Sophy Wong is a Seattle-based maker. Her projects appear in Adafruit and Hackspace Magazine, and you may know her iconic projects like the Selfie Bot and her Spacesuit. She stopped by Hackster’s Seattle office to talk about documenting projects, design thinking vs engineering, and her upcoming talks at Makerfaire.
You’re an amazing documenter. Did you learn to do that by writing tutorials for Adafruit and Hackspace?
I’m not an engineer. My background is in design, in graphic design. So I’ve always been interested in communicating through photography and print and web. I feel like that my background of graphic design helps me when I document my work, because I’m always thinking about how other people are going to understand what I’m doing, and how am I going to convey this concept in a way that they can get it in just six pages. Thinking like a designer helps me to not just figure out my projects, but also how to record them.
How would you say thinking like a designer is different than thinking like an engineer?
Personally, I think design and engineering are two words for almost the same thing. And I think they each encompass each other. People use those words interchangeably a lot. That’s exciting to me, because we need to broaden our definitions of these things, so that we’re counting more people as engineers and more people as designers.
Design and engineering are both frameworks. I kind of think everyone is a designer. Of course, some people study design and they work really hard at getting better at design.
What are things you can do to work at design and get better at it?
Design is observe and adjust. That’s all it is. If you are looking at your work and your idea and your project, and you’re seeing things that make you feel something, or that don’t work a certain way, or that do work a certain way, and then you take the steps to adjust them, fix them, or leave them, that’s all design is.
I’ve been saying the words “observe” and “adjust” a lot to myself lately, because sometimes I get stuck. Design is my framework to get out of being stuck. If I’m working on a project and I’m like ‘I don’t know what to do, this isn’t turning out right, I don’t have an idea for this part,’ then I just go back to my design framework, which is like ‘Ok, what did I want it to be in the first place? What did my sketch look like? Do I want to go back to that, or do I want to rethink it?’ This gives me something to fall back on when I’m in the middle of my project or when I’m at the beginning and I can’t start.
What do you use for prototyping? Do you sketch first?
Yeah, I do a lot of sketching. I call it sketching, but a lot of my sketchbook is words. I do a lot of word lists.
Do you use a physical sketchbook, or a tablet or an ipad?
I usually end up defaulting to a physical sketchbook and paper, and I like a certain kind of sketchbook. It’s tricky for me to do it regularly, so I try to give myself the best chance of sketching by buying myself the sketchbook that I like. I like really thin paper, and I like them to be half page size. I always have it with me if it’s small like that, and it’s just less intimidating to me than a gigantic book. That page size is big enough for me to spread out. I really like the Barren Fig brand sketchbook.
In the end, my sketchbook is a tool. It’s a place where I can fail, and I can’t be precious about it.
Then the next stage is prototyping. I use a lot of cardboard, and foam board. I like to get the prototype done quickly. It’s not about making it beautiful. It’s just about getting some physicality there so I can get to my observe and adjust part. I try to make as many as I can. I always want to jump ahead quicker, but I force myself to make one more prototype, so I can work it out one more time.
I feel like prototyping and mock-ups are a necessary part of my process and I’m trying to do it while generating less waste. I’m also keeping them for talks. When I’m doing talks, I bring all the prototypes we did of selfie bot.
Where do you store your prototypes when you save them?
Oh gosh. There’s too many! I’ve made a lot of things in the past year and I’ve completely run out of space. I’m a big fan of plastic bins from the container store. I try to get the same one every time so that they all stack and the lids are interchangeable.
I have a few bins of just selfie-bot. Then I have bins of completed projects, and bins of not completed projects, and bins of things that I want to make into projects one day. It’s become part of my process too. When I finish a project, I like to put everything away. I save bits and pieces that I think would be useful for the future. I feel like that’s my way of completing a project.
Do you document while you’re doing your projects or after you finish your projects?
For my Hackspace projects, I’ve figured out a nice flow. I do two different kinds of documentation. I document just for myself, and then I’m also recording for the magazine.
When I’m documenting for myself, that’s going in my little notebook. It’s messy; it’s mostly words and circuit diagrams and stuff like that. I’ve learned over the years that I need to write everything down because I never know when I’m going to want to remember that thing that I did that one day. I try to record my process for the day.
I might do a couple prototypes before I do the actual build, but once I figure out what I’m going to build I get my camera out, I set up my space, and I have a top-down shooting rig. I have a foot pedal for my camera so I can have both my hands in the shot, and then I just build under my camera.
I use the same lighting for everything, and my table is standing height so I can walk around it a lot and I have all my tools in rolling carts so I can roll my soldering station over.
Then I just work through my notes and record photographically what I’m doing. Afterwards, I have a process where I go through all my photos, and write my article based on my photos. Then, if I did anything out of order or I had to reshoot anything, I can order all of that first, and then I write my article based on the photographs that I took and some of my notes.
So you’re a full time freelancer now?
Yes, starting in March last year I quit my job. I thought that quitting my day job was going to rebalance my life. Before I quit, I was doing my eight hour work and then I would come home and do all this article stuff at night.
So I quit my day job and I thought, okay, I’m going to just do all my article stuff during the day for the same amount of time that it used to take to do my job and then I’ll have evenings and weekends. It’s totally not the case. Now I’m just doing what I love all the time.
You were doing your day job and working on projects? You were also writing for Hackspace then? And Adafruit?
I was a costume assistant at Seattle opera. I worked with incredible costumes and costume makers and stuff, but then I would come home and then have to totally switch gears to electronics and document all of that stuff.
I was so tired. Eventually I thought “maybe I can just do this maker thing all the time.” It’s scary, but it’s actually not the first time I’m quitting my job to do something scary.
The first time I quit my job, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a graphic designer at Gap. It was kind of cool because I the things that I was designing were getting made en masse. But I was making signs that literally just said “Sale.” It was not creatively fulfilling.
I left my job and I decided I was going to explore. I really wanted to do something related to fashion. I started making my own clothes and selling them. I was selling them in small boutiques in San Francisco. But I think I was too afraid of telling people when I was doing because I was afraid that they were going to judge what I had done and judge me for leaving my job. So I kind of sabotaged myself, you know?
This time around, I’m doing it! I feel like having had that experience in the past is really helping me now, because now I know it’s not going to work out if I’m just designing in a vacuum and working in a vacuum. I need to make partnerships. Now I’m working with Hackspace and I’m working with Adafruit. That’s working so well! I think that is my main difference between now and the last time I did it. Don’t go into the vacuum!
You’re constantly building projects, and it’s also your job now. How is turning your passion into a job?
I feel like I hear a lot of people say ‘don’t turn your passion into your work.; And I just think that that is such a blanket statement that not true for everyone.
I’m creative person and I need to be doing something creative for my job. And I don’t think that’s a ridiculous thing to say, because there are so many people out there who do creative things for their jobs. I want to be one of those people. I’m just going to do it, you know? And it just has felt so much better. Yeah, it’s still stressful and it’s still a ton of work, but at least it’s MY stress. I’m just so much happier.
Coming from a design background, when did you first start incorporating tech into your projects?
I know exactly what it was. The second season of Project Runway, there was a designer, Diana Eng, who was putting electronics in her clothes. When I discovered her work, I was like, whoa, I didn’t even know you could do that.
I had never heard of wearable electronics, sewn circuits, any of that. So that was just my ‘aha moment’ that that was even possible. Before that I didn’t even know I could work in electronics. I’d never been exposed to code. I didn’t grow up taking things apart. Finding out that these things are available and seeing someone like me actually doing it them — seeing Diane Eng — doing them, made me realize that it was possible.
I got some books and I started tinkering and working on projects. Eventually my ideas outgrew my skills. I just had to learn more things. I learned how to code and how to solder. Adafruit for me was a huge part of that because I learned a lot of what I do from that, not just how to build the projects, but how to write the tutorials. I definitely like using their format when I write my work.
Was learning microcontrollers difficult for you?
For me, the beginning was very easy because Lily Pad and Adafruit’s products like Gemma make it easy. There are so many great beginner tutorials. So the learning curve is gentle in the beginning, but then I think it goes way up. I really like the Circuit Playground. That board has really helped a lot for me. Hackspace gives one free to every person that subscribes. There are all sorts of tutorials in the magazine you can work through.
So how did you get over that learning curve?
I learned a lot from online tutorials. Also, I ask people for help. Adafruit has a discord channel. I was in there just the other day trying to figure out my project. I’m a night owl, so I went in at like 12 o’clock and it’s like, nobody’s going to be up. Someone was there — maker Melissa, who also writes guides for Adafruit. She cobbled together the same circuit that I was working on and the two of us figured it out together and it was an amazing experience. Adafruit has fostered this community of people who are interested in this stuff. The fact that someone was in her workshop at one in the morning and able to help me with my project — that was just so special.
Tell us about your talk at Makerfaire this year.
Yes, I’m actually doing two talks. One is about my work — it’s called “Big Dreams and Shortcuts.” And then I’m doing a panel with two other makers who are amazing: Jen Schecter, from Tessel. She has an art school background and she’s working with Adam Savage now. She’s awesome. And we’re also going to talk with Esteffanie Explains it All. I think it’s going to be awesome.
Sophy Wong also has a new book out! You can find here.
You can also watch the video interview she did with Alex Glow here: