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Make Cool Stuff: Theory 101

The internet is packed with awesomely nerdy projects – and I want to share them all with you – but sometimes seeing other people’s cool projects can be more discouraging than inspiring. You see something so intricate and complicated that it’s easy to think “that’s cool, but I could never make that,” and so you post the link on Twitter and move on with your day. Secretly, though, you want to make one too.

Sometimes the hardest part of making cool stuff is knowing how to start. A bit of planning and research on the front end can make the overall process much more rewarding. Here are the steps I take when I want to make something new or complicated.

Step One: Envision the final product
Take a moment to write down the project that’s been kicking around inside your head. Draw a little picture or write down a brief description.

Most of the time I tackle projects that fall within my skill set, like knitting a Mobius cowl or making my brother a quilt. Last December, however, I got it into my head that I should make a claymation video for my Christmas card. I hadn’t made anything with clay since middle school. I’d never made a stop motion video. Heck, I’d never even uploaded a video to YouTube, but I was determined that I could make a 20 second long video.

I sketched out the idea so that I could convince my boyfriend to work on the project with me. Here are my initial sketches.

Having a clear vision of your final product and putting it down on paper will help you organize your thoughts. Pretend you’ve finished and you’re showing it off to your friends.


Step Two: Write down the steps to get you to the final product.
If you have a basic idea of what’s involved, write down the steps (in order) to get you to your finished project.

Claymation video:
1. Make clay people with clay that doesn’t harden
2. Set up the Christmas scene
3. Set up the camera so that it won’t get bumped
4. Take lots of pictures with tiny movements in between each picture
5. Sequence the pictures in a video with music
6. Send to my friends and family

Now take a look at your list. What steps do you know how to do? Perhaps you don’t know how to do most of it. For mine, I only knew how to do steps 2 and 6. Maybe you don’t even know enough to make a list of the steps involved. That’s okay. Write down what you think might be involved and then move on to Step Three.

Step Three: Research
When it comes to making stuff, follow these tips for improving your search engine results. There are a few key words that will drastically improve your return:

  • How to
  • Tutorial
  • Make my own
  • Project instructions

These key words will help you find step-by-step instructions, especially when you are trying to make your own version of a commercially available product. For example, let’s say I want to make a Stormtrooper helmet. If I type “stormtrooper helmet” into Google, only 2 of my top 10 results have project instructions. However, if I type in “make my own stormtrooper helmet” all of my top results have project instructions.

To get even better results, find a community specific to the thing you want to make. You can get much more directed information by searching within a community. For example, with claymation, first I ask myself, “Where will the people good at claymation congregate online?” YouTube! Rather than searching Google with “claymation people how to” I searched YouTube with those terms. I found a wealth of videos, including the incredibly specific and accessible tutorials by user sgtjlopez.

Use these key words for finding specific communities:

  • Community
  • Community help
  • Community forum
  • User forum

If your project involved electronics, search Google for “electronics community help” or “electronics community forum.” You’re much more likely to find in-depth definitions, descriptions, and help answers within these sites. In addition to craft-specific communities, two online communities that have a wide variety of project instructions are Instructables and Craftster. These are good places to start if you are looking project ideas.

As you research each step, write down the materials and tools you need to accomplish the task.

Step Four: Refine your vision.
Once you’ve researched each of your steps, you may have a new vision of your project. Maybe you’ve realized you need to start smaller. Maybe you’ve found something else to make instead.

After watching the claymation tutorials, I realized that I couldn’t include any dialogue if I wanted to have it done by Christmas. I kept the same characters (a clay version of my boyfriend and me) but pared down the action to very simple movements to keep it the overall project within my reach.

Step Five: Gather your materials and get started!
Refer back the list of materials you made in Step Three. Pull everything together and get started on the first task from your list.

As you work, questions will pop up. You might get stuck. Refer back to the community forums you found in Step Four. Search through past questions. Your question has probably been asked before. If you can’t find the answer you need, ask for help. Be as specific as you can in asking your question. Asking “How do I make a claymation video?” is not specific. “How many frames per second do you recommend for a clay stop motion video?” is specific.

Optional Step: Give back to the community.
When you’ve successfully finished your project (and I know you will), consider posting photographs in the community boards where you did your research. This doesn’t have to be a long complicated tutorial – you can keep it simple. “Thanks for all your helpful information. It helped me make this project and I wanted you to see it.”

Here’s that claymation video I talked about. The folks over at Aardman Animations don’t have much to worry about (I’ll stick to my day job), but I think it’s pretty decent for a first try and only a weekend to put it together.

Now it’s your turn to make something awesome! When you’re done, share a link below or send me a tweet @HolaMindy.

Images: Mindy Holahan

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  1. @Louis You’ve been doing stuff, though, and that’s what matters! This is just how I do it, if you’ve got a way that works for you, keep it up!

    Part of the process of making stuff is failing. I’ve gotten to appreciate the failure part because now I know a way that doesn’t work. Appreciate, but not always love. There’s usually some cursing involved.

  2. Louis says:

    Oh geez. I do all of these, but I always do them out of order.

    I first write the steps, then I get the materials, and during the how to’s, I envision my final project, then, when I mess up horribly, I do more research, and I end up with something completely different, but really cool.

    I think I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time!

  3. Dave "Hannibal" says:

    Stop motion is time consuming, I’ve tried it before. Good job!
    Here is a link to computer animation I did. Please someone ,anyone check it out. My index finger is blistering with my attempts at increasing “views” by hitting the refresh button.

  4. I’m always happy when I hear that I helped inspire people! This inspires ME to do some more with my clay 🙂

    Pray that I get over this nasty cold, and I’ll be back at it again.

    Drop me a line if you have an idea for a tutorial that you want made and I might make it. Thanks again 🙂


  5. Rasmus says:

    Great post. It made me want to create all kinds of things that I don’t have time for. Still, I am somehow thankful.

  6. Patti says:

    That was really cute! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Mandy W says:

    Love it, very cool and inspirational!