What is a MakerSpace?

I was inspired in part to write this by something that @tieandjeans (Andrew Carle) said in this blog post, and some backchannel comments to me about Maker Education.  A lot of people seem confused by the jargon of MakerSpace, and the related terms Arts and Crafts Room, Artist’s Studio, MakerLab, Design Studio, StudioSpace, ToolLibrary, DesignLabTinkerLab, TinkerSpace, and FabLab.  This post is an attempt to categorize what these things are, and rank them hierarchically.

Toward a Definition

  • A MakerSpace is a room, loft, studio, studio, chamber, barn, or hall that has open areas and dedicated workbenches which have been equipped with tools and materials so that these tools, materials, and open areas can be used to build things.

That’s an easy enough definition.  But let’s compare and contrast it with some other kinds of work spaces.  For example, most schools have an

  • Arts and Crafts Room, which is a room devoted to teaching kids about art and how to make it.  It’s often equipped with stools or benches, lots of sample art, and materials for making art, which may include colored pencils, chalk, paint, brushes, artists’ canvases, wooden models of people or dogs, racks for drying paintings, airtight buckets of clay, potter’s wheels, and so on. Arts and Crafts Rooms are usually set up so that one or more instructors can teach a larger group of students.

Most schools and libraries don’t have an

  • Artist’s Studio, which is like an Arts and Crafts room in that it has supplies for making art, but is often set up for one person to make the kind of art they like to make.  A painter’s studio has one or a few easels, but it’s not a place to teach painting; it’s a place for a dedicated amateur or a professional to make paintings.  A sculptor may need a massive amount of space for blocks of marble or giant sheets of steel, or a lot of refractory cement for casting bronze… but it’s still for a principal artist and her team, not for a teacher and students.

So we’re starting to narrow in on a definition of a MakerSpace, which is similar to an Arts and Crafts Room in that it has spaces for many people to work together; but is more general-purpose than an Arts and Crafts room.  You probably won’t be building birdhouses in an Art Room, but you could in a MakerSpace.  Let’s compare that with the

  • MakerLab, which is just like a MakerSpace, but has an experimental or educational component to it, and may be engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching specifically.  A MakerLAb is more likely to have soldering irons and electronics components in among its materials, and programmable robots are likely to be on its list of tools available for use.  A MakerLab is more likely to need a lead teacher, like an Arts and Crafts room; and less likely than a MakerSpace to have a crew of members who see themselves as equals.

Are we narrowing our definition yet? Maybe we’re being too vague, so let’s contrast this with the

  • Design Studio… where I think you’ll find a crew of dedicated amateurs or professionals whose job it is to design products and test them for a client or a customer.  Have a completely new idea about how to make a hand-held phone? Chances are that a design studio will help you figure out which plastics, what metals, what components, go into your phone.  These people probably understand human proportions really well, so they know how big the phone can be and how small and how heavy.  They also know about materials, and how factories go about building things.  There are computers, with a lot of 3D design software, to help them figure out how to go about building things, and to help them understand how parts fit together.  A Design Studio is often a name given to a group of partners, people, who work together on some dedicated subject: book design, graphic design, advertising, marketing, product design, service design. Though it’s much larger than a single design studio at this point, IDEO is probably America’s best known design firm… and they sort of began as a Design Studio.
  • But the StudioSpace might simply be an open room, with very few tools or materials available at all.  It might have a few rolling desks, and a couple of dedicated workstations, but mostly it’s a large and open and flexible area which can be turned into what it needs to be by turns — this week it’s an assembly station for a new digital pen; next week it’s an art gallery for a party; the week after that it’s an office hosting a new client.  Many Design Studios have StudioSpaces that can be reconfigured to serve many purposes, but there are also stand-alone Studio Spaces, and Design Studios that have no fixed address.

So, a DesignStudio and a StudioSpace often work in harmony with one another, though they don’t have to. Yet they’re often professionals’ work areas, and so we have to contrast that with a

  • DesignLab, which is a space you would/could find in a school.  It might be a middle school or a high school; it might be a college or a university.  It probably doesn’t belong in a kindergarten, though a really dedicated teacher might be able to make it work.  A Design Lab is a MakerSpace that’s specifically intended to teach people to make things or organize processes for the use of someone else.  A DesignLab, usually led by a competent teacher or team of teachers, teaches people about about human proportions, and color theory, and graphic design, and font use — but it also teaches people about the right height for countertops in a kitchen or in a StudioSpace.  It’s not a place to make beautiful art — that’s an artist’s studio — nor is it a place to teach people to make art — that’s an Arts and Crafts Room.  No, a Design Lab has tools like a MakerSpace, but the intended use of those tools is to help shift students from thinking about the world in abstract terms to solving concrete problems with genuine, real-world solutions.

We can downgrade from the goals of a DesignLab to two related spaces, the

  • TinkerSpace and the TinkerLab.  The TinkerSpace is equipped with light-weight tools and materials more suited for model-making and prototyping than genuine construction.  In a MakerSpace or MakerLab, you should be able to build a table or a bookcase, or to sew a prom dress.  In a TinkerSpace, you could build a model of a table or a bookcase, but you probably couldn’t build a weight-bearing one.  Your prom dress might fit a Barbie doll, but not a live human.  All of the work here is lightweight, light attention, and mostly about communicating general ideas rather than the specifics of construction and design.

We can also contrast the MakerSpace and all these related terms with the

  • Tool Library, which doesn’t have any space for anyone to work on projects; but does have tools that you can borrow to use at home and then return.

And then finally, there’s the idea that MIT is promoting, which is the FabLab.

  • FabLab, according to the MIT standards, is a very large MakerSpace, with both the tools and equipment, and the personnel and know-how, to build anything.  Need a tractor?  The people who run the FabLab can help you build it, from the engine and the spark plugs to the hydraulics.  They can help you spec out the design, rough-cut and weld the chassis, and raid parts bins to build it.  Need to sew a prom dress?  They have you covered.

Toward a Hierarchy

So, at this point we’re going to shift gears a bit.  It’s great that we have some working definitions, of course, but I want to move from a definition of a MakerSpace toward an understanding of how these spaces work together in a teaching environment.   I’m going to distinguish between Studios, Spaces, and Labs in this way — a Studio is a professional environment, a Space is a community environment (whether the community is by membership, open-to-the-public, or within a school), and a Lab is a consciously-educational environment.

Ranking from highest to lowest, we’re going to see something like this:

  1. FabSpace / FabStudio / FabLab — Whether we’re talking about community ownership, professionals, or an educational environment, this is the gold standard of operations.  A practical beginner is going to walk into a MAkerSpace, and find that they can build anything, and be educated about how to use the tools available.  However, in a Space, she’ll have to ask for help; in a Studio he’ll be expected to learn quickly and join the professional crew; and in a Lab, people will be deliberately teaching them how to use the tools every step of the way.
  2. DesignSpace/DesignStudio/DesignLab — These kinds of work areas can’t make everything. But they probably have a group of four to ten specialities that they can produce at a very high level of quality.  Whether they do metal work, graphic design, computer programming, carpentry, tailoring, or jewelry-making, people in this environment have access to a good range of tools and high-quality materials.
  3. MakerSpace/MakerStudio/MakerLab — Chances are that a MakerSpace and its related spaces is going to be a bit of a step down from the design designation. A MakerSpace is going to have one to five areas of specialization, and then have partial tool-sets and materials in other areas.  You’ll likely be expected to bring your own materials; there may be storage space in between your visits available… but maybe not.
  4. ArtistSpace/ArtistStudio/ArtistLab —  In an artistic space of any kind, you’re going to find only one or two related art-forms practiced.  You might find a paper-making studio and a printer’s studio and a bookbinder’s studio together.  You might find a pottery room with a kiln, and an instructor who also produces their own work regularly in the same space.  I want to emphasize that an ArtistLab is NOT worse than a MakerSpace… it’s just more dedicated to a specific area of study or artistry or creativity…  You might have a Printing Lab with room for twenty-five students to each work a press on their own, but you can’t build a bookshelf or a tractor there, or sew a prom dress… but you could in a SewingSpace.  Most Arts and Crafts Rooms are really ArtistLabs; and most amateur and professional artists have Artist Studios of their own, even if it’s just a spare room in the apartment.
  5. TinkerSpace/TinkerLab — This is the lowest level.  You find a lot of what I call “low-grade prototyping materials” — pipe cleaners and index cards and puff-balls and colored paper — but very few tools, and considerably less clarity about goals or design.  You don’t get precision or accuracy in a space like this; you also don’t get useable constructions or finished goods. In many ways, a TinkerSpace is really a kind of indoor playground with stuff to stick together in new ways rather than jungle gyms and see-saws.

So, that’s the way I see these things — MakerSpaces revel in the sheer joy of creativity; DesignSpaces build things with a purpose; ArtistSpaces explore creativity without necessarily giving it purpose; and TinkerSpaces are for sticking things together until you get ideas… but won’t necessarily help you build anything real.

Where does your space sit in the definitions?  Are you really operating a DesignStudio when you think you’re running a MakerSpace?  Is your school’s MakerSpace really a TinkerLab?

It’s hard to face these ideas without definitions, sometimes. Maybe we should start to define our terms.

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