We Are All Designers

February 5, 2013

By Gabrielle. Images by Justin Hackworth and Brooke Dennis for Alt Summit.

Right before the holidays, Ben Blair would read Makers to me as we fell asleep each night, and I would wake up with the best ideas! It’s the type of book that gets me so jazzed about what technology is making possible. Makers is a best-selling book by Chris Anderson, the legendary editor of Wired. So you can imagine, I was over-the-moon excited when he accepted my inviation to speak at Alt Summit.

Fun fact: Chris Anderson is the father of five. And his kids are in French immersion schools! So perhaps we were destined to be a fan of his no matter what. : )

Chris was the keynote speaker on Thursday of the conference and I’ve been thinking about what he said over and over again. His talk captured a lot of what is so exciting about the book. He left attendees feeling like the world was wide open, and everything was possible! Not in an abstract, fuzzy way, but in an exciting, I’m-going-to-execute-that-plan-for-product-X-immediately sort of way.

He has such an endearing, matter-of-fact, I’m-no-one-special way to talk about major shifts in thinking, that he simply invites more confidence to try out what he says. One of his memorable illustrations was about his kids wanting to buy furniture for their dollhouse, but instead of buying it, he walked them through how they could design and make the toy with a 3-D printer instead. And they did! And he showed pictures!! He said, for his kids, their relationship to dollhouse furniture was forever changed.

His key message was how the difference between manufacturing a product, or bringing a product to market 20 years ago vs. today (like a sprinkler system, dollhouse furniture, or even a car) is exactly like the difference between the evolution of publishing. When he walked through what used to be involved to “publish” a paper or book 30 years ago, then pointed out that all those involved tasks are accomplished today by clicking “publish” on a blog or “print” from an app, I literally got chills. Oh my goodness!

Please tell me: am I conveying my enthusiasm? It was so, so inspiring and practical, yet unreal. It was terrific to see the power of this message overcome my table, my parents, and my kids when we talked it over with them.

Maybe my favorite part? One of his quotes near the end of the presentation, in this new world of desktop-manufacturing:

“We are all designers now, we might as well get good at it.”


A copy of Makers was waiting for every Alt Summit attendee, and when Chris was done with his presentation, there was a long line for handshakes and book signings.

One last tangent. During lunch, right before his keynote, Ben Blair and I were talking with Chris and taking notes so I could introduce him properly. He was really fun to talk to, and we loved hearing about his surprising background.

He describes himself as a classic slacker.

He failed out of high school. Failed out of college. Lived in a group home. Was a bicycle messenger. And played in a punk rock band. Played bass in a punk rock band. Which we all know is sort of the token band member (kidding!).

He asked us if we had any sort of rebellious past, and I suddenly wished for some colorful story to tell him! As for Ben Blair, when speaking of his misdeeds as a kid, Ben always says he can imagine himself heading down some criminal path (Grand Theft Auto?), but got caught attempting to steal ice cream sandwiches from the Jr. High cafeteria freezer when he was 13, (well, he got caught when he went back for more…) so that road closed.

P.S. — After his panel, one of the consensus conclusions was that every household should buy a 3D printing machine. They start at $500, and it’s predicted that soon enough, they’ll be as ubiquitous as desktop printers. If my father was alive, I’m sure he would have begged, borrowed or bartered to get one in his hands a couple of years ago! My dad was a major early adopter. : )  What do you think? Would you buy one?

 P.P.S. — See more images from Chris Anderson’s Alt Summit session here. See all the photos from Alt Summit here.

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christa the BabbyMama February 5, 2013 at 8:19 am

I think I’d buy one if I could find applications for it. Right now we already have everything I’d use it for… or not. I feel like I’d just make lots of fabulous rings. 3D printer jewelry design?


2 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:13 am

I know what you mean, Christa. It’s hard for me to imagine a daily use for a 3-D printer.

I suppose it was hard for my parents to imagine why they would need a desktop printer, too. (Remember when airplane tickets were mailed to you by a travel agent? Hah!) I’m super curious to watch and see the assorted (and yet to be thought up) ways people will put 3D printers to use.


3 sofija February 5, 2013 at 8:38 am

That’s it, I’m buying one. I have been thinking about it for a little bit, you and Chris Anderson have convinced me. Dollhouse furniture here we come…


4 Noemie February 5, 2013 at 8:44 am

Unfortunately, I see the 3D printers more as a endless supply of (plastic) junk while I am more into sewing and wood carving… If one day, they come with more sustainable materials, then maybe…


5 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:14 am

I am ridiculously uninformed about what sort of inks are available for 3D printers. I’ve heard mention of metal and glass (in addition to plastics), but I really have no idea.


6 Rebecca February 5, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Our 3-D printer is actually going in the background as I type. This is our second, we built our first one from a kit, and this one we bought completed. We have a jewelry company and that was the main incentive to purchase one, there is an endless list of things we want to print for our personal and business life.
In terms of plastic, this printer only prints in PLA and ABS. The PLA is a corn derived plastic, which is what we choose to print in. Other 3-d printers can print in resin, metal, and glass.
Resins, another type of plastic, were also considered to be extremely toxic and non-renewable. We currently use a plant derived resin in our work, so things are changing rapidly when it comes to materials and plastic specifically.
I love your blog, and am so happy you have touched on something I am so passionate about!


7 Sarah February 5, 2013 at 8:48 am

I would love to have one, but I wouldn’t know where to buy one, and the brief searches I’ve done weren’t showing anything close to $500. Also, I wonder what the equivalent to toner would be in terms of cost?

But the possibilities it opens are so amazing! And for our children, how empowering!


8 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:16 am

I think we’re going to need to hunt down some sources, because a quick Amazon search prices them much higher. But I’ve heard from several sources (including Chris Anderson) that $500 is a starting point.

If anyone has an affordable link to share, please do!


9 Rebecca February 5, 2013 at 8:36 pm


Most of the printers that would be around $500 or less you would have to build yourself. The amazing thing with these machines is once you have one, you can print another one!


10 Katy February 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm

You can print another one?! AMAZING! I had no idea they were so affordable these days (or so small!) we had them in the shop at my architecture studio in college, but it was a giant beast of a machine and extremely expensive (even just to run). I now feel like I MUST own one! How fantastic!


11 Lori C. February 5, 2013 at 8:59 am

Gabrielle, you definitely conveyed your enthusiasm well. My husband is definitely an early adopter and is constantly introducing us to the latest gadgets. I’m headed to Amazon right now to order Chris’s book for both of us. Thank you for reminding me that as overwhelming as the world of technology feels sometimes, the possibilities it creates are truly amazing.


12 Nia February 5, 2013 at 9:11 am

Do you record these talks? I would be really interested in this one!


13 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:17 am

Alas, we don’t have a recording! I know it’s not the same thing, but he thoroughly covers much of what he talked about at the conference in his book (Makers).


14 Rik February 5, 2013 at 9:35 am

For some reason this is the first I’ve read or heard about 3D printers. My brain is exploding!!!!


15 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:18 am

Right? I felt the exact same way when I learned about them.


16 shelley Taylor February 5, 2013 at 9:36 am

We love Wired and devour every issue over and over. How exciting to meet Chris and hear him speak! I am ordering his book right now!


17 Jeannine February 5, 2013 at 9:54 am

Gabby, I loved being transported back to Chris’ amazing talk at Alt. You perfectly captured his tone and your enthusiasm for Chris is contagious and inspiring, to say the least. xo


18 Jennifer February 5, 2013 at 9:58 am

We get Wired magazine and I love reading about the 3D printers. There is so much out there that is changing the world as we know it. We just need to get smart enough to use it. As much as the VCR was abstract to my Grandmother and the iphone is a novelty to my Mother, there is so much new technology that we need to wrap our brains around.


19 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:22 am

“We just need to get smart enough to use it.”

Well put! I can’t wait to see how this new technology will change our lives. I’m sure we can’t even imagine.


20 Miggy February 5, 2013 at 10:03 am

Yes I think you adequately expressed your excitement…like someone else said I would love it if these were recorded. An ALT podcast perhaps? And I also love his slacker past… my mom was always a fan of the saying A students teach and B students work for C students. Not always true of course, but I think there’s something to be said for a different set of smarts than what is found in a classroom.


21 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

I agree, Miggy. Learning about his slacker past made his current accomplishments all the more smile-inducing. (Although, I admit, I was anything but a slacker in high school, and I’m okay with that, too. : )


22 Chi @ 106 February 5, 2013 at 10:15 am

Oh my! I live in the UK and my blogger friends and I often fantasize about taking a road trip together to come to Alt. You guys have the coolest speakers!!! Just reading about Chris Anderson has got me so inspired and excited. I’m definitely getting his book as soon as I hit publish on this!

He’s absolutely right – there’s never been a better era to bring ideas to life. So much seems so much more achievable now through the internet and amazing, affordable technology.

My husband is a total geek and told me about 3D printers about 3 years ago. Apparently they’ve been using them in the Formula One industry for years to model car/engine parts in no time at all.

I toyed with the idea of buying one to make perspex jewellery with but never got round to it. I still harbour dreams of owning one though but your post just might have given me the final push I need to get one. I love making things with my daughter and doing so in such a cool, 21st century manner really does appeal to me. :D


23 Lauren February 5, 2013 at 11:05 am

I just saw my first 3D printer over the weekend! I was at The Maker’s Summit (which was amazing and full of “makers”) and they had a 3D printer that we got to check out- pretty cool! I’ve just requested Chris’ book from the library- it sounds like something I will love.


24 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I still haven’t seen one in person! So glad you were able to.


25 Kristin Smith February 5, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Thank you so much for writing about Chris Anderson – I am going on Amazon right now to order his book!

Also, on a totally superficial note – you look awesome in these pictures! Your hair looks GREAT, and I love your Frenchie neck scarf! :-)


26 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 4:06 pm

You’re a sweetheart, Kristin! Thanks for the compliment. I sure try to look my best at Alt Summit — and I totally had stylist help me with my hair that morning. : )


27 Lucy Mitchell February 5, 2013 at 12:10 pm

yep, I loved the scarf too! And I think I’ll get the book, maybe it will help push my blog beyond its current template form, where I am totally stuck!


28 G at willowday February 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm

How inspiring. There should be more talk like this. Thank you for keeping it up in the air. I’m going to pick up that book!


29 Bridget February 5, 2013 at 2:23 pm

An MIT alum that I know, AnnMarie Thomas, is working with the Maker Educational Initiative to foster creativity, it’s a fascinating project!

Also – my mom is the Aerospace coordinator at Farnsworth Aerospace PreK-8, and they have classes in CAD and 3D printing…for middle schoolers! So awesome.


30 Jennifer February 5, 2013 at 3:00 pm

yes, the 3D printing technology is amazing!!


31 Mary Aviles February 5, 2013 at 3:18 pm

I just finished reading Democratizing Innovation by Eric Von Hippel and I’ve been extremely interested in the Maker Movement for the last several years. I’m in Detroit, MI and we’re lucky enough to have access to the MakerFaire for the last two years at the Henry Ford Museum.


32 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 4:07 pm

I know Detroit is a historical hotbed for making. I’ll bet your MakerFaire is dynamite!


33 John February 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm

My partner works at the largest and probably most well-known firms in the3d printer field, and our 2 boys made dollhouse furniture out of balsa wood, pine, nails, glue and paint. Jut sayin’, doesn’t hurt to step back from the computers


34 Design Mom February 5, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Awww. C’mon, John! 3D printing may be old and boring to you, but it’s exciting to those of us who are just being introduced to its wonders. Be a good sport!

No one is saying we need to be tied to our computers — I write a blog for a living, but my kids keep paper and pen journals. I imagine most Design Mom readers are up to their ears in glue, paint and glitter; they certainly don’t need reminders that they can make things by hand. : )


35 John February 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Okay, we’ll, didn’t mean to be a poor sport. Don’t think I was. Just maybe not understanding the example here to this audience who, as you say, understand making things for themselves. It’s possible I’m fighting against the urge that we all need the new cool printer, or small batch this, or silk shirt, or hand painted ax. I am working to swim against that tide.

Less. Less. Less.


36 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 6:42 am

Hey John. Sorry to call you a poor sport when you weren’t trying to be one. And thanks for expanding on your thoughts.

I hear you on the less, less, less urge. That topic and related ones come up frequently here on Design Mom and it’s an opinionated crowd that loves to dive in to a meaty subject. But I didn’t read your comment as less, less, less, I read it as a mini-lecture to the Design Mom community about staying off our computers and making things by hand. A lecture we don’t really need. You may have been reading this blog for years, but since I don’t recognize your name from earlier posts, it felt to me like you were jumping in and lecturing a community you’re not actually familiar with.

I realize the post I wrote used 3D printers as an example, but I don’t think the focus of the post was: We All Must Buy a 3D Printer Stat!! I was attempting to introduce the concept of desktop manufacturing and how it can and will change our world. As someone with a partner that’s super familiar with 3D printing, I can see how that topic would seem like old hat to you. But it’s new and exciting to many of us.

As for the idea of 3D printers just creating more, more, more stuff, I think that’s a pretty common thought to come to mind and was one of the questions posed to Chris Anderson during the Q&A at Alt Summit. Will this new revolution mean we make more “stuff”? Or that we make exactly what we need, and ultimately less stuff? There were also great questions about intellectual property and who owns which designs in this new manufacturing landscape. All good questions! And worth discussing.


37 Melissa - I Still Love You February 5, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I loved his speech. I’ve been wanting to learn solid works for 3D printing. If you can’t afford a 3D printer, but want to dip your toes in 3D printing, I’ve recently worked with Ponoko.com – they do custom 3D printing and laser-cutting. They’ve been great to work with!


38 Kacy Faulconer February 5, 2013 at 6:58 pm

You should produce all your Alt Talks. They can become like TED talks.


39 Monica Lee February 6, 2013 at 5:41 am

Jenean and I could not stop talking about his talk and 3-d printers all night! In my head I had even started to plan a mini “retreat” to see the shop/set up in SFO. As an artist who get her art produced on products to see the possibility or the ability to do the manufacturing ourselves is mind boggling!….I need to plan that retreat….


40 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 6:23 am

A retreat sounds fantastic! Go for it.


41 Tamsin February 7, 2013 at 2:09 pm

“Alt” means “everything” in Norwegian, which seems kind of fitting for your backdrop, don’t you think?


42 Sarah Stickland February 10, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Chris’ key note was by far the highlight of Alt for me. I literally ran up to him as soon as he finished to talk to him. I didn’t have a question I just wanted him to know that I hung onto each and every one of his words. That I got chills and teary eyed. I can’t stop thinking about this new industrial revolution, and I tell everyone, even random strangers about it.

I am the one in the photos talking to Chris. I had no idea we were even being photographed.

Thank you for putting together an amazing event!


43 Jeudi Cornejo Brealey February 26, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I’d love a 3D printer, but I don’t think I’d ever get away from my computer then! Actually, I’d have to wait in line behind my twin boys. And I can relate, like yours, my father would have been the first to go out and buy one, just like he did with the first home computer, when no one could see the point of owning one. LOL.

I also agree, the Alt talks should be like TED talks. Would LOVE that!

PS) There was a very funny Big Band Theory episode a few weeks back that involved a 3D printer.


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