Measuring creativity

We didn't have a knife handy. Yes, that is a hacksaw.

Creativity’s important, right? If you can’t come up with new ideas, you can’t produce anything new. Nor can you adapt to changing conditions or circumstances. CEOs think it’s important, as do teachers, artists, academics – probably anybody whose work isn’t purely transactional.

And yet, it’s hard to define exactly what creativity is. I think most people have an intuitive understanding of it, but here’s an interesting paper from Ian Fillis and Andrew McAuley that talks about creativity in general (as well as its relation to entrepreneurship and marketing, but that’s near the end). Here are a few of the competencies and characteristics that they’ve turned up as associated with “creativity”:

  • Openness to experience
  • Tolerance of ambiguity
  • Self-reliance
  • Willingness to take calculated risks
  • Originality
  • Flexibility
  • Willingness to fail
  • Informality
  • Knowledge
  • Intuition
  • Need for autonomy
  • Positive outlook

And there are lots more that you can check out in the paper. What stands out to me is that creativity doesn’t appear to be solely intellectual. Instead, it has a few different dimensions (many of which overlap, to be sure):

  • Intellectual: Knowledge, intuition, judgment
  • Emotional: Comfort with conflict, ambiguity and risk, optimism
  • Personality-oriented: Desire for autonomy, openness to experience, self-confidence
  • Social: Informality, ability to develop relationships, low attachment to others’ image of you

Perhaps creativity is better described as an orientation rather than a trait or attribute, since it can involve so many different characteristics and areas of human experience. On the other hand, describing creativity as an orientation implies a certain neutrality or equal acceptance of the alternative state. But in this case, what would the opposite orientation be? Non-creative? Transactional? Passive? In most cases we think it’s better to be creative rather than not, and creativity is something we as a society try to encourage. Maybe, then, it’s a complex of behaviors and attitudes, like “spirituality” or “intelligence”(?), rather than a single simple trait that can be pinned down.

Like intelligence, creativity isn’t that easy to measure. In the paper I linked above, there are a few examples of ways to measure creativity, most of which center around figuring out as many as possible x, where x can be unusual uses for a common object, or consequences of changes in the outcomes of certain events.  The most important test seems to be the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, which includes tests like the one I just mentioned, as well as a fairly interesting drawing test which is discussed in detail here.

It’s unclear, however, how much predictive value these tests actually have. Instead, they seem to just do a better job of lining up with our intuitive understanding of what creativity is.

Designing a 3D printer kit: Introduction

Cutting some rods!

This is the first entry in a series of four exploring the design, packaging and user experience of 3D printing kits. Each article will be published to the front page of this blog, but you can also find them, as well as other articles I’ve written about open-source 3D printing, on my 3D printing topic page.


The last time I wrote about 3D printing, I said that I was concerned about where the open-source 3D printing industry is going. A lot of companies make build-your-own 3D printer kits, including of course the main player in this space, Makerbot (which just got $10m in VC funding, by the way – including money from, I believe, Jeff Bezos. Very cool).

Other kit makers include ShaperCube, Ultimaker, MakerGear, etc. In addition to those, from what I’ve seen and heard in talking to knowledgeable people, more startups and kits are on the way. And of course the RepRap Project, which is the (too-often unacknowledged) foundation of Makerbot’s and everyone else’s technology, continues to improve and spawn new kit iterations.

These kits are going to get better and better in engineering, capabilities and reliability, while decreasing in cost. But what worries me is that none of these companies seem to be focusing on making these kits easy to understand and build, especially for people who are new to 3D printing. I built my Makerbot about a year ago, so it’s certainly possible that things have changed significantly since then. But my experience as a newcomer to DIY projects was that Makerbot assumed a lot of knowledge and a tremendous willingness to solve problems that probably should have been solved for me when I bought the kit.

That’s fine for now, I think, but in order for DIY 3D printing – and DIY culture more generally – to scale dramatically, maker-entrepreneurs will need to concentrate more on user experience design for non-makers. And of course aesthetic design, as well; I left my Makerbot unattended at school one day, and when I returned security questioned me as to its purpose and stopped just short of asking me whether I intended to use it to blow up the University.

“User experience design” covers considerations including style, construction, documentation and packaging. I guess one other way of saying that makers should spend more time on user experience is to say that DIY projects should be more user­-oriented, appealing to the builder’s needs, rather than artifact-oriented, which is the current business / design model. “Check out how cool this is!” as opposed to “look how easily you can do this!”, or even “here’s why you should want to do this!”, where you can be anyone.

And I don’t see that happening right now, at least not on the scale I’d like to see. According to the funding announcement on Makerbot’s blog, they’ve sold about 5,000 printers so far. This is an incredible achievement and one worthy of all the praise that has been heaped on Makerbot, and I have no doubt that that number will increase rapidly, especially now. But it is a really, really small number compared to what DIY 3D printing could be, and should be.

And it’s a tiny number compared to what the Maker movement can become and I believe will become. (And even must become for the health of our society, but I think that is a separate blog post or series of posts).

To explore some of these ideas further – how 3D printers can be made more appealing to newbs – I spent some of my time this summer trying to put together my own, very modest version of a 3D printer kit that is closer to what I would find fun and easy to assemble. I sourced for the RepRap Prusa Mendel, since that, frankly, is the best DIY 3D printer configuration available today. This project involved a few separate activities.

  • Sourcing all the components myself, individually (I thought this would be an interesting learning experience)
  • Prettier packaging
  • Clearer assembly steps

Doing this project gave me a new respect (built on top of the old respect) for the guys who are producing these kits. At the same time, it did make me question the business model a little more than I have in the past – I have a better understanding now of how much in labor and parts goes into each kit, which makes me wonder how these guys make enough margin to justify venture capital investment, especially when the plans are completely open and free for anyone else to copy.

I am publishing my experiences in a series of four articles over the next week or two. They’ll all be gathered on this page in case you want to bookmark it. While there won’t be anything mind-blowing in here for people who know a lot about DIY 3D printing already, and while what I put together is ultimately an exploration of ideas rather than a saleable product, I hope this can be a useful document for people who are interested in the space and are thinking about some of the design and marketing issues surrounding open source hardware.

In the next post, I’ll talk about sourcing the components.

Jumpstarting a car

On one of the last days of my recent trip to Portland, we found out that our car had run out of batteries. Instead of starting, it just sat there when you turned the key. Fortunately, the guy parked in the car in front of us had jumper cables.

This entry isn’t primarily about how to jumpstart a car, but here’s what we did, so you know I’m legit:

  • Make sure both cars are off.
  • Then, use the jumper cable to attach the black terminal on your battery to the black terminal on your jumpstarter’s battery, and the red terminals likewise. (If you are missing color-coding, look for + or – signs. The point is to attach positive to positive and negative to negative).
  • Some people say you should attach the black battery terminal in the jumpstarter’s car to an unpainted metal surface under the jumpstart-ee’s hood, rather than the black terminal of the dead battery. Others say this doesn’t matter.
  • Start the jumpstarter’s car, and let the dead battery charge for a few minutes.
  • Finally, detach the cables, start your car, and drive around for a while (20 – 30 minutes) so that your engine can recharge your battery.

Let me now admit something: I had no idea about any of this. I think that’s a little strange. I’m a well-educated guy, old enough to be renting an apartment, paying taxes, moving around the country, etc. Jumpstarting a car literally took about ten seconds to learn, and turned out to be pretty important knowledge, not just because we needed to get the car started (though that’s very important), but also because of what it implies about understanding how cars and electricity work, at least on a rudimentary level.

It seems like this is worthwhile knowledge to have. And in fact, if you search for “how to jumpstart a car”, the first hit is a set of instructions laden with fairly strong judgments. “Every man should know how to jump start a dead car battery”, the site says. I’m not sure if I agree with “should” – is it really a moral imperative to have this knowledge? What about the many, many people in the world who don’t own cars? And why shouldn’t women also know how to do this, as my wife now does?

So, perhaps I don’t think everyone should know this. But it seems pretty worthwhile, and I wonder why it didn’t come up in eighteen years of formal schooling. Practically, it probably will come in handy again at least once in my life. And I think more broadly, it is important for people to understand what’s under the hood, or at least to cultivate an attitude of such understanding. Cars yes, and what about computers? Many people have very little understanding of, or curiosity about, how they work, and what to do when something goes wrong. A lot of the things we depend on every single day may as well run on magic.

I also think it’s interesting that jumpstarting a car is even possible. Cars are fairly advanced machines nowadays. And yet here is a sort of hack that’s survived even today in this venerable technology. But it’s only available to those of us who are willing to be hackers.

Should we revive home economics, shop, or other building / making classes in high school? Or perhaps this knowledge really is outdated for most people – those who want to know can teach themselves, and others may never need it?

Designing your own business cards with Inkscape

Business card back and fronts - in many colors!

I wanted to write a quick post about creating my own business cards, which I did a few weeks ago.

I wasn’t very satisifed with the existing options out there. Even a hip business card seller like moo has a fairly limited selection of standard, rather drab-looking business cards. Plus, I think that most business cards give only an extremely limited understanding of who the card-holder is. They include your title, company, name and contact info. But isn’t who you are much more than your job? (Maybe what I’m thinking of is more of a “personal card” than a “business card”.)

So, I decided to put together my own business card design from scratch. I knew there were a few elements I wanted to include:

  • A picture of me
  • A brief summary of my skills and where I’ve worked
  • A plug for my blog and other social media presence
  • Pretty design

After messing around with Powerpoint for a few minutes, I decided that it would be better to use Inkscape if I wanted something attractive. Inkscape is to Adobe Illustrator what The Gimp is to Photoshop. It’s tremendously capable, and also free, though it can be a bit frustrating to use occasionally. I suspect I’d have similar problems with Adobe products.

I thought I may as well use Moo Cards for printing, since (a) they have a fun and easy-to-use site, unlike e.g. VistaPrint which constantly tries to trick you into buying add-on products(!), and (b) they have a great feature whereby you can have several different “backs” on your double-sided cards as part of the price. I imported Moo Cards’ template into Inkscape and started designing from there.

I won’t get deeply into how to use Inkscape, and anyway I stuck mostly to the basics. The one thing I did spend a little time on was kerning. Kerning (accomplished in Inkscape with Alt+<) allows you to manually adjust the spacing between characters, which was critical for my design since its main feature is my name in giant letters.

So that I could have many different “flavors” of business card, I made the front of my business card (with my name on it) the back, and made six differently-colored versions. The back of my business card, which Moo thinks is the front, stays the same in each design, and has information about me.

Interested in doing this yourself? Here’s Moo’s page with the templates, and here are my Inkscape files (in .svg format), front, back, in case you want to modify them.

You’ll need to download them and open them in Inkscape to see them properly and be able to change them. I used the .jpg template from Moo and exported the resulting Inkscape files as very high quality .pngs, which worked well; if you know what you’re doing you might want to try using a vector format instead.