EveryDay Design: Prototyping with Trash

Jazmin Harling-Gray

A monkey staring at its reflection in a compact mirror it's holding
Pixabay on Pexels

November 4, 2019

EveryDay Design is a series dedicated to highlighting design and design thinking principles as they pop up in our daily lives. Humans are savvy, creative creatures. This series seeks to capture the ways in which we adapt, innovate, and manipulate the world around us.

Last week I was given the task of creating a minimal viable prototype for a project in one of my graduate courses. The original assignment asked us to draw a way in which trash could be removed from the street. We then created storyboard artifacts to visualize our solutions.

Running on the idea that our solution could be as realistic or far-fetched as we desired, I concocted a story about a giant crab that minced trash into sand for the beach. Imagine the look of shock on my face when I later learned we would need to actually create a minimal viable prototype from our storyboards.

Given 25 minutes to build the prototype, I turned to the only thing in my possession that could be molded: the garbage from my recycling bin. The result was a “robotic” crab made out of a water bottle, cardboard, a trash bag, and tape.

Although my solution was absurd in as many ways as it was difficult, the process of designing a prototype out of waste caused me to mull over questions I hadn’t thought about before.

What if the “crab” was simply a small machine that collected trash?

How could technology be utilized to solve this problem?

How would the collection of trash be regulated?

What mechanisms on the robot would allow it to sense when “sand” could be delivered to the beach?

Would the robot move on wheels along the road?

Could this concept be re-imagined as an app or service?

The last question resonated with me the most. Because I did not start with a specific material in mind (such as plastic or metal), my solution was not bound to any one physical manifestation. I used recyclable waste to make my prototype, but this merely helped me think about the flaws in my solution and what would make it better. I started to imagine it less as an actual crab and more as a service that operated like multiple organisms removing waste and delivering it to a facility that could turn waste into a sustainable material. I was able to break out of the bounds of what my solution was and instead think more about what it could potentially do.

Action plan: Next time you need to design something, try building the blocks using a medium unfamiliar to you. If you design mainly using digital platforms, use household items to represent the flow and architecture of your design. Where does this process take you?

A forked dirt trail in a rich green forest

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