6. a small group for a small group

Frank Lloyd Wright and members of the Taliesin Fellowship at Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin,1937

This chapter covers people and designers who are generally considered to be “mainstream” (let’s say “closer” to what we expect to be a “traditional” designer.

Or, said in a different way, we entering modes and systems easy to grasp and understand.

In this family we have the people building a house for themselves in the Brazilian favela, rather than the people who build their own house using the self-build system typical of contemporary “rich world” (upon our grid, once you decide to build your house yourself, it doesn’t make a big difference if you are rich or if you are poor).

Image from the “Self-building UK” website

This attitude (I do build what I need on my own), it doesn exists both in the analog (architecture, product deesign, etc), as well as in the digital world.

This is the typical way of doing of hackers (a word that, in its original sense, doesn’t define a criminal but rather a passionate and competent computer geek), who generally works upont the “scratching your own itch” principle. Out of the metaphor, to build-up a solution – perhaps temporary and not perfect – to fix a problem.

Of course, if we go this way, we will soon face a big issue: there are several problems (especially if you are developing software in the digital world) exceeding the skills and possibility of the individual.  You can be an excellent programmer, yet it is almost impossible to accomplish anything on your own.

In a different way: there are problems too big and too difficult for one person

The solution to this problem has to come out from social attitude. How do you put together a team that wants to work on the same project (generally without any kind of pay)?

The answer is easy: you need to create a community, and make sure that within the community ther are all the needed human resources.

Usually, the community has at its center the person who started the project (which tends, over time, to be converted by software developer manager, administrator and/or ambassador).

A successful community generally starts with an interesting problem (which can be addressed in terms of a good solution). Then you start to work on temporary solutions, improving them along the process. Generally the good communities are the ones where there is space for different abilities and interests.

This is the model which was used to develop the project “Arduino“: a small group of people, led by a hacker with an excellent perception of the problems faced by the ones who wanted to experiment and play with small computer, interactions and design.

Massimo Banzi, David Cuartielles, Tom Igoe, Gianluca Martino, David Mellis, “Arduino”, 2004 / ongoing

Here is the description from the homepage:

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.

Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators. The microcontroller on the board is programmed using the Arduino programming language (based on Wiring) and the Arduino development environment (based on Processing). Arduino projects can be stand-alone or they can communicate with software on running on a computer (e.g. Flash, Processing, MaxMSP).

The boards can be built by hand or purchased preassembled; the software can be downloaded for free. The hardware reference designs (CAD files) are available under an open-source license, you are free to adapt them to your needs.

The project was started at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, where a small group of people has gathered around Massimo Banzi, and began to develop and prototype a series of design solutions that gradually begun to refine and grow in size and visibility.

Even more interesting is the fact that the Arduino project is completely open: anyone can download all documentation and materials necessary to manufacture, at a very low cost your own Arduino clone, even perfectly identical.

How do you manage to survive (financially) this? If Arduino is the product, Arduino-people live out selling a number of various services: design, service and training.

Then of course, there are several commercial developments related to Arduino: the LilyPad Arduino (used for wearables), the powerful Sanguino and the recently announced (2010) Japanino (a Japanese clone). Do the original developers get royalties from these projects? Not at all.

But this is not the business model we’re talking about. The ability to understand the design oriented-minds (developed with Arduino) is the true strategic intellectual property, and if the Arduino team is constantly moving and upgrading its products and sevices, it becomes an impossible target for those who want to copy.

Details can be read in Wired: C. Thompson, “Build lt lt Profit Share. Can Open Source Hardware Work?” Wired Magazine: 16.11, 2008, as well as on The Wall Street Journal: J. Lahart, “Taking an Open- Source Approach to Hardware“, November 27, 2009.

Another relevant similar example is Processing (a project started by Casey Reas and Ben Fry).


Again, let’s start from the introduction in their website:

Processing is an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions. It is used by students, artists, designers, researchers, and hobbyists for learning, prototyping, and production. It is created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context and to serve as a software sketchbook and professional production tool.

Processing is free to download and available for GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. To contribute to the project’s development, please visit http://dev.processing.org/, which includes bug tracking and instructions for building the code, downloading the source, and creating libraries and tools.

Processing is an open project initiated by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. It evolved from ideas explored in the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab.

But there is no need to insist on things like Arduino or Processing, simply because their success has been quite significative, allowing them to move from the “small group for a small group” system (when they started) to the “small group for a big group” system (today).

Arduino is a succesful example of a small group of people achieving an incredible success on their chosen activity. The original assumptions are correct, the questions are relevant and the system finally takes off in a beautiful way. Of course,  we have to remind the reader that for every success there are an endless amount of examples where the same mechanism does not reach the desired results.

Two significative examples of “small group” not achieving success are the utopian communities founded by Paolo Soleri in the Arizona desert (Arcosanti) or Rirkrit Tiravanija‘s “The Land” project (in northern Thailand).

Images of Arcosanti, Arizona

Rirkrit Tiravanija, “The Land”, 1998 – ongoing

If you decide to work within this “small group for the small group” mode, the starting question (the reason upon which you start to work), is not necessarily the most important element of the whole equation. Infact, we could point to the over-abused aphorism:”The Journey is the Destination”.

If you are Jacob Ludvigsen setting up the free city of Christiania in Copenaghen, or if you live in a Shaker, Quaker or Amish community in a remote village in Pennsilvanya finally becomes a system where your project becomes your life and viceversa.

Shaker furnitures

You become part of a self-contained universe where the group satisfies all its needs and desires in an autonomous way.

In this extent to live in the monastery in Mount Athos, rather than to experience forty years of anarchy in the free city of Christiania makes the final success forgotten. What is relevant is not to conquer the world, but rather to make your experiment and to live upon its principles.

Glass House in Christiania

Or maybe not?

Mount Athos monastery, Greece

Final note.

When Walter Gropius (the great architect and founder of the Bauhaus) went to Japan for the first time, he famously commented: “The whole nation looks like a basic design course.

Shakers, Quakers and the Amish are similar to the traditional Japanese architecture (and design), in a Protestant version. A large number of designers have always looked with admiration to the relationship between these religions (for Japan it is the Shinto religion) and the world of material culture inhabitated by these same people (built according to precise principles).

Mock-up of the Bauhaus main buildings, Walter Gropius, Dessau, 1926

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):



Walter Gropius

Casey Reas

MIT Media Lab

Shaker Furnitures

Frank Lloyd Wright


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