Monthly Archives: June 2013

Crafting Useful Things Part 2

Corrugated Cardboard hearts

Punching holes

Materials Based Designing Continued.

“ 2. I will often sketch ideas and, usually with recycled things, I’ll cut up a couple for experiments.”

Having worked out the most useful and relevant properties of my chosen material, and also defined those that might be deleterious, I like to sketch and jot down ideas for using it. That is how I came up with my water bottle cuffs.

Step 2 is essentially Play!

Play might be defined as undirected, enjoyable, experimental. It’s putting the various characteristics of the material that I listed to practical testing. I want to see what the material will do. Using the plastic as an example:

  • if it bends, how far?
  • if it reacts to heat, how much?
  • if it seems soft enough to cut, with what tool? And can it be pierced or punched?

I tend to cut stuff up, especially to see how the edges look. Some of the things I cut were small flowers with a pin hole in the center, to use as custom brads, giant sequins or embellishments.

I want to have fun. I might easily make nothing useful at first.

Defining “Useful”.

When I work on craft projects, especially upcycled stuff, I try to make it useful:

  • Practical, pragmatic – Cute is fun, but not enough – the object must serve a purpose that is ultimately to make life simpler, more efficient or more comfortable.
  • Fulfilling a need – including the need for aesthetic appreciation.

My goal is “efficiency with elegance”.

Therefore qualities to avoid include fussy. Good design means functionality that limits fuss.

I mentioned recycled plastic bottle cuffs- and they are cute BUT some are challenging to wear because they get hot, and fasten awkwardly. However the one I made with the button and loop, and soft crocheted edging is much more comfortable and easy to wear.

Recycled Water bottle cuffs dyed and embellished

Upcycled Cuffs

Design Report from Dwell On Design Expo.

I had an interesting time at the Dwell Expo, a trade show about Modernist design focusing on architecture and interiors – all very practical “real world” applications of good design. I saw a ton of design that was both useful and elegant. I saw materials based upcycling – “how can I use this material to make beautiful, useful things?”, resulting in furniture, wall coverings and lighting fixtures.

I also saw a lot of “Solution Based Design”. The designers were defining the problem, choosing an aesthetic (in this case mostly Modernism), and then finding the material to make the solution work.

One company talked about using materials as an aesthetic guide. They are creating new luxury gift products for JCPenney. They focused on the colors and textures of natural materials – wood, stone, metals – as emblematic of luxe.

I was fascinated by the prototyping process, because it reminded me so strongly of scientific method. The designers had initial sketches, then proposed a hypothesis – “will this design work?” They then experimented with more drawings, working models, 3D printed prototypes for shapes to test the functionality and ergonomics, and finally a conclusion – a working, useful product.

I’ll be writing up some articles, especially about sustainable construction and green architecture, for Natural Life Magazine.

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Crafting Useful Things – Part One

Materials Based Crafting

Practical crafting is a combination of flourishing creative thinking and design, and skilled manufacturing or making. A few years ago I wrote about my process for designing craft projects for my then column in Natural Life MagazineOver the next couple of weeks I’m going to break down my project and object design process as weekly themes, and hopefully illuminate my philosophy for making those intentional design choices in the cause of making useful things.

Buttons and paper Wall Decor

By way of an overview, here’s the relevant part of the article, which was in part about my challenges in upcycling plastic bottles and packaging items.

“I do not want to design a goofy crafting project just for the sake of “cleverly” using the recycled material in some contrived way. The end product must be genuinely artful or pretty or useful – and sensible. I’m pragmatic too. Costly tools or extra materials for making it from a recycled source can doom a design idea. The project design should take advantage of the qualities of the source material as a good way to achieve the final result, rather than displaying an uncomfortable union of wishful thinking and imposed manipulation.

But most of all, especially in light of what I have learned about the recycling industry, I don’t want my crafting project to be a less green use for the plastic item than placing it intact into the collection bin. So multiple use is important.

Here is an insight into my intentional design process:

    1. I examine the material and list the qualities.                                                                                                For plastics: Generally unbreakable. Somewhat flexible, yet largely rigid – the shape is inherent to the object. Often soft enough to cut with ordinary scissors or X-Acto blades – but still retains shape. Impermeable – at room temperature – to water but may be susceptible to some solvents or dyes. Often transparent or translucent. Reactive to heat in a variety of ways and temperatures (caution required). Slick or shiny surfaces – may or may not accept paint, markers. Usually very lightweight for the size. Sometimes can be folded and retain fold. Lasts and lasts.
    2. I will often sketch ideas and, usually with recycled things, I’ll cut up a couple for experiments.
    3. I make a prototype or examples.
    4. If necessary, I test the instructions, patterns, and fun quotient by inviting friends – child or adult – to try out the project with my supplies. If need be, I make changes based on the success of the lab.”

Step 1 is unique to what I call “Materials Based crafting”. It can be great fun and a great creativity jump starter. It’s the imaginative equivalent of wandering around the arts and crafts store and asking yourself “What can I make with that?” For anyone interested in upcycling and creative reuse, it’s an essential step.

Understanding the physical qualities of the material, whether it is new or upcycled, whether it is man-made or natural, is important if you want to make something useful, lasting and beautiful, out of the material.

A similar mental process is taking inspiration from fabrics for your fashion design, rather than going in looking for a specific color or cloth.

Button Headband

People who enjoy this are often great at extemporizing with assemblage and collage. They see the potential in a stack of stuff. They are also great at using familiar materials or objects in different ways. One example is taking buttons and twisting wire to make them into brads for scrapbook layouts (my favorite). I love these found object art dolls (robots) by ckudja on Etsy.

On the other hand people who are meticulous planners, engineers at heart, also can appreciate the process of examining and categorizing material.

Some crafting materials to consider: plastic bottles (as I did), corrugated cardboard, junk mail, padded mailing envelopes, old fencing or pallets, polymer clay, air dry clay, regular clay, sticks, pebbles, concrete blocks, metal pipe fixtures, felt sheets, sandpaper, acrylic scraps, wire, rusty nails, melamine plates, ceramic pots, balsa wood, leather, raffia, canvas, chiffon, old pencils, empty jars.

It’s not a finished list by any means.

Now an idea that seems to be the opposite: Wabi-Sabi

There’s a Japanese aesthetic principle called Wabi-Sabi. The Wikipedia entry has a nice summary, including:

“beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”….materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time .”

It has a lot in common spiritually with Shabby Chic and Prim aesthetics, which also embrace wear, age, distressed surfaces and rough edges. But it differs from them to embody spacious simplicity with one tiny, asymmetrical flaw, and man made structures with a random seeming intrusion from the natural world.

A big part of creating Wabi-Sabi art pieces is embracing randomness (which will be an upcoming theme on its own) and improvising with imperfect or found materials.

Worn Calligraphy

Worn with age

But Wabi-Sabi is still founded on understanding and appreciating the qualities inherent in the materials along with the outward visual appearance.

Examining the material is like actors improvising a scene to play and warm up before working on the script. Next week I’ll be talking about the more structured next steps, including how the approach to materials is different when the focus in on an intended/desired outcome.

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I need a better name for this process

This week I’m expanding on a piece from a past Creativity Blast newsletter from last year. I add a short article to every bi-monthly newsletter that you won’t see anywhere else, at least for a while. So it’s really worth subscribing!

“Mind storming”* is what I call my combination of mind mapping and brain storming.

It’s a non-linear, visual way of generating ideas, forging connections, and even defining obstacles.

*[It’s also not a fantastic name, especially since there is a cool hi-tech company out there with the same name but as one word. If you have a better idea for the name of this process, please let me know in comments! Idea scrambling? Doodle design? Scribble thinking?]

Traditional brain storming has somewhat fallen out of favor. Studies show that avoiding all judgment of the suggested ideas and writing them all down for consideration as if they were equally useful, can end up wasting a lot of time in business situations. Apparently, keeping a certain amount of self-editing is better in group situations. However in a creativity practice, there is no knowing what one silly idea might spark. Seems to me that brain storming is how groups make lists.

Mind or idea mapping often starts with a central word or concept, with spokes travelling outward. The spokes can then branch to create the feeling of a web. It’s primarily used for business group situations, where it is important that everyone understand the process and results. But it can be used for personal issues also. Here’s a nice presentation intro to the concept.

For me mind storming is more fluid that this. Usually I am working on a problem individually. But the visual appearance is very similar. I guess I would say I get a bit messier.

Start with a sheet of paper and list projects, needs, or goals with lots of space around them. Keep a couple of different colors of pen, or  a highlighter, handy. Draw lines to “thought bubbles”, write down as many words or phrases that the original idea inspires as possible, use circles and squiggles to focus on the next key idea. Write along the lines if you want.

Use sweeping arrows, in color if you want, to draw attention to connections between ideas that are part of different projects. I also like to star notions that strike me as important.

Highlight the first step you will now take towards completing your project.

What Next?

The mind storm is only the first step. It is crucial to then turn your insights into step-by-step actions, written down more formally, (which is where what I am doing here diverges from mind mapping). On line I use Work Flowy. It can be layered – with broad goals divided into intermediate steps, and then those divided in turn. Plus you can click and add notes, as well as dates for taking action.

However you can also handwrite or type a to do list. (Remember lists!) Are you going to allot times, or add due dates to your to do list for added motivation?

Additional Idea: storm around a sketch

I have some very early stage plans for large scale figurative sculptures. They will be cloth over armatures and painted and embroidered. I started with sketches in pencil, and added words, starred points, scribbles and notes. These early sketches are certainly not “finished”, and leave plenty of room for adaptation. I will make more detailed colored sketches, as well as source inspiration and collect ephemera, before embarking on the actual sculptures. But in the meantime I can feel free to scribble, mark up, and attach all over the existing “first draft” idea.

Sculpture Sketch - Robyn Coburn

The Beginnings of a idea with added scribbles. This is unfinished. There will be a lot more added to this sketch before I move on to a more definitive visual plan for this sculpture.

Here’s a Recent Example

I was sitting in a Chili’s with my husband eating lunch, and I started to admire the simple, graphic art work around the restaurant. I noticed that it fitted both the decor (visually) and the Southwestern lifestyle theme of the place. Another restaurant chain that is notable for its specific art in the decor is California Pizza Kitchen. My local one has recently changed the art.

CPK Pizza Box Art

CPK Decorative Art – This is the older style – made from the pizza boxes

It occurred to me that someone must design and create the artwork that is featured in public businesses like chain restaurants. It’s a niche to be sure, and likely a totally different process than the creation of gallery style artworks as hung in small local coffee shops. What if I wanted to design art work for restaurants?

Mind storm for art idea

Which I then turned into this list:

Market Research:

  • A. Define market – Types of restaurants (Journals) – Numbers
  • B. Look for new chains – start ups — ground floor idea – Match aesthetics (architecture and design)
  • C. Look at restaurants to get a feel for it.

Product Development

  1. Research Psychology of hunger & food – especially color
  2. Look at Pantone color trend forecast
  3. Choose aesthetic themes & color ways
  4. Create Prototype in different styles for portfolio
  5. Develop portfolio of art works
  6. Create and online gallery with the right outlet
  7. Secure representation with an agent or corporate art dealer [*Research; One sheet; Letters or emails]
  8. Market self to interior design firms & architects

Other Marketing

  • A. Articles for magazines – research
  • B. Guest Blog
  • C. Media outlets?

Notes: Use Research to create articles and pitches – Go Online for magazine lists ~~

    • Gourmet
    • architecture
    • commercial interior design
    • psychology
    • art & design
    • food business journals

Upsell artwork  – for cards, souvenirs, merchandise

Notice how little of this list is actual art making (sigh) – which would probably be the most time consuming part. I would keep the “storm page” along with the list, because the highlighted parts are aspects of the project that struck me as core, but those may change with time.

I could make a mind storm for each part of the process also. And it can be tempting to keep on storming forever – at some point you have to actually start acting on the steps you have defined.

I haven’t put times or deadlines on this yet. It will have to be a back burner project for the time being. But when the time is right, at least my plan will be ready!

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Elements of Design – Line

This blog aspires to help people rediscover and reconnect with their own creativity, as well as to express their renewed creativity. This week’s theme is part of that second goal.

This is the first Creativity Blast theme based on the Elements of Design. To share some of what I’ve learned about design over the years, I plan on discussing each Element in different weekly themes, although not necessarily consecutive weeks. Later I’ll move on to the Principles of Design, which are how the Elements are applied to create intentional results.

The Elements of Design – the building blocks of intentional creation – are:

Volume or Size
Color or Hue
Tone or Value

There is no particular order of importance to the Elements of Design list. They are all present in visual design work, and all have commensurate equivalents in other areas of design such as writing and music. The Elements interact to define or change the values of the others; an obvious example Shape may be defined by Line, or Line may be implied by the meeting of two or more colors. Sometimes the Elements seem naturally to pair together such as Line and Direction, Shape and Size – but the truth is that they all interact.

This week I want to think about Line, and how to use this element in exercises to inspire creativity.

Since sketching and drawing begin with Line, one could consider it as the foundation of most art and design practices. Children first offered crayons generally begin with a joyous exploration of their ability to make linear marks.

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Lines define shapes. Making lines includes a beginning and an end, even when you are drawing a circle or oval and the line returns to its own starting point. Engineering or architectural plans are lines.

Lines create texture or adjust tonal values, and indicate direction.

Lines supply an underlying structure. 3D computer animations start with a wire frame, that is remarkably similar to the early perspective exercises from the Renaissance. Geometry is a function of lines, meeting in mathematically predictable ways.

Lines can be used to join ideas or images, as well as to divide or segment. Lines are edges, borders, delineations – the very word. In topographic maps lines indicate terrain by showing elevations. The closer the contour lines, the steeper the hillside in that landscape. Bathymetric charts do something similar for ocean water.

Hand writing, from jotting down a note to the most beautiful calligraphy, is all about lines.  

Lines can be used to direct the eye, and impart emphasis – a big part of design. Examine the sets of movies, and notice the prevalence of Line as a visual motif. In “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) the yellow brick road is the most important Line. Cel animation, of course, is all about drawn lines, but if you get a chance to watch Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) notice the linear quality of the backgrounds, especially the trees and landscape. The movie “Wolf” (1994) contains subtle references to cages throughout the production design, much of it created by Line.

Jack Nicholson in

This still from “Wolf’ illustrates a great trick – notice the line of the branch bringing us straight to Jack’s eyes. That’s why they chose this frame!

In Doctor Who Series 5, the designers employ an eccentric line as the crack in Amy’s wall, that reappears in many locations as a crack in the fabric of time. The simple visual motif is a recognizable signpost for the viewer of the underlying through-line story.

Look for Line in art. Painters that emphasize Line include Kandinksy, Chagall, Klee and Mondrian. Look at Picasso’s “Guernica”. Much traditional art incorporates universal motifs created with line such as chevrons, waves, stripes, concentric circles and zig zags. These are apparent in the textiles, basketry and pottery of cultures as diverse as Native Americans, traditional Eastern Europe, and many parts of Africa.


Composition VIII (1923) ~ Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on Canvas

Consider embroidery, Line created with thread. Look at “The Bayeux Tapestry”. Consider knitting and crochet – a single line creating a myriad of shapes.

“Singin’ In The Rain” is a linear song to me. The main tune goes up and down in waves. So does “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.

Twinkle Sheet Music

Look at all those lines!

Once you start looking for Line, including the invisible line of underlying structure, you will not be able to stop noticing it.

Line as Metaphor

There are many phrases to do with Line with symbolic meanings. The ideas of “toe the line”, “lining up” something (like appointments) or “getting your ducks in a row” – all suggest the Line as a metaphor for clarity. “Underlining” can be literal, or metaphorical but in both cases means to create emphasis. The idea of “crossing the line”, doing something unacceptable also speaks to limits and edges.

People speak of their ancestors as being their line. “Down the line” means in the future. A product line is a collection of related items, often connected by a single aesthetic.


A linear plot is one that is straightforward, with a clear trajectory. The positive side of a linear plot is momentum and excitement. There are few twists or tricks, and subplots would serve the main story. Linear is the opposite of convoluted, but also the opposite of episodic, where the narrative jumps in series of seemingly disconnected episodes.

One tool I like to use in my writing is a time line – plotting out the events of my story (usually a screenplay) over time, including the backstory. If I get stuck, my favorite trick is to write the series of events diary-style by different characters. This also gives me the opportunity to define the character’s history, gives me a clue into their motivations, and helps me define their voice.

Finding Line, using Line

One of the most classic line drawing exercises is to draw something – an object, landscape, building or portrait – with a single line; that is never lifting you pencil or pen from the paper. Of course you can overlap and change direction as much as needed.

Another trick for drawing is to use a Durer Grid. Grids can be used to change the scale of a depiction, or in life drawing. See the Greenaway film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”(1982) for a Durer Grid in use, (and incidentally marvel at the triumph of gorgeous design over limited budget.)

Here are some more ideas for raising your awareness of Line:

  • Use road maps or topographic maps as your background for other art, drawing, collages, or scrapbooking.

Vintage Maps

Downloadable maps

  • Look for Line in nature – consider trees, wood grain and leaves, rock strata, flood plains, abalone, DNA, the circulatory system, marble. Notice similarities – leaf veins that look like river deltas, abalone that looks like a map.

  • Visit a maze – lines run amok!

  • Try Zentangles, doodling elevated to the sublime.

So there you have it – a brief introduction to Line.

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