“I go where my curiosity takes me.”
When Steve Harberger talks about being a maker, curiosity is a recurring theme. It’s the first thing he mentions when asked what traits serve him best as a maker. And regarding how his work has evolved, he says, “I’m always curious about new things—10 years ago I wasn’t programming electronic devices, and now I do that because I was curious about it and learned how to do it.”

Curiosity has taken him from a career in industrial design to teaching, as Summit School’s Upper School Design Teacher, to ongoing participation in local projects. Kind of a community creator-at-large.

“I got involved with Community Design Studio (CDS) pretty early after seeing their presentation at an Idea Exchange hosted by the Center for Design Innovation (CDI),” he says. His activities with CDS include a Design Marathon and Finish Line event partnering with Imagination Installations at SECCA, and then the resulting Works & Process Exhibit in the Milton Rhodes Art Center.

Developing the electronics for the CDS Unruly Project

He’s also developed an Arduino-based, solar-powered bicycle traffic counter for CDI and is currently working on the CDS Unruly Project—an installation that includes colorful boxes that make intriguing vocal sounds when you jump on them.

Creating His Own Assignments
Steve’s maker journey began in middle school shop class when he … decided not to follow instructions. Sort of. “We had assignments, like a cutting board in the shape of a pig, or a lamp in the shape of a water pump, and I refused to do those,” he says.

Steve did complete the projects, but he built designs that he came up with. “My teachers told me I might want to look into architecture,” he says. He eventually got a degree in industrial design and worked in that field for more than 30 years.

Life as an educator began after the economy declined and he found himself freelancing and looking for more regular work. “I was fishing with a friend, and we got talking about an idea I’d been kicking around for several years,” he explains. The idea? A design camp for kids. His friend? A teacher at Summit School. Steve started helping with after-school programs and writing curriculum. Then he got invited to teach. “Teaching one eighth-grade class turned into a full-time gig,” he says. Creating his own assignments has come full circle—and served him well.

Steve in action at the first CDS/Imagination Installations Design Marathon event on June 2, 2012. (Photo by Duncan Moody)

More Than on an Individual Level
“I design things and build things, and I teach other people how to do that,” Steve says. And there are techniques he’s yet to learn himself, like metalworking. He says that while MIXXER will help folks who want to learn specific skills, for him, MIXXER is about much more than his own work. “I’m curious [there’s that word again!] about what people are working on and how we can all help each other,” he says.

Steve sees opportunity in the potential cross-pollination between MIXXER and organizations like CDS. “Any community groups that want to take on a large-scale project would have a resource, not only of space and tools, but also of people who want to help execute,” he says. “My interest is more on that level than an individual level.”

Steve has also built boats for years. The finished frame will be covered with a fabric skin.

More About Steve:
If you could say one thing to a person who wants to get into making, what would it be?
“What’s keeping you from doing it?” Depending on the situation, I might also say, “Hey, there’s this project I’m working on—why don’t you come check it out?” Or, maybe there’s something the person wants to do but doesn’t know how to start, and I can help with that. If there were a MIXXER location, I could say, “Hey, come on over and see what all of these people are working on.”

Were there any obstacles to your becoming a maker?
The only real obstacles were in the school years: You have resources when you’re in a class, and then after that you don’t have them anymore. This is another role that MIXXER can play for students who want to do things but need space and tools.

One of Steve’s sketches for developing the Works & Process Exhibit with CDS.

What traits serve you best as a maker?
Curiosity. Not being afraid to make mistakes. Believing that it can be done—whatever it is. If I didn’t think I could build a boat, I wouldn’t have built a boat. If I didn’t think I could program, I wouldn’t have programmed. I think I can do it, and then I learn what I need to know.

Do you have any habits that help you in your work?
I like to have more than one thing going on at once. This comes from knowing to step away from a project if the answers aren’t coming. Stepping away means going to another project. It’s important to know when to do that.

Some things I do are exploratory, but if I’m trying to do something more purposeful, I don’t start until I know where I’m going. Sometimes that means carrying ideas around in my head for a while, doing some drawings, putting them aside, and then revisiting them.

I don’t watch a lot of TV.

The bike traffic counter Steve developed for CDI is solar-powered and Arduino-based.

What skills serve you best as a maker?
I’m good at coming up with solutions to problems and figuring out how to implement them. I can also recognize when there’s somebody who’s a valuable resource, who can make a solution more doable.

What is the most frustrating thing about being a maker?
I don’t get frustrated easily, but the two things that will frustrate me are if I overcommit and need to be doing something someone is relying on me to do, but it may not be the right time for me.

Also, when you do get involved in collaborative projects, there’s a level of flexibility you have to have. It’s different than the professional relationship between co-workers. You’re working with volunteers who have good intentions, but sometimes that’s not exactly what’s needed. Or maybe the timing isn’t right. But you need to roll with it. This is good information for MIXXER, too: In a collaborative environment, you have to chill a bit.

What new maker skills would you like to learn?
Metal intrigues me. I’d like to do some casting and forging.

What’s next for you in your work as a maker?
I’ve got some new plans for school this year; we’re doing a new format for a couple of grades, where we’re merging some of the studios so students can follow their curiosity, even if it takes them into another classroom or studio to find what they need.

In my own work, there are some things I started working on with wearable tech. I want to do more of that.

Steve paddles one of the ultralight canoes he and a friend built.

How has being a maker affected other parts of your life?
Designing and building have been essentially everything I’ve been doing for so long, so it’s hard to say— it’s not like I’m a lawyer doing this in my spare time. It’s just what I do.

If you had to start over again as a maker, what would you do differently?
I don’t know. More of it.

Photos courtesy of Steve Harberger.