The Art of Being a Maker

An engineer-turned-creative technologist talks about the practices of problem-solving and creative thinking

Karen McClellan
Jul 23, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo: yasharu/Getty Images

In this world that is so focused on impact, it’s hard not to put all our focus as creatives on that end product and its ROI. But what we make is only an outcome. How we make a thing is more important in many ways — it shows how gritty we are when it comes to solving problems, how willing we are to ask questions and invalidate our own assumptions, how likely it is that the thing we made will actually solve a problem.

Through my graduate coursework at CMCI Studio, I’ve spent two semesters in a Critical Making Studio, exploring this process of making without having to worry about ROI, whether it was a 3D-printed wearable or an installation driven by creative coding.

My biggest lesson through these messy projects has been on the topic of the creative process. This insight came through the work itself, but also through conversations with studio director RJ Duran, an engineer who switched tracks to spend his time as a tinkerer, creative technologist, and teacher.

I sat down with RJ to ask about his approach to creative work and exploration. Here are some highlights, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Poster that says, “I know it sucks. I’m working on it.”
Poster that says, “I know it sucks. I’m working on it.”
Poster by author / Photo by RJ Duran via Instagram

On staying curious

Karen McClellan: Let’s start way back. How did you learn how to learn?

RJ Duran: Growing up, I was always allowed to mess with stuff. Whether it was building something on a construction site or taking apart a cassette player and putting it back together. I wanted to understand how everything connected, and I feel like I’ve just kept building on that.

If you look at kids, they’re creative geniuses for a while, because they haven’t started separating things out into buckets and isolating knowledge. It’s only when you get older that you specialize. And I’ve actively worked against getting too specialized.

It seems like children aren’t afraid for new information to topple something else they believe, either.

Yeah, I try to hang on to that curiosity from childhood — there are always more questions, and I keep a list of the questions that pop up for me, what I’m curious about. That practice helps me stay open to seeing the holes in my logic or learning new ways of thinking.

On interdisciplinary exploration

You brought up this idea of “anti-specialization.” How do you think about connectivity across disciplines?

I started to realize that there are just different lenses for seeing the world. Whether you’re trying to understand a concept, or sculpture, or building, you could look at it through so many different lenses.

For example, think about light. It’s coming from the sun, and we can understand it scientifically. We can understand wavelength and see how that translates to color. Our eyes see color through a biological process, which is also chemical and electrical and connects the input to our brain, which registers color. That’s one way to look at light. Or we could look at light like a photographer, who doesn’t care about the science maybe, but wants to see how light and dark contrast, and how color works to make you feel things or convey an idea.

So trying on as many different lenses, or perspectives, as you can helps you see how these different so-called disciplines are connected. A lot of times, they’re looking at the same things, just with different questions.

And trying on different lenses can also be a way of getting unstuck?

Yeah, say you’re looking at some problem like an engineer, but you can’t find a way in. You could try looking at it like an artist, just throw stuff up on the wall to see what works in that moment, and then you can get more refined and more technical, working your way back to that engineering mindset.

Think about Leonardo da Vinci. He’d look at a bird and wonder how it flew, so he’d sketch it and learn about it with that tool kit of the artist. But then he’d take that knowledge and apply it using another tool kit, with another perspective on the question of flight, and that’s how we ended up with flying machines.

You can bounce between perspectives, and use that interplay between art and science in your creative practice. That’s why I think the metacognition piece of your creative process is so important — think about how you think and how you create. Do this on purpose.

On developing a creative practice

Okay, so talk about how you think and how you create.

I see creativity as a practice of solving problems. That’s where we apply it: Creative practices result in answers to questions. And I’m in that headspace 80–90% of the time. Even if it’s not my problem to work on in life, I’m automatically curious, thinking through problems and solutions.

That’s how I approach learning new things too — when I take in new information, I’m not always sure what it’ll connect to or where it’ll lead, but I stay curious about it and try to notice patterns. Somewhere down the line, it’ll come up again.

I have to write things down; I can’t keep things only in my head. I make maps to try and organize how ideas fit together. Where does this piece of information reside compared to this other topic? Some things stay fuzzy though, and that’s part of it.

Map of knowledge from Margarita Philosophica. Photo via WikiCommons

How has your perspective changed as you’ve mapped more and more ideas and domains?

Growing up, I was never interested in history, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m more interested in looking to the past and seeing what people have thought over time.

I make time to read about the past, but I also read about what people are doing now, and read what people are writing about the future. This helps me think about problems in a more nuanced way. It gives context.

You can’t just look forward, but you also can’t live in the past. It’s like in yoga, in a pose where you’re both stretching forward but anchoring back toward the ground at the same time. If you apply that analogy to knowledge, you realize that having a grounded understanding of the past balances you and allows you to lean forward, reaching toward the questions.

On overcoming the scaries

I’m still thinking about how we approach the creative process. Sometimes it’s scary — what do you do when you hit a wall?

Yeah, it can be big and scary. Sometime there are mental barriers, like it doesn’t feel like you have the headspace or the time to do something. Sometimes it’s simple and identifying the problem is your answer.

But there’s another part to it. The habit of how we talk to ourselves can really influence the outcome. It’s easy to be afraid of judgment — someone who sees this isn’t going to like it, or they’re going to see I’m a fraud, or I don’t know what I’m doing. This self-talk, it’s the opposite of hyping yourself up. It’s hyping yourself down.

When I hit a wall, I just think, “Let’s figure this out.” And I push a little more. It’s a practice of making things, seeing how far you can get in just a small amount of time, adding that progress up, shooting holes in ideas and iterating on it. If you can just put your stuff out there in the world to get constructive feedback and stay focused on the process of making it better, that’s huge. You can’t just google for that perspective.

Physical computing components. Photo: RJ Duran via Instagram

How do you apply that mindset to new skills and tools you’re learning?

All you can do is your best work all the time. When you’re learning something new, you can’t expect to be amazing. But if you approach it from a place of curiosity and exploration, you’re less likely to feel paralyzed and get stuck.

Just start with what you do know, and go a little deeper in those areas. Once you learn more, you’ll start seeing how pieces connect to other things you already know or problems you’re curious about. Just don’t get stuck on the technical piece.

When you do get stuck, you have to be able to identify that and have a plan to find your way out of it. What are the resources for figuring this out? A book? The internet? A YouTube video? Someone else who knows more than you?

You’re always going to wish you had more time, more money, more knowledge. But you have to start with what you have right now, and keep asking, “What else is there?”

Many, many thanks to RJ Duran for being a mentor and teacher this year. 🤖


Helping designers thrive.

Karen McClellan

Written by

Product Designer, Reader, Writer



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Karen McClellan

Written by

Product Designer, Reader, Writer



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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