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Monome / Open Source Tools for Music Makers

Monome creates music tools that are accessible and versatile, enabling new ways to work, play, and connect.

What is Monome?

The Monome​, a minimalist tool​​ and ​musical device,​​ is ​simply a reconfigurable grid of backlit keypads. However, when paired with any number of computer applications, it can expand the limits of traditional music making.

Since the Monome was first introduced 10 years ago, a strong ​community has developed around it, amplifying the instrument’s capabilities through an active forum and open-source collaborations. ​Compelling to both the hobbyist and the expert, it has also been adopted by Grammy Award-winning artists ​including MGMT, Imogen Heap​,​ and Nine Inch Nails. The Monome ​is ​a versatile piece of hardware, ​and is ​increasingly used in a wide variety of environments including ​video, lighting, ​and ​art installations, and even scientific research.

Monome grid

As a company, Monome​’s mission is to create tools that help musicians expand beyond the boundaries of kit instruments​. ​Based in upstate New York​, the small-scale operation works with local suppliers and manufacturers with whom ​Monome has created long-term, trusting relationships. ​The embodiment of beautiful design and quality craftsmanship​, all p​roducts are produced in short runs and according to demand.

The Story of Monome / Meet Brian Crabtree + Kelli Cain

Monome Brian and Kelli

Brian : Just prior to my teenage years, my slightly older uncle showed me a video of himself and friends taking turns trying to sever aluminum cans with a homemade ninja sword. In the background a boombox blasted Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. And suddenly I was initiated. I sought weird electronic sounds.

I grew up with musical instruments and computers. Synthesizers and drum machines were magical objects, yet I found myself repeatedly trying to do different things the instrument designer didn’t consider. Given my interest in an art form closely determined by its tools, I gradually became a toolmaker.

Computers are an ultimately flexible tool for digital music. They can change shape and function immediately. Yet programming computers isn’t always the most musical process, and the keyboard-mouse combination had proven an unmusical gesture. The solution was a disarmingly simple hardware interface: an open-ended, redefinable grid of backlit keypads.

Monome prototype
A Monome prototype from 2002

Eventually I had something working, cobbled together with surplus electronics and sticks and hot glue. It immediately exploded my musical language– now I could prod some sound algorithm (the computer’s brain?) with all ten fingers and great speed. Improvisation became natural, the computer became a playable instrument. I played shows all over LA, internet video was starting to exist, a musician friend took the prototype on a world tour, and suddenly my inbox was full of requests from people wanting their own do-nothing-everything-box.

Kelli Cain and I had been making electromechanical art installations and were getting more proficient in the fabrication lab. We started researching manufacturability for the grid, deciding it should be open source and domestically produced. Within six months we were shipping the first Monome grids worldwide. That was nearly a decade ago.

We’ve refined the design slightly over the years, improving usability and optimizing our hand-building process. But the design has stayed true to the original goal– to empower the user to define their tools, performance, and instrument. We’ve fostered a strong global community where applications can be shared and modified, together exploring this peculiar object.

Monome grid

Behind the Scenes / Making the Monome

We work out of our converted barn workshop. Components that go into each come from various manufacturers in the northeast with whom we’ve established strong relationships: keypads and electronics from Pennsylvania, milled aluminum enclosures from Maryland. Staying small and working with local manufacturers allows us to develop and produce new designs incredibly quickly.

Monome barn
The barn Monome is based out of in upstate NY
Monome studio
Inside the Monome barn
Monome assembly
The Monome 128 prior to assembly
Monome workstation
Soldering diodes and LEDs onto the Monome’s PCB board
Monome keypads
Keypads that are placed over the diodes and LEDs for easy on/off actions
Monome aluminum
The aluminum faceplate that sits on top of the Monome is manufactured a few states away from their HQ in Maryland
Monome workdesk
A workdesk at Monome HQ piled with electronics, assembly bits and schematics

Given the fundamental flexibility and simplicity of the interface, the grid is an exceptional starting place for tool making. Perhaps you want to make a drum machine with a particular quirk. Or play chords according to some formula. We’ve created a series of programming tutorials in various languages to help people make that first step towards tool independence.

Despite being around for a decade, we’re continually surprised and impressed by the music created with these grids, and the new uses people imagine. It’s exactly what we hoped for– an object with the capacity to be reimagined perpetually.

Meet the Makers

[Makers]

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Monome collection
A collection of the various Monome devices that have been manufactured and sold by the Monome team over the years

Story by Michael Ariel, curator behind Those Who Make and maker behind Proudly Say. All photos courtesy of Monome.

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Shinola / Bringing Watchmaking Back to America

Shinola is proving that anything can be made in America, beginning with watches.

Shinola Detroit

The original ‘Shinola’ brand of shoe polish became a household name during World War II—an American-made and quality product that people were proud to purchase. However, it went out of production in the 1960s, and was largely forgotten about for decades. In the fall of 2011, Bedrock Manufacturing Company bought the name, and the brand was reborn. The new Shinola was founded on the belief that products should be made in America, and built to last.

Shinola shoe polish
The original Shinola shoe polish made ‘Shinola’ a household name in the 1940s. The new Detroit-based company also makes shoe polish, as a throwback to their namesake.

Shinola settled on Detroit as its home base, an iconic American city with a rich history of manufacturing. By chance, they stumbled upon a vacancy in the Albert Khan-designed Argonaut Building, where they decided to establish their headquarters and factory. Built by General Motors in 1928, the Argonaut Building is considered by many to be the historic epicenter of Detroit automotive design. Today it is also home to the College for Creative Studies, providing a unique opportunity for collaboration between Shinola and the design school.

Shinola Argonite
The Argonite Building
Shinola argonite
The Argonite Building was once a lab for GM’s brightest engineers, whose research led to significant innovations including the first fully automatic transmission. Image via General Motors.

Inside today’s factory, each Shinola timepiece is made by hand, including full assembly of the Argonite movements that power the watches. Shinola also designs and manufactures bicycles, leather goods, journals, and pet accessories. The company stands for skill at scale, works to preserve American craftsmanship, and celebrates the beauty of industry.

Shinola factory
The Argonite Building now houses Shinola’s headquarters, and watch and leather factories.

Watch Design / Meet Daniel Caudill

As Shinola’s Creative Director, Daniel Caudill is responsible for the clean visual aesthetic that Shinola is known for. Born in Trinidad & Tobago and raised in Montana, Daniel was the Apparel Designer at L.A. Gear, the Global Product Designer at Adidas, and a design consultant for many American brands before joining Shinola.

Shinola Daniel Caudill
Daniel Caudill, Creative Director

He was a driving force behind the decision to set up shop in Detroit, and once said: “There are certain cities or places that undergo truly pivotal moments, moments that history will look back on. I believe this is one of those moments in Detroit—and to be able to experience it firsthand and to participate in it… well, if you’re not excited about that prospect, then maybe you should check your pulse.”

We recently talked to Daniel about the Shinola design process and his inspiration:

What makes Shinola watches most unique?
Shinola is making quality, handmade watches at scale in America, something that hasn’t been done in decades, in a state-of-the-art factory in Detroit.

Shinola Runwell
The Shinola Runwell Chronograph watch

Who is your ideal customer?
Our ideal customers are men and women who appreciate craftsmanship and the investment in a quality product that will last. We make a conscious effort to design all of our watches with a simple, clean and classic design, so it’s something that a person will want to wear and show off for years to come.

How does working so closely to Shinola’s manufacturing influence watch design?
Watches are complex, with upwards of 40-100 components for just the movement and other custom components needed. Once we design a new watch style, we need to source the components first and then our watchmakers can build one-off prototypes and samples for review. With the leather factory so close, we are easily able to innovate the designs of our leather watch straps for existing watch styles with different colors, stitching and more.

Shinola NYC
Shinola’s Tribeca store, inspired by Donald Judd’s personal library in Marfa, TX.

Who is your favorite maker?
To me, one of the most intriguing places in the United States is Marfa, Texas. It inspires everything in my life that makes me happy: art, nature, food, and friends. It feeds my soul. The minimalist aesthetic inspires how I approach design. One of my favorite artists is Donald Judd. Our Tribeca store was inspired by his personal library in Marfa.

Movement Manufacturing / Meet LaKishka Raybon

As Shinola’s Movement Assembly Team Lead, LaKishka (“Mesha”) is responsible for the production of each watch’s movement—the “heart of the watch”. We recently interviewed LaKishka about her role as a maker at Shinola:

Shinola Mesha Raybon
LaKishka Raybon, Assembly Team Lead

What is most interesting about Shinola watch manufacturing?
Shinola’s manufacturing process is unique in the United States, because we are assembling movements and watches in batches, at scale in our factory. Last year, we made upwards of 170,000 watches. Our factory is also unique because we’re Detroiters, coming from all different background and skill levels, trained by Ronda’s Swiss and Thai experts in the art of watch assembly.

What kinds of specialized skills did you learn through Ronda AG’s training program?
When I started on the movement assembly line, we worked closely with the trainers from Ronda who taught us all the proper techniques for how to handle the small movement components using different tools. Next, we learned the intricate process for each specific operation needed to assemble a full movement and also the mechanics behind how a watch works. Overall, it takes a lot of patience, practice, good hand-eye coordination and passion to get it right.

Shinola watch movement
Shinola’s skilled craftspeople meticulously produce 10 watch movements at a time.

What is your favorite part of your job at Shinola?
My favorite part of my job is that I never thought in my life that I would know how to build a watch from start to finish – I love seeing a watch start off as just tiny components and then the final screw tightened down on the case back.

The Making Of…

The Argonite movements that power Shinola timepieces are assembled from 46 to 100 Swiss-made components, requiring special tools, optical magnification equipment, and continuous testing. It’s quite the delicate process!

This video details the movement assembly, and the following photos give a behind-the scenes look inside the factory.

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Shinola watch manufacturing
Shinola watch manufacturing
Shinola watch manufacturing
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Shinola watch manufacturing
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Shinola watch manufacturing
Shinola watch manufacturing
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Meet the Makers

There are more than 90 people who work in Shinola’s Detroit factory, pre-production, and design. Meet the craftspeople who are responsible for Shinola watch assembly:

[Makers]

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Shinola Gomelsky Moon Phase
Shinola’s newest watch: the Gomelsky Moon Phase

All photos courtesy of Shinola.

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Grado Headphones / Handmade in Brooklyn Since 1953

The Grado family is known for craftsmanship and innovation in high-quality audio equipment.

Three Generations of Grados

The story of Grado Labs begins in the early 1950s, when master watchmaker Joseph Grado discovered his real passion: hi-fi audio equipment. He left his job at Tiffany & Company to devote himself to this new trade, and launched his first line of phono cartridges in 1953. Initially, he crafted each cartridge at the kitchen table of his Brooklyn home, but he quickly expanded by taking over his father’s grocery around the corner–in the same building where Grado is based to this day.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Joseph Grado was responsible for more innovations in the phono cartridge industry than any other individual.

Over the next thirty years, Joseph acquired 48 patents for his designs, making him responsible for more innovations in the phono cartridge industry than any other individual. Word spread about his quality audio craftsmanship, and the company grew considerably in this time. By the early 1980s, Grado had taken over the entire block and was producing over 10,000 cartridges per week.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
A Grado phono cartridge.

However, by the end of the decade, business was on the decline and Joseph considered closing the company’s doors. Enter his nephew John, who had begun his career at Grado by sweeping the factory floors, and eventually had taken over the majority of business operations. John had ambitions to broaden the company’s offerings, beginning with a new line of headphones. He bought Grado Labs from his uncle in 1990.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
John Grado, current CEO of Grado Labs. Photo by Geordie Wood.

While living with his family on the top floor for the building, John and his wife hand built the first series of Grado headphones. Since then, he has created over 25 models, each known for its classic design and unparalleled sound quality.

Most recently, John’s son Jonathan is the third generation of Grados to officially join the company. Jonathan grew up on the top floor of the building and knows the business inside and out, but he also brings new ideas to the table–such as a recent push into the in-ear headphone market. He’s behind the launch of the 2014 e-series, incorporating internal improvements in sound quality, including a new distortion-reducing cable and updated housings.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories

Jonathan has also established a strong social media presence, resulting in Grado being named one of the Top 8 Most Social Small Businesses in America. Again and again, Grado has shown that it can adapt to the times while staying true to its Brooklyn family traditions.

Meet the Maker / Jonathan Grado

We recently spoke with Jonathan Grado, who is officially the company’s VP of Marketing. Jonathan does all of the social media, content creation, customer service, design, photography, and “a whole bunch of other fun stuff.”

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
“Connecting with people who use Grado is my favorite part of being with the company.” -Jonathan Grado. Photo by Jorge Quinteros.

Did you always imagine yourself joining the family business?
Not once did my family ever force me into the business, so I never thought I would join Grado. Growing up I was really embarrassed about what my parents did. Who’s family made headphones? I felt out of place Career Day after Career Day, being the only one with headphones on. Only by college did I really start to realize how amazing it all is.

What about it do you enjoy the most?
After I started the Facebook and Twitter pages midway through college, I found a true passion for it. I loved talking to Grado fans, which I had never done before. Connecting with people who use Grado is my favorite part of being with the company.

Who are your favorite makers?
There are these chairs that have become a staple in the Grado Listening Room. Only in the past few years did I realize that they’re Eames chairs. I’ve only grown to appreciate their design and the story behind them more and more. I know it’s just a chair, but it’s a really nice chair.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Jonathan in a Grado Listening Room Eames Chair. “I’ve only grown to appreciate their design and the story behind them more and more.” Photo by James Chororos.

What’s next for Grado?
We just turned sixty-two years old, so that’s sixty-two years to perfect our sound. We haven’t advertised since 1964 though, so now my main focus is to get the word out that we exist while working with a $0 ad budget. Social media has been really important to us, since we’ve always relied on word-of-mouth. Our latest social endeavors have been Instagram and emails. Yeah, emails. We sent our first email ever last month with the release of our new GR10e and GR8e in-ears. We don’t come out with new products every week though, so we’re going to focus our emails on great stories and really nice photography. Plus you’ll get a little something on your birthday if you put that in when you join the newsletter.

With Instagram, it’s a whole new community to be a part of and I’m really excited about that. With this new focus on photography, I have some fun series planned. Outside of social, we have a few interesting projects in the works that we’ve been looking forward to for awhile. Some make so much sense that we’re happy to have a way to make it happen, and other projects are a marriage of two things that don’t normally go together but we made it work. Hopefully everyone will be able to see this is 2015.

The Story Behind the Wooden Headphones

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
“The GS1000e is the realization of the Grado family’s tradition of building bridges that connect the listener to the soul of the recording” -Jonathan Grado.

Where did the idea come from to make wooden headphones?
When I was three or four, my dad had an idea in the middle of the night to make a headphone out of wood. He went downstairs, carved some wood, and made our first pair. It turned out that they sounded pretty great. We have a family friend in upstate New York whose father was the first wooden pen manufacturer, and he had left a bunch of wood working machines to his son. John asked him if he could use the machines to carve our wooden housings; fast forward twenty years and he now has a wood business where Grado is his only client.

In June 2014, the e Series was released, our newest series of headphones. This time we decided to cure the wood in a new way, which added a shine to the mahogany, and most importantly created a fuller sound. The GS1000e, RS2e, and RS1e, are our three wooden/mahogany headphones.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
The first ‘salad bowl’ prototype of the GS1000e headphones.

What’s the story behind the GS1000e headphones?
When the GS1000e was in the prototyping stage I remember my dad, John Grado, coming home and putting the first versions of them on at the dinner table. They were huge. They looked like a coconut cut in half, swapped, and put on your ears. Or like two salad bowls if we’re getting scientific about it. That pair ended up evolving into the GS1000e we all know and love now.

Who is your ideal customer (for the GS1000e)?
This higher-end mahogany headphone is the most full and warm bodied Grado that we make. We’ve seen the GS1000e used especially by producers, engineers, and audiophiles.

The Making Of…

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
John and Jonathan Grado at the entrance to the Brooklyn factory. Photo by by Sam Horine

Every pair of Grado headphones is handmade in the family’s Brooklyn factory. Many parts are sourced from the immediate region, including wood from Upstate New York, leather from New Jersey, and foam from Long Island. Grado employs 18 people, who all work in the same building where the original cartridges were made. The following photo series is by Jorge Quinteros.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Ishmeal working on the plastic injection molding machine.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Jayson working on the drivers.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
The Grado drivers being prepped for production.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Sisters Isela (left) and Lorina (right) are in charge of headphone production. “They have been with Grado since 1994 and have seen me grow up,” says Jonathan. “They even have my height on the wall still marked by pieces of tape.”

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Soldering the wires on the back of the drivers.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories
Wooden housings from Upstate New York, awaiting assembly.

Grado Headphones - Maker Stories

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Grado Labs - Maker Stories


Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of Grado Labs.

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Rubik’s Cube / Making The World’s Most Popular Puzzle

Invented by a Hungarian architect, the Rubik’s Cube has captivated the world for the past 40 years.

The first time you see one, you intuitively know what to do; but without instruction, it is almost impossible to solve. This fact defines the incredibly engaging yet infuriating invention that is the Rubik’s Cube.

The Story of Erno Rubik / Inventing the Magic Cube

1 erno black

Erno Rubik, the son of a poet and an aircraft engineer, was born in Budapest during World War II. He received his first degree in sculpture, and then studied architecture at the Hungarian University of Technology, where he remained as a professor after graduation.

In 1974, the 30-year-old Rubik continued to live with his mother in her small Budapest apartment, and occupied much of his free time creating geometric models in his room. He was teaching a special course on ‘form studies’, and set out to build a model that would help explain spatial relationships to his students. He first began tinkering with a wooden and paper cube, comprised of movable smaller ‘cubies’ and held together with rubber bands.

2 1st prototype
Rubik’s original prototype, featuring blocks held together by rubber bands.

The bands quickly broke, but Rubik recognized the possibilities of the cube and proceeded to develop an internal mechanism that required no bands. He painstakingly cut and sanded 26 cubies, marked each side with a color, and assembled his contraption. It immediately fascinated him: “It was wonderful to see how after only a few turns, the colors became mixed, apparently in random fashion. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade.”

prototype
A more refined prototype, featuring 26 small cubes with a more complicated internal mechanism.

Upon making a series of turns, Rubik quickly realized that he did not know how to solve his own puzzle! “After a while I decided it was time to… put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the Big Challenge: What is the way home?” He started with the corners and developed a system to put the pieces back in place, but it still took Rubik several months before he was first able to solve the cube.

1 erno w cube copy
Upon making a series of turns, Rubik quickly realized that he did not know how to solve his own puzzle.

The puzzle was well received by his students, and Rubik quickly realized the greater potential of his ‘Magic Cube’ (‘Buvuos Kocka’). He applied for a Hungarian patent in 1975, which was approved in early 1977. The cube appeared in Hungarian toy stores later that year.

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The Hungarian patent for the cube, applied for in 1975.

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A cube deconstructed to show its inner workings.

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1970s packaging for the Hungarian ‘Buvuos Kocka’.

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Rubik demonstrating the secret of the cube, 1970s Hungary.

Rubik was heavily influenced by artists and inventors Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and M.C. Escher, numerous philosophers and poets, and architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Although marketed as a toy, Rubik always thought of the cube as art: “a mobile sculpture symbolizing stark contrasts of the human condition: bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence; simplicity and complexity; stability and dynamism; order and chaos.”

In this interview, Rubik explains more about how he designed the cube:

Bringing the Rubik’s Cube to the World

Despite Rubik’s lofty vision for the cube, he and the toy were initially stuck behind the Iron Curtain. By luck, German businessman and mathematician Tibor Laczi discovered the cube on a visit to a Hungarian cafe, where it was being played by his waitress. He bought the cube on the spot for $1, and approached Rubik with his plan to introduce it to the world.

“When Rubik first walked into the room I felt like giving him some money,” Laczi said. “He looked like a beggar. He was terribly dressed, and he had a cheap Hungarian cigarette hanging out of his mouth. But I knew I had a genius on my hands. I told him we could sell millions.”

3 progression of puzzles
Progression of packaging from the original version to the rebranded cube that was sold around the world.

Laczi took the toy to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979, where he met British toy expert Tom Kremer. Kremer also saw the cube’s potential, and immediately negotiated a deal with the Ideal Toy Company. In 1980, the cube was rebranded as the ‘Rubik’s Cube’ and launched in toy stores internationally.

The World’s Favorite Toy

The cube took off instantly. In 1981, ‘You Can Do The Cube’ by Patrick Bossert sold 1.5 million copies. The first International Rubik’s Championship, an enthusiastic gathering of ‘Cubic Rubes’ (fans of the puzzle), was held in 1982. The puzzle has even spawned a new sport, Speedcubing, where the current world record stands at just above 5 seconds.

The World Record Speedcuber / 5.55 Seconds

Blindfolded Speedcubing

Cubing while Juggling

The Rubik’s Cube has influenced art movements (Rubik Cubism), has been taken into space, and even had its own television show.

Cubeworks_RubixWall_guinness-record
The world’s largest Rubik’s Cube Mosaic in Macau, China is made of 85,794 cubes. Image via TheStandArt.

As for Erno Rubik, he became the first self-made millionaire from the communist block. He went on to establish a foundation to help promising Hungarian inventors, and continues to run the Rubik Studio which designs puzzles, toys, and furniture.

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Ernö Rubik and the Rubik’s Studio have designed many other puzzles, including the Rubik’s 360.

1 in 7 people on the planet has played the Rubik’s Cube. At an estimated 350 million sales over the past 40 years, it is the bestselling toy of all time.

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erno with cube


Content and images via Rubik’s, Smithsonian’s invention blog, the Beyond Rubik’s Cube exhibition, and Wikipedia.

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Back to the Roots / Making a Fish Tank that Grows Food

The Water Garden home aquaponics system is a self-cleaning fish tank that makes it easy to grow your own food.

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Back to the Roots

Based in Oakland, California, Back to the Roots is on a mission to enable more people to grow their own food. Founders Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora met at UC Berkeley, where they were inspired by the discovery that coffee waste creates the perfect environment to grow gourmet mushrooms. The pair immediately got to work on developing their first product, the Mushroom Farm: a little brown box that allows anyone to grow mushrooms.

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Falling in love with the idea of creating more ways to help people grow food, the Back to the Roots team set out to develop a second product: the Water Garden (formerly AquaFarm).

This personal aquaponics system is a closed loop, mimicking the symbiotic relationship between plants and fish in the wild. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish, all without the use of soil or chemical fertilizers.

Back to the Roots

The result is a fun, approachable, and educational product that appeals to children and adults alike, and looks great displayed on any countertop.

Making the Water Garden

Back to the Roots worked with local design firm Daylight Design to develop their concept into a product suited for mass production. Brett Newman, partner at Daylight, gives a bit of insight into the process of designing the award-winning Water Garden:

“How much fish waste is needed to nourish five plants? What’s the right ratio of fish to water? How quickly should the water circulate? Do fish need a place to hide? How the heck do you strike the right balance between direct sunlight that’s necessary for the plants to grow and keeping the fish tank out of direct sunlight so the water doesn’t get overgrown with algae bloom? These are all questions that needed answering to design a successful product. Development was a relentless cycle of iterative brainstorming, design, engineering, and testing until we arrived at a solution that resonated with the team, and with users. From initial sketches to the first articles off the tools, the process took just under one year.”

Behind the Scenes

Back to the Roots
The starting point.

Back to the Roots
Design exploration: early prototypes and sketches.

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One of many rough prototypes.

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Founder Alejandro Velez (far right) with the Daylight Design team.

Back to the Roots
Back to the Roots?

Back to the Roots
A strong design language takes form.

Back to the Roots
Tooling: this mold forms the lid, with 5 holes for the plant baskets and one for the pump.

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Based on conversations with aquaponics experts, the first version included opaque side panels to shield the tank from sunlight.

Back to the Roots
After long-term testing and owner feedback, the panels were determined unnecessary in preventing algae bloom and removed from the final product.

Meet the Makers

We recently spoke with founder Nikhil Arora about the Water Garden’s maker story, and the future for Back to the Roots:

Back to the Roots
Founders Nikhil Arora (left) and Alejandro Velez (right)

What was the problem you set out to solve by making the Water Garden?
We wanted to condense all the amazing science of large-scale aquaponics into a table-top size unit perfect for the classroom or kitchen. We were so inspired by aquaponics and how curious it made us about where food came from that we wanted to make that experience accessible for all!

Did you immediately settle upon this solution? What else did you consider?
No – we went through many prototypes and potential form factors – the answer for “how small is ‘small’?” was not an easy question to answer. What seems obvious now was a very wide, empty canvas to start.

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Who is your ideal customer?
We want to reconnect families back to their food! Food is so universal – which is what is so beautiful about it. We all have to eat 3x a day. We’re really inspired to bring good design, sustainability, and deliciousness to simplifying food. We’ve had everyone from 5 year old kids to grandparents and everyone in between getting excited about the Water Garden – whether it’s the pet fish or growing your own herbs or the beautiful design – something about it can connect with anyone. I think that’s whats also led to such unique distribution – including Nordstrom, Whole Foods Market, Costco, Petco, and Amazon Prime!

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What’s next for Back to the Roots?
Back to the Roots is working towards re-defining the “future of food” – one that is all about the “undoing of food” back to its simplest ingredients and least processed versions. How do we create and promote food that is made in a kitchen not a lab, and reconnect families back to their food? Our R&D team isn’t biochemists and food scientists, it’s our grandparents!

We think there’s a powerful movement that’s just starting up around simplicity and un-doing. It is our vision that what “organic brands” were for baby-boomers, radically transparent and simple brands will be for millennials and our kids. Food is the most personal thing there is – it’s what we put into our bodies 3x a day – and yet we’re so disconnected from it. We know what works – simple, real food – we want to inspire a whole new generation to get excited about that!

[UPDATE: The Back to the Roots team just launched their newest product: a delicious stoneground breakfast cereal. It’s made with just three ingredients!]

Back to the Roots
With a vision to “re-define the future of food,” Back to the Roots has attracted attention from President Obama, Martha Stewart, and many others.

Do you have any favorite makers or products that you couldn’t live without?
Makers: Senda Athletics, Yellow Leaf Hammocks, NatureBox, SweetGreens, LifeFactory, and Knockaround Sunglasses. Products: Immediately (iPhone mail application), my macbook air (can’t go back to any other laptop after this – so versatile/stable!), and Pandora (can’t work without good jams!).

Final piece of advice to other makers:
The most important thing about creating products is having fun along the way and really believing that this new product has to exist in the world. Focus on the why first, then then the what.

The Water Garden Team

Back to the Roots is based on Oakland, while Daylight Design is in San Francisco. Meet all of the makers behind the Water Garden:

[Makers]

[color-button href='http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CN52TRM/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00CN52TRM&linkCode=as2&tag=maker03-20&linkId=6W6TD22MPP3A2AYF']Buy a Water Garden[/color-button]

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All images via Back to the Roots and Daylight Design.

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Monument Valley / An Apple Design Award Winning Game

Monument Valley is a surreal exploration through architecture and impossible geometry.

Monument Valley tells the story of Ida, a silent princess on a quest for forgiveness, who is guided through a land of mysterious monuments. Named Apple’s Best iPad Game of the Year and winner of the Apple Design Award in 2014, Monument Valley has impressed both gamers and art enthusiasts alike. It was first released in April of 2014, and quickly gained attention for its elegant balance of interaction, beauty, and storytelling.

The Making of Monument Valley

Eight team members from ustwo, the digital production studio behind the game, spent about 55 weeks making Monument Valley. Each chapter is unique, with distinct and separate puzzles, mechanics, story beats, and architectural styles. This creates a visually rich and compelling game, but is a quite involved process from early concept sketches to chapter development, testing, and completion. This video goes behind the scenes with ustwo:

The original game was such a hit that the team quickly refocused their energy, and another 29 weeks, on completing the expansion set: Forgotten Shores. As the original Monument Valley was intended to be Ida’s entire story, the extra chapters take place within the same chronology — much like the deleted scenes of a movie.

With more time and resources, the new scenes are better polished, featuring more architectural exploration and improved illusions. Here’s a little insight into the team’s process, from early concept sketches to the completion of Forgotten Shores:

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Ken Wong’s concept art for the game, originally called ‘Tower of Illusion’ (left); M.C. Escher’s artwork played a key role in concept development (right: Ascending and Descending, 1960).

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Sketches – interactions of various architectural components.

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Level design process sketches – sorting out how things will fit together.

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The team consists of programmers who have knowledge of art, and artists who have an interest in programming. Pictured: Artist David Fernández Huerta.

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The game is built in a program called Unity, which shows both the user and edit views simultaneously.

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A wireframe (left) shows the inner workings of this particular scene’s interaction.

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Before the initial launch, the team printed out every screen, allowing them to see the whole game at once and giving a new perspective on the entire experience.

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A very early list of ideas for Forgotten Shores, originally called ‘The Cerulean Shore’ (left), alongside chapter ideas more flushed out (right).

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Final Forgotten Shores chapters are pinned up. Rejected ones are to the left and right, some to be reworked into Ida’s (Red) Dream — a chapter for the Apps for RED to fight AIDS.

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The team celebrating when Monument Valley was featured on the App store.

Meet The Makers

We recently talked to Ken Wong, Monument Valley’s Lead Designer and Artist, about the making of the game and his own maker story:

In one sentence, what do you think makes Monument Valley most unique?
I think Monument Valley takes a unique approach to interactive entertainment, sidestepping many video game traditions and tropes to create a compelling experience that can be enjoyed by a far broader audience.

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The ustwo games team. (Ken Wong is pictured in the front.) Photo via Steve Paris, www.steveparis.net.

What did you set out to achieve by making Monument Valley?
We were given a tremendous opportunity by our studio, in that there were no financial expectations on the game. They only asked that we make something amazing. We felt that we should try and make a game that couldn’t be made anywhere else – something for mobile, something high quality, something with care and inventiveness and heart put into it. Setting such a high goal meant we couldn’t be lazy with the design. We questioned everything we once believed about what makes a video game great.

Who is your ideal customer?
One who pays! Monument Valley is made for people who don’t play video games. It’s full of gorgeous art, music, and tells the story of a silent princess on a journey of architecture, impossible geometry and forgiveness. To be honest we didn’t think too much about who was going to buy or play our game. We worked hard to simply make something that we were proud of, and we figured there would be others who would enjoy the same things.

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“We worked hard to simply make something that we were proud of, and we figured there would be others who would enjoy the same things.”

Have you always considered yourself a maker?
Yes! Making things is my whole life. I’ve drawn my whole life, and started learning digital art around the age of 18 or 19. I’ve worked on many games of different types, from console to PC to mobile. I do personal and commissioned illustrations now and then, and I sell prints online.

Who are a few of your favorite makers?
I’m a huge fan of James Cameron’s filmmaking. He combines technology and art to make film experiences that have never been seen before. I love Jim Henson for the same reason. I learnt a lot by studying the art of Jamie Hewlett, Mike Mignola and Gustav Klimt. These days I look at a really wide range of visual material and I don’t really pick out favourites.

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“Sword & Sworcery really pushed what game aesthetics can be.”

What are some of your favorite games?
I guess everybody is shaped by the games they grew up with, for me that’s Super Metroid, Yoshi’s Island and Street Fighter. Lately, Sword & Sworcery really pushed what game aesthetics can be, and Gone Home was an absolute triumph of writing and design and should be played by everyone.

How did you feel when Monument Valley was named Apple Design Award Winner?
We went into the ceremony not knowing if we were going to win. As each app was announced that wasn’t Monument Valley our hearts sank. They left us until last, which made winning that much more incredible. Apple set extremely high standards for design, user experience and innovation, so to be recognised by them was really validating.

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One of the team’s goals when they designed Monument Valley was to make every screen worthy of being framed and hung on a wall.

What’s next for the ustwo games team?
We’re working hard on Land’s End, a sort of side project for the Samsung GearVR. It’s a really exciting experiment into the possibilities of VR, built upon some of the lessons we learnt on Monument Valley.

The Ustwo Team

Ustwo is a digital product studio with almost 200 employees. However the games team, based in London, consists of only eight people. The team thrives in the larger creative environment, but enjoys the freedom to create games relatively independently. Meet all of the makers behind Monument Valley:

[Makers]

In addition to this full time team, sound designer Stafford Bawler also helped by creating the game’s audio experience.

The Monument Valley team believes in the premium game model: charging $3.99 for the original game, and $1.99 for the Forgotten Shores expansion. Just a few dollars paid by every player can go a long way toward supporting this type of creativity and innovation in video gaming.

[color-button href='http://www.monumentvalleygame.com/']Download the Game[/color-button]

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Last image via TechCrunch. All other images courtesy of ustwo.