Version 2 of the Maker Project Canvas

ConceptCanvas_v2 MakerProjectCanvas_v2

I just released an updated version of the Maker Project Canvas (v2). Improvements were made to the Form section. In addition, a Concept Canvas for brainstorming has been introduced. It only has the high level sections (Goal, Form, Function) of the full canvas.


Here are some resources:

  1. Download the Concept and Full canvas PDF files from Github.
  2. Download the Maker Project Canvas Workbook from here.
  3. A few articles can be found on Medium.

I hope you find it a useful tool. I would love to see how you use it on projects!

Case Study: Word Clock Maker Project Canvas

Exploring the form and function of an innovative clock design

Photo credit: Doug Jackson

This article is a case study of the popular Word Clock project using the Maker Project Canvas. We’ll start with a brief background on the project. Then we’ll apply the Maker Project Canvas to understand its components.


The Word Clock project first appeared on Instructables in an article by Doug Jackson (drj113) based around a PIC microcontroller. This case study will follow his second article which is based on an Arduino.

Doug, based in Australia, graciously offered some insights on this project:

Q: What was the motivation for the Word Clock project (the “Why)?
Doug Jackson
Doug Jackson

My motivation in creating the WordClock came about when I saw an Hack-A-Day article that mentioned the QClock2.  I really loved the clock, and decided to make my own version of it.  I was also aware of a screen saver for Linux that displayed the time in words, so I combined those ideas.

I have always been an educator (being a part time teacher for 15 years), and it just made sense to roll the Instructables article.  I built on the concept with three articles – firstly with a PIC micro, then with an Arduino (because there was a contest), and finally, with a massively updated face design.  

One of the things that has been important to me is not to simply duplicate the Qclock2, but to develop that idea and provide others with a vehicle that they can use themselves.

I have inspired a number of Kickstarter and Instructables projects – all of whom credited my code, so I couldn’t be happier with the success of my original vision.

Q: What gave you the idea for the stencil?

The stencil was originally a piece of copper clad PCB – I had already been making lots of amateur radio and other projects using my own hand etched boards, and it made sense to use PC to create the face.  As the project became more and more successfully, people wanted me to make clocks for them, so I experimented with using signwriting vinyl, which was a good outcome.  Eventually, I purchased my own laser cutter and experimented with making faces using heavy card – and that’s where I am now.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face on projects and what advice can you give for handling them?

The biggest challenges I face on projects are two fold;  1. to remain open to ideas that will allow the project to be simplified, and 2. to find time to devote to the project, and 3( yes… I know) to correctly document the project as it is being developed.

The importance of allowing ideas to develop can’t be over emphasised.  Project development is iterative – as I learn new things, I discover better ways of working.  A case in point was winning the Instructables contest that got me a couple of LED matrix game boards (Meggy Jr RGB’s) – that allowed me to see a better way of programming the Arduino (using a 6 pin programing cable) – so I rolled that into my design.  To be completely honest, the current design is built on a double sided, surface mount board, using an AtMegs165 as the CPU, and with a modified Arduino IDE to allow that chip to work.  A far cry from 24 Transistors attached to a PIC micro.

Time is just a management issue – I devote time to my projects, and try to break development down into manageable chunks.  I’m fortunate that my family understands in that respect.

Documentation – I can’t emphasize how critical that is.  Without it, I forget where I have been.  It’s disappointing to see the number of times I have rediscovered something.

Q: What is the status of the project today?

Today, I have a small business running – I make and export clocks worldwide, and have in the past employed 3 part time people to help ‘turn the wheels’  – Sadly, I am fighting a copyright infringement where a Chinese company has taken my Instructables project, and core from one of my kits (including the copyright notice in the firmware).  To say that is disappointing is an understatement, but at least I have people still believing in what I do 🙂 Copyright is a complex area, and while I can easily stop sales here in Australia, I have to hire legal representation in the USA – And that’s nigh on impossible for a single person running a hobby.

…Now let’s start using the Maker Project Canvas to analyze the Word Clock project!


The canvas is a tool to help you plan how your project will achieve its goal. You may find what works best is starting with a section covering an aspect you have been thinking about. Taking that small step may help overcome inertia to thinking about the other aspects.

If a more systematic approach helps, start with the middle of the canvas and work outward:


That is the approach we’ll use to create a canvas for the Word Clock project, starting with high level considerations of the Goal (Job-to-be-Done), Function, and Form:



With the high level description of the project completed, let’s move onto the details of how the function (“A desk clock”) will get implemented. The arrow path suggested earlier starts with the User Interface and then drills down into the hardware to make it happen.

The heart of the Word Clock project is the word stencil that gets back illuminated by LEDs to form the sentence that tells the time. This is the key interface to the user, along with two buttons for setting the time:

Photo credit: Doug Jackson


The Sensors/Actuators section captures the hardware that supports the User Interface. In the Word Clock project, the LED display board that illuminates the word stencil can be considered the actuator providing outputs. The sensors are the two buttons used to give the inputs to command setting the time.

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson


The interface to the sensors and actuators is described in the I/O section. The Word Clock used a custom built Arduino shield (the controller) that has the LED drivers and connectors for the LED display, power, and button board. The Arduino mounts onto the controller board as well, since after all, this is the Arduino version of the Word Clock.

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson


The Word Clock project uses an Arduino sketch to implement the clock function in the hardware. Note the use of the #define statement to make the code more readable.

// Code snippet from Doug Jackson's project
// Display output pin assignments
#define MINUTES Display1=Display1 | (1<<0)
#define IT IS Display1=Display1 | (1<<5)#define TWENTY
* * *
void displaytime(void){
// start by clearing the display to a known state ledsoff();

// Now, turn on the "It is" leds
Serial.print("It is ");

// now we display the appropriate minute counter
if ((minute>4) && (minute<10)) {
Serial.print("Five Minutes "); }
* * *

The remaining sections are straightforward: no networking is required, the internal flash on the Arduino is sufficient for storage, and power is provided by a “wall wart”.



The Use Patterns section addresses how the project will be used. In the case of a clock, the primary user interaction is reading the time displayed. Less frequently, the user sets the time. If the project had an alarm, there would be patterns of setting and dismissing the alarm.

The Shape section describes the overall physical form of the project. Shape is a visual language, so a simple sketch is the best way to communicate the idea.

The Dimensions section is the home for describing the key dimensions of the project. The Word Clock is housed in a rectangular box that is described in length, width, and depth.

The Word Clock uses etched printed circuit boards for the word stencil, controller, and display boards. In order to keep stray light from unintentionally illuminating neighboring words in the stencil, baffles were constructed on the backside of the stencil using PCB pieces. The frame for the housing was constructed on 12mm chipboard and the back panel was made from thin plywood. Use the Material section to capture this information.

The primary heat sources in the project are the Arduino, LED drivers, and the LEDs. All of these are relatively low power and no thermal issues were anticipated, as recorded in the Thermal section.


The Mounting section describes both how the project and its parts are mounted. The word stencil and LED display board are held in grooves cut in the top and bottom pieces of the frame. The controller board is mounted to the back panel with screws and some hardware to act as standoffs. Two cleats were placed on the inside of the frame vertical members to provide a mounting surface for the back panel. The frame itself was glued and screwed together, except for the top piece which was only screwed. This allowed it to be removed to have access to the word stencil and LED display- useful for trying new configurations later.

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson


The Assembly section contains notes on how the components are put together.

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson


The final section describes how Cables will be handled. The Word Clock has an internal ribbon cable between the controller and LED display board. The power cable exits through a hole in the back panel. There is also wiring between the controller board and the time set button board.

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson

The completed canvas:



A lot has happened since the Arduino Word Clock was posted on Instructables. Doug Jackson has continued refining the design, creating some really beautiful versions like this desk top unit:

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson

He has even built some large installations that are stunning:

Photo credit: Doug Jackson
Photo credit: Doug Jackson

Doug now offers both kits and completed Word Clocks through his web site. It is well worth a look- it is inspiring to see how an innovative project went from the early form described above into their current form.


I’d like to thank Doug Jackson for his help in putting this article together. He’s a true Maker.

Introducing the Maker Project Canvas

Maker Project Canvas

A 20 minute 1-page planning tool for your project

There’s a balance between jumping into a project and planning it out. While it is always better to just get started (a bias for action), you may find yourself having to backtrack because of something that wasn’t considered early enough (like: there’s not enough room in the enclosure when the shield is mounted to the Arduino, etc.). Sometimes, minutes spent considering the different aspects of your project can save you hours later. However, without a simple framework to help organize your thoughts, planning becomes a burden that is easily put off.

The Maker Project Canvas is a 1-page tool that helps you think through your project’s goal, its functions, and its form. In about 20 minutes you can capture all the major elements of your project. You’ll quickly get a sense for where you may need to grow your skills and what areas are going to take the most work. If you are working on the project with others, it can be a really helpful way to literally get everyone on the same page.

Inspiration for the Maker Project Canvas came from:



Maker Project Canvas icon

The Maker Project Canvas has three major sections: Goal, Function, and Form. The recommended order for filling in the canvas is:

  1. GOAL– start with why you are doing this project. It could be to learn Raspberry Pi coding, control something in your house, or prototype a product idea. This helps you have a clear focus on the expected outcome.
  2. FUNCTION– what will your project do. This section captures a description of how it “works-like”: what is the interface, what does the code look like, what is the processing platform, how much power does it need, etc.
  3. FORM– what your project “looks-like”. This section describes how it gets used, what materials are used, how they are finished, how it gets mounted, how the cables are handled, etc.

Following Simon Sinek’s advice, start with the goal (the “Why”). Keeping Louis Sullivan’s famous “form follows function” dictum in mind, move on to the function section before the form section. Function and form are equally important aspects of the same project- recalling Frank Lloyd Wright’s version: “form and function should be one”. That’s why the canvas is drawn with form and function surrounding the goal. Form and function should serve the goal.

The form and function sections are further broken down into boxes to capture their elements. Here is the full Maker Project Canvas:

Maker Project Canvas

A PDF version is available on Github.

If you are most comfortable brainstorming with paper and pen, print out the canvas and use Post-It Notes or write directly on it. If you want a larger version and don’t have a large format printer, just draw the boxes on a whiteboard. You can capture it with your phone camera to document the finished canvas.

Alternatively, you can use Adobe Reader to put notes right on the canvas. Use what works best for you and where you are in the project.


A good way to look at a project is to think about the how it is helping get a job done (Clay Christensen’s JTBD). Think about what are you trying to accomplish with this project, i.e. “the job”. Why is this project a good way to get the job done? For example, there are lots of ways to vacuum a room besides the robot you’re dreaming about. But maybe the job is not really about vacuuming, but spending time building the project with your kids. As Stephen Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind”.

When your project has a team, it is important to get everyone aligned to the purpose of the project. Without agreement up front, hours will be lost later on wrong approaches and wasteful arguments. Being able to clearly articulate the goal gets everyone’s mind focused on the same problem.



This box summarizes the intended function of the project (the remaining boxes will describe how the function is done). What does the project do? Try to start with a high-level summary of how the project “works like”.

User Interface

How do you interact with the project? Is it a simple ON/OFF switch or an Android/iOS app on your phone? Does the project have some LED indicators or a color touch display? Do you need an audio interface with microphones or speakers? This box captures the hardware that resides between you and the internal electronics/mechanics.


How does the project interact with the environment? Will it use IR sensors or cameras? Is capacitive touch sensing being used? Does it need solenoids to control latches or motors to move? This is the hardware that makes the interface work. If your project has code, it will need to handle these objects.


Do you need digitally control something or monitor a line? Do you need to convert an analog sensor value to bits? Are shields or HATs needed to connect the sensors, actuators, switchings, keypads, or displays with the processor? Do you need to build some custom circuitry to act as the interface between the processor and sensors/actuators? This hardware sits between the processor and the sensors and actuators.


Makers have a great set of options for adding processing to their projects thanks to platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Particle Photon, and many others. What platform will you use? This may be determined by familiarity, availability (already on-hand), or processing requirements. Some platforms build in networking too.


If the project needs code, what language platform and tools are used? For the Arduino, it is often the Arduino IDE. Beside your own code, projects often build on libraries for a platform. Libraries are a great way to get functions implemented without re-inventing the wheel. Going further up the application hierarchy, does your project need web services like IFFT, weather, or traffic reports? Are you planning to interact with a smartphone? Do you need to build an app too? Capturing the code plan helps you think through the pieces needed to perform the function.


Does the project need to communicate with the Internet? Over Ethernet or WiFi? Does it need to support Bluetooth devices? Are you going to use ZigBee? Do you need a separate shield to support networking? This box defines your communications needs.


Does the project need to collect and store data? Does it do it locally or on a remote device? Is there enough storage on the platform for your code and data? This box is especially important for data logging functions.


How is the project powered? Is a mobile device running off of batteries? How do they get charged? Is a desktop device? How much power is required from the “wall wart”? This information will also help you understand the sources of heat when thinking about thermal design later on the canvas.



At a high-level, summarize what the project “looks like”. How would you quickly describe it to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?

Use Patterns

How does someone use the project to get its intended job done? What sequence of switches, smartphone app buttons, or gesture recognition are used get it to do its intended job? What feedback do people get while interacting with the project? Does it perform more than one task? While the User Interface box (Function section) is more concerned with hardware, this box is for capturing how the project is used.


What is the physical shape of the project? What is driving the selection of the overall shape? Aesthetics, pure functionality, or a combination? How do the pieces of the project contribute to its overall form? How will the shape impact the fabrication of materials?


How big is the project physically? How much room is required internally to house your processing platform and additional electronics like shields? Do you have enough room for cable access and connectors? Is access room needed for storage cards or plugging in cables or accessories? Have you considered tolerances to ensure component variations can be accommodated? Is a scaling hierarchy of preferred dimensions being used (like multiples of 0.25″)?


What materials will be used in its construction? How are they fabricated? How are they finished? How does the material finish support the overall aesthetic goals? Do you want a natural look or something else? Are there any material strength issues? Are the materials suitable for the environment they will be used in?


What environment does the project have to work in? What temperature do the sensitive components need to stay below? Will there be enough natural convection and conduction to keep the parts cool? Do you need a fan or additional heat sinking?


How do components in the project get mounted? Does the finished project require mounting? Will you use screws, hangers, velcro, or adhesives?


What techniques will be used to assemble the project? Fasteners, adhesives, welding? What tools will be needed to assemble it? Can the assembly be simplified? Do you need to disassemble the project occasionally? Will it be difficult? Can it be easily re-assembled? Are assembly fasteners hidden? Do you need decorative screws?


Does the project have cables? How will they be handled to avoid a tangled mess? Do you need strain relief on any of the cables? How will internal cables be routed? What can be done to make external cables look neater? Wrap them in a cable sleeve?


The Maker Project Canvas a tool for collecting your thoughts about a project. Use it to quickly brainstorm ideas before starting to build and help reduce problems later.

 As your project evolves (plans rarely stay unchanged when actually implemented), you can create an updated version of your canvas. This can help you follow your thinking over time. This collection of canvases can serve as a good reference when considering the next project- just because something didn’t work on the last project, it may be critical on the next one.

Go build something (after thinking about it for at least 20 minutes)!

Which areas covered in the Maker Project Canvas give you the most problems in your projects? How do you deal with these problems? Where do wish there was a better solution? Please leave a comment below!

New Project: Pylon

First prototype

A new project has been started, continuing the work of the Huelle and Aspect project. The goal of the Pylon project is create a beautiful enclosure for Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Spark, and LittleBits based projects.

A first prototype was constructed to get a feel for some of the design issues, but the goals for the project as still being defined.

Follow this project starting with the Pylon homepage.

Off the Lab Bench and Into the Living Room

Maker Faire NYC 2014

MF14NY_BadgeThe great folks at ShopBot let the Aspect team display Prototype IV in their booth- many thanks! This prototype was entirely cut on the awesome ShopBot Desktop, including the printed circuit board. It was a great chance to get feedback on the project from Makers.


The construction of the Soundtrack Bluetooth speaker from DomeCandy caught our eye. We had a good laugh with their Co-founder Seth Alcorace about the similarity in our projects approach to using wood slabs.


makercon-logo-02-1x_horizTechochic displayed their GLANCE progress indicator at the MakerCon Innovation Showcase. The device indicates progress against a goal in a friendly way, very similar to the familiar wall clock. It is a great example of integrating digital tracking and quantification with how we actually like to live (glancing at a object instead of fiddling with apps).