IDEO London Make-a-thon

IDEO London Make-a-thon

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the first IDEO London Make-a-thon. Hosted by design consultancy and innovation experts IDEO, we tackled a variety of briefs, including several for Amnesty International and OpenIDEO, the open innovation platform to solve social challenges.

I’d been reading with interest about various hackathons around London, particularly Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout, but had never attended one. This being IDEO, I knew it wouldn’t be a typical hackathon, and I was excited about the opportunity to work with what were sure to be a variety of talented, forward-thinking people. (Full disclosure: My husband worked for IDEO, so I may be biased!)

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Almost 50 attendees gathered in IDEO’s London office, just down Clerkenwell Road, and listened as design lead, co-founder of OpenIDEO and self-described “robot school dropout” Haiyan Zhang (Twitter @haiyan) and London location lead Steve O’Connor warmly welcomed us. Led by various IDEO people and representatives from Amnesty International, eight teams of about six people each formed, working on briefs addressing community-building, cycle safety, and unlawful detention.

There was an interesting mix of hackers who worked with code, wood or electronics; designers of various stripes; a sprinkling of marketing people; a couple of students; even an in-house journalist who’d flown out from IDEO headquarters in California to cover the event. Everyone was smart, enthusiastic and, across the board, nice!

Still I was a bit intimidated at first, not quite knowing how to describe my many-hatted activities. I think I said: I help creative people get things done. I’m good at observing, researching and connecting. I work with creatives and designer-makers. Basically, word salad with a hearty helping of “creative” thrown in like croutons.

They did offer us a nifty selection of badges to help us describe our skills:
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Really, I like to jump straight to “Let’s come up with some ideas! Let’s figure out how I can help.” I do enjoy hearing other people introduce themselves though, from titles dry to exotic (Dynamic Identity Orchestrator, anyone?) to my teammate Brendan’s example, which was simply, “I make various things.”

Brendan turned out to be Brendan Dawes, maker extraordinaire and head of Beep Industries. Here he is during his presentation, talking about his various projects, including making a phone charger out of an Altoids tin and 3D-printing an egg cup with a MakerBot.


I joined one of the community-building teams, with the brief to rethink the village fête for the 21st century. Both because Creative Clerkenwell is inspired by community, and for the challenge of understanding the village fête, being non-British and never having attended one. Our team sketched, we brainstormed, we walked around Leather Lane, stopping for coffee at Prufrock, and we brainstormed some more.

Questions explored included: What is the fête mindset? What makes people excited about their community?

Who are the members of a community?

What are the overlooked resources?
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What are the hidden stories?

What are the static features of the landscape that people in the community may interact with?



What is the minimum definition of community?

Ideas, post-its, paper and Sharpies were everywhere.

Around us, the other teams were doing the same, with working sessions interspersed with talks on related topics. Highlights for me:

Pontus Wahlgren, Design Director at IDEO, who gave an overview of fast prototyping with basic materials, like using foam core* for iPhone cut-outs and role-playing to illustrate user experiences. The purpose is to be able to quickly test ideas, without making the prototypes themselves overly precious.

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*IDEO appears to run on foam core and post-its
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Design director, angel investor and founder of OpenIDEO Tom Hulme (Twitter @THulme) talked about the art of the pitch, which revolves a lot around successful storytelling. At one point, he brought up the “X for Y” convention that people sometimes fall back on. Examples: Facebook for Dogs, Pinterest for the Blind, etc. (Seriously though, I think there really needs to be a LinkedIn for Tenants, because the process for finding a flat in London is ridiculous.)
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Lydia Howland (Twitter @lydiahowland), IDEO Human Factors Designer, gave fascinating examples of the not-always-obvious ways people reveal their beliefs, behaviours and preferences. Such an interesting challenge, sorting out user needs and experiences when people don’t necessarily tell you what they do, don’t always know what they do, and don’t actually do what they say they do! I’d love to find out more about this.

Throughout they kept us well-fed, with gorgeous spreads of cakes, sandwich fixings, and snacks.

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Two days produced a tremendous amount of work and very impressive outcomes, including working apps for the iPhone and iPad, mock-ups for bicycle safety products, 3D printed accessories for Boris bikes and more.


Our team was juggling ideas for our ShareFayre (the village fête rebranded) up til the end, but our oooh! factor was a concrete block with a USB drive and headphone jack embedded, inspired by Dead Drops, with the idea that stories collected from the community could be listened to by anyone with a couple of minutes and a set of earphones.
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Yes, turns out you can prototype with concrete. I thought it was a poetic choice of material, since one of the main aspects of a village fête for me was making community visible and tangible, or in other words, concrete.

Designed to be installed at bus stops and the like, its decidedly non-portable nature emphasized the role of physical place in a community, in contrast to an evermore fast-moving and ephemeral world. The anti-cloud cast in concrete. (Huh, it would be fun to make it cloud-shaped, though the margarine tub mould worked incredibly well.)

You can see recaps of all the projects on the make-a-thon forum. Photos in this post are from IDEO’s massive Flickr set and my Flickr set for the event.

The IDEO team did an amazing job of organising the event and making everyone feel welcome.
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By 10pm Saturday, after the presentations, we were on creative highs as we headed to the pub for a celebratory drink. No doubt we all spent Sunday recuperating.

I really enjoyed the intense period of time working with smart, nice people who aren’t afraid to think big. I hope to carry through some of the community-building ideas into activities for Clerkenwell Design Week. But I fear I may be spoilt for other hackathons forever!