Every Tool’s a Hammer and Every Designer’s a Maker

Adam Savage is probably best known for hosting 14 years of Mythbusters before moving on to his own projects and activities. He recently wrote the book Every Tool’s a Hammer.

I’ve recently added it to my list of books every UX Designer should read.

Seems like a bit of a mismatch, on the surface.

Adam1)Fun fact! When you’ve watched 14 years of people call someone “Adam” on TV it’s really hard to refer to them as “Savage” or “Mr. Savage” in a web post! makes things with his hands, with actual physical tools, in a workshop, where he passes them on to clients or advertisers, or uses them on a TV show, or whatever.

A UX Designer like me makes things with little electrons on big screens, with expensive software, in whatever workspace I happen to be occupying but most likely a cube farm, where I pass them on to product owners or project managers or developers, or whatever.

Hell, I don’t even make the final application in most cases, just prototypes, and even then, I crank out a lot of flat prototypes.

Compared to what I do in my garden, or my woodshop, or my knitting, UX Design can feel like it’s a long distance away from Maker culture.

And yet, in his introduction, Adam says this:

“CODING IS MAKING!” I said enthusiastically to that young man. Whenever we’re driven to reach out and create something from nothing, whether it’s something physical like a chair, or more temporal and etherial like a poem, we’re contributing something of ourselves to the world. We’re taking our experience and filtering it through our words or our hands, or our voices and our bodies, and we’re putting something into the culture that didn’t exist before. In fact, we’re not putting what we make into the culture, what we make IS the culture. Putting something into the world that didn’t exist before is the broadest definition of making, which means all of us can be makers. Creators.

Everyone has something valuable to contribute. It’s that simple. It is not, however, that easy.

The next 296 pages of the book go on to explain what it means to be a maker, and how to be a successful one. The skills and experiences that Adam talks about and illustrates with stories from his own life are shared among makers and include:

  • Using your passion to kick-start your desire to make things
  • Finding inspiration on a regular basis
  • The importance of both techniques and tools, and how to build comfort with both
  • Collaboration

I would estimate that roughly a third of the book is dedicated to collaboration, either through examples or recommendations on how to collaborate better with your peers and with those who work for you. While it’s clearly not a book about managing people, it’s definitely a book that acknowledges that no one creates in a vacuum, and how you work with the people around you will significantly impact how your creations turn out.

  • Using deadlines to prune your decision trees
  • Handling the inevitable mistakes

This is probably another third of the book, if one counts “ways to avoid making mistakes” and “ways to handle mistakes” as a single topic. Let’s face it, if you’re making something you’re also making mistakes. Some mistakes are both bad and permanent, and some mistakes are iterations that lead us to a better state on the other side. Understanding the difference between the two, and what to do about both of them, is a crucial life skill.

  • Information architecting your space

And here’s the other third, really. From how you structure your to-do lists to make your work understandable and keep your momentum going, to how to structure your workshop so that you can work within your values, to how to iterate and evolve your own work (using collaboration and mistake-making as guide rails) a huge bit of the book is dedicated to a love of information architecture without ever muttering the words together.

Adam doesn’t focus on the usual IA topic of “structuring somebody else’s stuff”. This is seriously meta “information architect your information architecture” shit. Without being forceful, Adam makes it clear that honing your craft through observation, organization, structure, and iteration, will allow you not only to apply those skills to the tools you work with, it will also allow you to make yourself into a better designer.

And that’s some hard shit to learn, yo.

Adam Savage is the kind of writer who doesn’t throw other people under trucks. He rarely (if at all) references mistakes others made around him. When he’s telling stories about both success and failure, he’s the main feature. At first glance, this might seem almost egotistical, and sometimes a the stories feel a little shallow, but it’s really quite polite. Even if we only looked at his 14 years on Mythbusters it’s clear that if he wanted to tell stories about other people’s mistakes, he’s seen things. But those stories aren’t his to tell, or at least, he doesn’t tell them. He approaches the book the way he would a conference session, handing out praise to the people who have helped him succeed and turning a blind eye to the mistakes of the people who’ve failed and learned around him, unless he’s quoting them directly.

He tells some funny and heartwarming stories of growing up with parents who encouraged him to make and do and build. He explains both what went wrong and what could have gone wrong in various project, activities, and life decisions he’s made. He avoids showing us gory photos of all his injuries2)OK, there’s one photo of stitches on his thumb, but that’s probably nothing compared to what he’s done to himself over the years.. He shows us lots of his own sketches, sculptures, checklists, process notes, and finished things.

Most importantly, he reminds us that making is creating, that designing is never easy, that even if we were all given the exact same specs the things we’d create would be unique to each of us. Adam reminds us that we’re all growing, and that growing is good.

So yes, definitely a book I now recommend, because it outlines the culture and decisions that makers, including UX Designers, struggle with daily. And it reminds us that despite those struggles (or in some cases because of them), making things — even arranging electrons on a screen — is a hell of a lot of fun.

Notes   [ + ]

1.Fun fact! When you’ve watched 14 years of people call someone “Adam” on TV it’s really hard to refer to them as “Savage” or “Mr. Savage” in a web post!
2.OK, there’s one photo of stitches on his thumb, but that’s probably nothing compared to what he’s done to himself over the years.