Beginning: The Problem
Many people who come to me have a problem--they need something built but have no idea how to get started; what materials to use, how long it might take, or what it might cost to create.
In fact, it's probably that I have to invent it from scratch, and learn the process myself.
Whatever I'm asked to build it doesn't come from the local big-box store. It requires a prototype--something which has never been built before--or if it has, those patterns and techniques are not available to me.
People hire me because I do have the skills and material knowledge to build it... Most of the time; but, just as often, I have to learn new skills and materials in order to pull it off. A big part of my work is research and tinkering. I'm hired to figure it out--from scratch.
GRASPING THE SCOPE
Where to Start
Here I need to understand the problem.
Clients come with concepts, and probably a rough budget in mind, but little idea if either is realistic. Our first meetings will try and determine the Deadline, and the Start Date. What does it need to accomplish? What are the parameters? What are the safety concerns? Where will it function, for how long, and for whom?
The Budget will determine a lot of what is possible so it's best to start there. It's important to prepare a little wiggle room. These projects are prototypes and require us to be prepared for unforeseen hiccups. While it's seldom possible to predict every outcome, we can at least prepare a buffer.
The size of that buffer depends greatly on the project but you should plan for about 20%, Which means the starting budget is really about 80% of what you are prepared to spend.
Choosing The Focus
Often the most important features of a project are obvious but it's still important to set the focus, especially if the budget is low. Features and functions may need to be trimmed or saved for the end. Other features need extra attention. The difference needs to be laid out early to avoid wasting effort.
The more I know about the context and reason for each feature the better. It helps me prioritize what is critical and what I may need to research materials for. Often I will start on the most challenging parts and they still end up being that last aspects completed. Particularly if the time frame for building is short.
Having enough time to build will also have a huge impact on a satisfying completion. Exotic materials may require longer shipping times and hours of research to find supplier. Determining what might delay the project early can save a deadline disaster.
Identifying the Elements
Through drawings and renders we can arrive at the aesthetic or understand the mechanisms. whether it's 2D art, or 3D models, we iterate with simplified sketches to set the envelope.
Whether the project is a mural, or a marionette, or a stilt-walking costume, or a piece of equipment; framing the visual impact needs to happen early, while wrong turns are less costly and little has been invested.
This process can take several cycles of revision as we narrow down the parameters that feel right. I have a lot of experience and artistic intuition to bring to this process. Visual communication of abstract ideas, vibes, and feelings. This is where storytelling meets making.
Connecting project needs to material properties
Once we understand what the parameters of the project are--what it has to DO--we can begin to outline which materials will work best. This may require creativity if those materials are outside the budget but there is often a second or third option.
One of my main skills is the vast library of material knowledge I keep in my head. Hundreds of industrial rubbers, plastics, foams, metals and fabrics, and their various strengths, advantages, flexibilities and drawbacks.
With this knowledge I can begin assigning materials and coming up with alternates to the various structures and composition. The project can then evolve to meet those availabilities.
Finding what works at the right price
This begins an intensive research phase of most projects, where my history with materials meets the inevitable vagaries of the supply chain, including surprise price hikes and discontinued favorite supplies. This is often the most unpredictable part of any project.
This is where it helps have those alternates and backups; or to be able to research newly launched tools and materials. Have a lot of flexibility and a focus on what the project needs to accomplish smooths out some of the bumps in this road.
Getting all these details locked in as early as possible avoids some of the risks caused by slow shipping or supply shortages.
CHOOSING A TEAM
Connecting skills to tasks
The next challenge is figuring out who I want to work with on each project. I have a wide variety of talented colleagues working freelance, each with their own set of talents and skills. This is where I reach out to the ones I know have the best skills for the tasks ahead.
This is where it helps to have worked with someone for a long time, so I really know their abilities and specialties. I feel very fortunate to have a good number of reliable people I can reach out to when I need their skills on one of my larger projects.