AlisonLewis

An interview with Alison Lewis of iHeartSwitch

Posted by on Apr 20, 2010 in DIY & Hacking, Interviews | No Comments

I ran into DIY designer Alison Lewis at the Smart Fabric conference in Miami last week and tracked her down for an interview. She has been doing some amazing things while making electronics and wearable technology more accessible to a wider audience, especially girls and young women. Her work is definitely paving the way to making wearable technology more acceptable in mainstream markets. Here’s what she has to say:

[EF] What led you to start working with electronics and wearable technology?
[AL] My interest in wearable technologies came about in graduate school at Parsons in New York. When I started playing with wearable technologies, I was able to combine my interests of fashion, interior design, computing, and interaction design into one area. It felt magical, like I could do almost anything. This feeling of empowerment initially led me into fashion technology, but it’s also sustained me as I teach and share the possibilities with others. Keeping that spark is the key to sharing and teaching the opportunities that fashion and wearable technologies can bring to others and is also important to hold onto while your working on a project in order to keep momentum.

[EF] Why have you focused on DIY (Do-It-Yourself)?
[AL] I focus on DIY for many reasons. DIY has a long history in craft and fashion, allows you to personalize your designs, is about communicating ideas, and has knowledgeable consumers and creative thinkers.

My grandmother and mother taught me that working with your hands keeps your mind strong and open to new ideas. So, I’ve always been one who needs to create or make something. I ended up in DIY by accident because I started sharing my projects with other people on the web. Through this sharing process I have learned a great deal about the power of community and shared knowledge. I also really enjoy coming up with new ideas and doing illustrations, DIY is the perfect place to use these skills.

When it comes to iHeartSwitch and my book Switch Craft, DIY became the perfect medium for the message. The message being that the skills we have as crafters and makers are valuable in the technology field and that as creators we should be thinking about and influencing the technologies designed for us. I saw no reason why women who could sew and do jewelry couldn’t learn to work with electronics. The skills were basically the same, it was just a matter of language and knowledge of the subject matter. The DIY approach allowed me to cross the great social divide between the electronic world and design world and bring the subject of electronics to an already intelligent and talented group of people.

[EF] Who is your audience?
[AL] My audience right now is mostly women. I did a recent survey and it suggests that the people visiting iHeartSwitch are hitting three age groups almost equally. These groups are: 18 – 24, 25 – 34, and 35-49. The majority are married or in a relationship and have interest in sewing, DIYs, fashion design, electronics, green living, and music.

I’d like the audience to expand to people interested in home entertainment, physical fitness, and beauty because these are three areas in which smart fabrics and fashion technology can really impact our lives.

[EF] You mentioned at the Smart Fabric conference in Miami last week that the DIY culture seems to be growing rapidly and expanding to people with all sorts of interests and backgrounds. What are some examples of you finding this to be true?
[AL] Yes, the DIY movement has been growing for sometime now. I’ve been lucky enough to see this trend grow through my colleagues at Make and Etsy, who actually lent me a space to work when I was writing and designing the projects for my book Switch Craft. Those two entities have had a huge impact on the proliferation of the DIY movement, which is about giving creative power to the individual and to community groups. Some of the DIY groups you see emerging seem like a natural fit such as with sewing, back yard mechanics, and home design; however, there are also a huge following in areas people don’t normally think of when they think of the term DIY such as with mechanical engineering and biotechnology. It’s not just crafters and home hackers anymore, it’s a whole world of people wanting to learn and share their knowledge. Watching the DIY world grow has been wild ride, for sure!

One of the companies that I have the pleasure of knowing in this genre is BurdaStyle; they are an open source sewing community with a strong following. BurdaStyle is allowing fashion designers and home sewers to build off their patterns and even create their own fashion lines and sell them on the site. Sharing their designs is a great example of how a business can use open source or DIY as a way to improve their brand and invigorate new customers.

Outside of the crafts many other areas are emerging such as mechanical engineering, you can often see this on Instructables with people making their own DIY CNC (or cutting) machines. The audience wants tools, but can’t afford them, so some people are building them themselves and sharing the steps with the Instructables community.

Craft and engineering makers are not the only ones that understand the power of DIY, one group that usually takes people by surprise is the DIY Bio Technology community. You can find them at DIYbio.com. Their motto is “DIYbio is an organization that aims to help make biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety.”

[EF] A lot of your ideas and projects appear as if they are first prototype products. Do you have plans for commercialization and bringing any of these ideas to the market? If so, what do you see as being the biggest challenges in commercializing a wearable product? (i.e., Manufacturing, Smart Fabrics, Infrastructure, etc.)
[AL] Yes, my projects are very much advanced first prototypes, and I would like to have a line of products and tools with the iHeartSwitch brand name. I see this happening over the next few years. My main goal at this time is using this DIY and the fashion technology movement as a way to educate and break down social barriers that are keeping women from working with technology.

However, having a line of products is certainly a great way to reach a large group, if they are successful. The main jump for someone like me and other individual designers is finding the right partner. If you have the right partner licensing your product, then they can navigate some of the complicated manufacturing processes and deal with the larger product infrastructure such as storage and sales.

I also have a bit of a reluctance to put out yet another product in the environment and end up in the junk pile, so sustainability is a big concern for me. I see a lot of junk being produced and I’d like to work with someone with sustainable business practices; especially in manufacturing.

This means that the cost of any Switch products may be higher; however, I am hoping that some of the great people from the Smart Fabrics conference will lead me in the right direction and bring some of the products to life.

[EF] Stacey Burr, CEO of Textronics and VP at adidas mentioned last week in the Smart Fabrics conference that DIY could be a great platform for team building and idea generation within corporations who are looking at ways to incorporate technology into their soft-goods and clothing lines. Do you see yourself being a part of this?
[AL] Team building and speaking engagements is where I am personally focusing my time and energy in my private consulting practice, outside of iHeartSwitch. It’s important to start building a strong common language between designers and technologists and DIY workshops and focused presentations are a great way to do this. Like I said earlier, working with your hands keeps your mind open, workshops are a gateway for creativity and bonding within a corporate or community setting. This is particularly important with emerging technology companies like smart fabrics where we are dealing with cross-disciplinary teams. There is nothing like watching a material scientist, fashion designer, and electronic engineer get together in a team and build something. Usually results are fantastic and they leave with a better understanding of the challenges and language barriers between them. It’s a winning situation for all involved.

[EF] What can we expect to see from iheartswitch in the future?
[AL] I am working diligently to get funding so we can start filling Switch with many more DIYs, video interviews, and product reviews from a female perspective. We are planning to add advertising to the site as a way to support our efforts. Many people ask me to do a DIY a week, but at this time it’s not financially feasible, not at the creative level that iHeartSwitch wants to promote. There is a very set, and I think well designed, approach to each DIY or project that we do on the site that works well. It is important that iHeartSwitch maintains these standards as we move forward into video DIYs.

For more info on Alison Lewis, visit her site iHeartSwitch.
Photo provided by Alison Lewis and taken by Rayan Collard.

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