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A repairable, hackable lamp named Clyde

In April, I saw an old friend at the Reclaiming Repair workshop in Paris. After years in quite separate directions, Amanda and I marveled at how our projects are related. Hers: a hackable and repairable lamp. Small projects like this help us envision a different future, where we take back ownership of domestic electricals like the loveable lamp.

Amanda’s lamp, named “Clyde” reached its funding goal on Kickstarter, got some great press, and will go into production soon. It’s not too late to pre-order your own!

We interviewed Amanda to learn more and share her inspiring approach.

The Restart Project: We get a lot of lamps at our community repair events – often really old ones that people do not want to give up on. Why did you choose to make a lamp? Is it because you think people have some special attachment to lamps?

We have a long-term goal to make lots of different household objects that can be fun, programmable, and repairable. This includes clocks, speakers, decorations and, yes, lighting. We started off making a lamp because it seemed like it would be the simplest kind of object to design, though we did discover plenty of unanticipated complexity in the design process anyway.

Anyway, everyone needs light. We wanted to make a playful, loveable object that also does something useful. The metaphor that best describes our design goals is actually pretty old-fashioned: we were thinking about working animals, like sheep dogs or plow horses, that have a useful job to do, but at the same time can inspire care and affection.

You say that Clyde is “repairable” – can you explain how? How did you go about researching and designing Clyde?

We designed Clyde’s electronics to be modular. That means that there’s a part for bright white task lighting, another part for colored ambient lighting, a few sensors, and a part that handles all the control logic. Any of these parts can be removed or replaced without affecting the others very much. If one part happens to break (though we’re working hard to create a durable design), there’s no need to replace the whole thing.

A lot of the research that went into Clyde’s design came out of workshops we did with an earlier design: a build-your-own lamp kit. This required people to assemble a circuit using a soldering iron, which was a great “learn to solder” project. But a soldering iron is a pretty specialized tool, and that presents a real barrier for a lot of people. Not many people will commit to buying a $30-$200 tool (depending on its quality) for just one project. So we went back to the drawing board to design something that can be assembled, disassembled, and modified with nothing more complicated than a phillips screwdriver.

We also pride ourselves on writing great documentation that explains how everything works, and how you can tinker with Clyde. Our goal is to make him so accessible that people can not only repair him, but proactively make changes that will help Clyde better fit their lives, needs, and desires.

Why did you choose the name Clyde?

We’re still not totally sure where Clyde’s name came from. We threw at least 30 different names onto a piece of paper, then we argued about it for a long time. Then we’d ask other people, and argue some more with them. “Clyde” was the name that we ended up liking best collectively, since it’s cute and personable and feels like a good pet name.
We’ve noticed that people sometimes associate the name with Clydesdale horses, which is cool because it fits well with our “working animal” design metaphor.

How important is play in your approach to designing practical domestic objects?

Play is *extremely* important to us! There’s actually a lot of utility in play. We’d like to see it folded into more everyday objects. We think that getting into a playful mindset is the best way to learn how tinker and repair your stuff. Play encourages exploration and imagination, exploring hypotheticals like “hey what does this part do?” or “what would happen if I connected this sensor?”. Whether you’re repairing something, or building something entirely new, you have to exercise creativity, and we designed Clyde to encourage that.

How do you see people relating to household electricals and electronics in the future? Do you think that hackable, repairable electronics can ever appeal to the masses?

I think that in the future there will be more demand for customizability in consumer electronics and household items. In part, platforms like the iPhone have created this mindset where people expect to be able to download small, cheap applications onto their hardware.

I don’t care for Apple’s culture of planned obsolescence, or their habit of making their latest powerbooks really hard to repair. But what’s cool about how they’ve pioneered apps is that you can take a mass-produced piece of hardware and easily customize it to your own needs.

On the designers’ side, it’s relatively easy to design little niche pieces of software, and a lot of the craft and individuality that’s disappearing from mass-produced physical objects is reappearing in app design. This trend makes me wonder what it might mean to download particular traits into other physical objects in your life.

At the same time, I can’t tell you how many kids we meet, of high school age and younger, that really know their way around electronics — not because they learned it in school but because they’ve had lots of chances to play with electronic kits or approachable microcontroller platforms like Arduino.

It blows my mind how much they know compared to myself at that age, and how their creative imaginations are totally at home with electronics projects. At the moment, it’s their parents driving a lot of the demand for educational kits and such things.

But when those kids grow up and have some buying power, I do wonder what they’ll be demanding in their everyday stuff. So yes, I do think that hackable, repairable electronics will have mass appeal, though I think that day is still a few years out.

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