Find: Prototyping an IDEO Make-a-thon

Cool idea, with a nice set of tips for similar events. 

ideo labs

Mixing makers, hackers, designers, and OpenIDEOers in IDEO’s London studio

Way back in December, some of us in the IDEO London studio started talking in a pub about some of the ideas arising out of OpenIDEO and its challenges for social good.

We wondered: How could we help the digital community build out more of these winning tech and design solutions? What would happen if we got passionate designers, hackers, and digital community members in a room with no distractions one weekend, all working towards creating physical & digital prototypes for social good? And, could we all play around with Arduino and the 3-D printer while we were at it?

Originally we thought of doing a hackathon. Then we decided to push the concept to its next iteration. How could we bring together multidisciplinary weekend project teams—not just software engineers and digital designers, but also industrial designers, architects, and problem solvers from different backgrounds? Could we create a new kind of design-driven collaborative event? Inspired by IDEO’s own maker culture, the DIY community at Maker Faire, and Silicon Valley hackathons, we decided to experiment with the concept. We called this prototype event a “Make-a-thon.”

The result was a unique London pop-up event that produced some truly original concepts and meaningful digital and physical prototypes. We hosted about 60 makers and hackers in the IDEO London studio—including 1/3 IDEOers and 2/3 UK creative community members. We used EventBrite to keep track of invitations and had a waiting list of about 65 people. Here’s what we made in a 1.5 days—and what we learned.

5 tips we learned from the prototype IDEO Make-a-thon:

1) Designing a Make-a-thon, like designing a digital community, is about creating the right framework in which people can be optimistic, collaborative, and creative. Think multidisciplinary teams and multiple project briefs, not just software engineers with one thorny problem to solve in 48 hours.

2) Include inspiration breaks, not just tea breaks. Brendan Dawes and Tom Hulme each gave great talks about a specific aspect of maker culture, along with IDEO designers who gave quick mini-talks on various aspects of the design process like lo-fi prototyping and user research. These ‘inspiration breaks’ turn out to be meaningful and important elements of a Make-a-thon as they give teams a bit of a mental break and help to nourish the imagination.

3) Build and visualize quickly, and work on physical and digital prototypes in conjunction. Join teams who have complementary skills or those who are as passionate about the idea as you are. A visual designer might be able to sketch out the experience where a coder could bring it to life through a rough-and-ready prototype. Each collaborator can add a new facet to the idea in order to make it compelling and real.

4) Balance steering the teams with letting them openly explore. Sometimes teams can get bogged down in discussions and decision-making, and it’s important to nudge them at the right moments towards capturing their thoughts and plans. Having the right tools in place will help. We found that creating team project worksheets helped team members focus while refining their prototypes prior to final presentations.

5) Never underestimate the power of team names, Twitterfall, and a good night’s sleep. We found that once teams chose their own names, it was easier for them to collaborate. Good to know! A few other seemingly small choices that made a big (positive) impact: Digital media and photos: Using Twitterfall and the hashtag #ideomake we kept real-time Twitter feedback projected on the studio wall, visible to all participants. It was great to see global conversations going on about the event while everyone was in the space. Music: Tunes can set the mood and keep the buzz alive, choose your playlist well and keep it going. Sleep: We made sure to people home for a good night’s sleep, so they could come back mentally and physically refreshed the next day. Food: Our experience team kept the food healthy and plentiful, with lots of treats in between. Awards: These got a very positive response from participants! We loved giving out awards as much as teams loved receiving them.

Every single person who participated brought a different set of skills to the IDEO London Make-a-thon. So, we made badges to help them identify their unique talents. To celebrate the uniqueness of each participant, they could wear a bouquet of skills badges, including some silly ones like pigeon fancier. We’ve actually made these badges open source so you can download the files here and make your own! If you do use them or add to the set, don’t forget to share your photos on our discussion forum!


Several participants commented that the multidisciplinary mix of skills made the Make-a-thon a unique community experience. As Amnesty International’s Digital Communications Director, Owen Valentine Pringle, put it afterward: “What made the IDEO Make-a-thon special was the fact that a variety of individuals brought their expertise to bear in an attempt to solve a very specific problem, in this instance, what technology can do to limit the impact of unlawful detention. But whilst this problem focused on one area of human rights, it demonstrated a fundamental change in the way a global NGO, such as Amnesty, regards the role of technology in helping it to achieve its core objectives; not simply for message amplification, but for social change itself.”

And yes, we did get to play with Arduino and the 3D printer. The Financial Times featured one Arduino-enabled IDEO Make-a-thon prototype in its Innovation Barometer column earlier this month, calling it: “a new smart bicycle light that warns the cyclist of a vehicle’s proximity by sounding a siren and flashing a sad face to warn the driver.”

The Make-a-thon opened with 8 OpenIDEO design briefs. Below are links back to the original briefs, and descriptions of the IDEO Make-a-thon prototypes that resulted:

Village People

Brief: The Future of the Village Fête
Team: Brendan Dawes, Charlene Lam, Emilie Sheehan, Lawrence WillmottNazia ParvezNeil Churcher, Robin HowieIvo Vos, Chris Grantham.

Starting with the question ‘What is the urban fête?’ The Village People team created a new grassroots movement where London locals can plan and stage their own fête interventions. Prototypes included a fantastic brand, video testimonials from locals and a concrete ‘deaddrop’ where locals can share digital fête music.

Check out Charlene Lam’s blog writeup of her experience at

Team Xtreme

Brief: Boris Bikes for Tourists
Team:  Basil Safwat, Benjamin Redford, Kathy Stawarz, Hadley Beeman, James Croft, Jude Pullen, Michael StillwellBen FormanYuni Lee.

Team Xtreme was tasked with improving the Boris Bike rental scheme for London visitors. They created a number of innovative prototypes including a receipt docket that gives you a sightseeing cycle route and a custom 3D printed clip that can be used to mount cameras, maps, and flowers to your Boris Bike.

The book clip has been released as an open source product on, so you can download and 3D print it for yourself!

Karma Comedians

Brief: Postcode Gangs
Team: Andy Piper, Daniel Watson, Haley Stopford, Tim Burrell-Saward, Steve O’Connor, Victoria Brooks, Lydia Howland.

The Karma Comedians team sought to bring locals together through a skills-sharing interactive phone booth. They created a seamless experience prototype by joining up technologies such as Twillio, Skype, and the iPad.

Check out the open source version of the code here:

And Tim Burrell-Saward’s writeup of the project:


Brief: Cycle Safety 3.0
Team: Beth Anderson, Jeremy Innes-Hopkins, Josah Emsley, Larissa Seilern, Louise Wilson, Oliver Poyntz, Yuki Machida.

The Bikewell team looked at cycle safety on London streets and created a service to teach people about cycle safety as well as a series of smart bike lights that react to cars when they’re too close, or post messages to drivers in traffic.

Check out the videos of the working prototypes of the bike light here and the wearable flashing bike lock here.

Amnesty International

As part of the Make-a-thon, we also worked with 4 briefs for Amnesty International in tackling unlawful detention. These briefs came out of the recent OpenIDEO challenge with Amnesty to create new solutions in support of those affected by unlawful detention and were developed on the day with the help of IDEOer Amy Bonsall.

Protect Yourself

Brief: Amnesty Advice Platform and Amnesty Action on Google

Protect Yourself created a live prototype of an Amnesty Checklist platform where activists, family, and friends can seek advice about unlawful detention. The team worked with Amnesty subject matter experts to create the content for these checklists as well as building the platform to host them.

Take a look at the live prototype!

Team: Amjad Baiazy, Ben Morgan, Dan Townsend, Danilo di Cuia, Sabrina Tucci.

Don’t Panic

The team built an alert app and platform for signaling “at risk” situations using Google Maps and HTML5 technologies. Accessible via mobile browsers by those at risk, individuals can hit the alert button to register when they’re in danger of being taken, sending their location and details. A group of volunteers monitor the platform and in turn alert the relevant organizations.

Check out the live panic button:
And the monitoring interface:

Team: Bianca Hollis, Jill IrvingZaynab Leeya


Brief: Amnesty Observer App

The team built an app to help people record and upload human rights violations. Using HTML5 and Phonegap, they were able to create a working app for the iPhone that allows users to record video or photos and upload details about the imagery to a secure server.

Team: Ilias Bartolini, Laurian Gridinoc, Ralf Rebmann, Tristam Sparks


A web service for determining if an ‘at risk’ activist has gone offline and may need help. The service monitors a user’s social media usage and alerts those in their network if they haven’t registered any activity for a period of time. This is a subtle way of detecting when someone may be missing, without relying on the person to be proactive.

Team: Fergus DoyleGerard Rallo, Joe Lanman.

Seeing so many talented individuals come together and have the freedom to explore new ideas and create some great work together was very gratifying.

If you want to keep hacking on Make-a-thon briefs (they’re all open-source!), it’s not too late. We encourage your builds on OpenIDEO at the links below each brief here:

If you prefer a brand new OpenIDEO challenge, we’ve just partnered with the EU’s European Commission to “strengthen the environment for web entrepreneurs” in Europe. Submit your inspirations and ideas here, and who knows, it could wind up being prototyped in a future IDEO Make-a-thon!

Our final big learning was that it takes a team of people to deliver an experience like this. The Make-a-thon brought together a team of us in the London studio to create and curate this intense creative experience:
Haiyan ZhangJeremy Innes-Hopkins, Steve O’Connor, Christine HendricksonLaura McClureNadine  Stares, Jamie Styles, Lorraine Clarke, Bobbie Brightman, David McDowald, Amy Bonsall, Pontus Wahlgren, Tom HulmeLydia Howland, Ben Forman, Yuni Lee, Ivo Vos, Chris Grantham & Andrea Koerselman.

Interesting in joining the next Make-a-thon? Send us an email with your contact details and your Maker bio to

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