the minds of others. It lives through the memeplex of ideas that people toss between one another. If your goal is to impact that memeplex, you’ve got to convey your ideas clearly. This means planning ahead and taking the time to document right. Amanda Wozniak has a passionate talk on such matters here.

Call it

This all leads to a risky proposition. Eventually, you’ve got to let go of your project. You’ve got to call it done. You’ve got to take it out of the warm amniotic shop space and into the light where rowdy children and unruly Youtube commentators could rip it apart without even absorbing a wit of your intentions. I’ve faced this huge wall of daunting uncertainty and have decided that it’s easier to keep something close to my breast rather than have it suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. This has always been a mistake. Don’t peel away just before the good part. Sure, your project could crash and burn immediately after takeoff, but if you never let live out there in the wider world, then it has no chance to live at all.

When it’s hard to keep pushing forward and making stuff, I turn to Ze Frank:

When Duchamp wrote this [The Creative Act] in 1957, for most people that made things, spectators weren’t that easy to come by. Since then things have changed a little bit. For many of us that publish words or pictures or videos online the idea that the audience has a role to play seems very natural. That’s why I like eighty percent. When your eighty percent done, you have most of your work behind you. The end is in sight, but you’re not done and you can still hold onto the hope that this one will come out just right. At eighty percent I also start to become aware of the spectator. Start to become aware that what I made will soon be in someone else’s hands. And in the time that’s left I get ready to flush.

Bye-bye, doodie. Bye-bye.