If you want to make something, anything at all, there's only 3 things you need. Most people only learn 1 or 2, maybe choosing to specialize in one. Many roles reward specialization, and many things are so hard they can't be done well without specialists on the team, but if you want to make anything you want without having to rely on anyone else, there are 3 things you'll need to know.
Much of this applies to anything at all, from physical objects, to software, to music, and art. But I'll stick to what I know, and keep examples confined to engineering-driven things.
The ability to conceive of the right thing. There are a lot of uses of the word design, but I want to use it in this specific way. Whether you use "Design Thinking," or ethnography, or subscribe to the ideas of vision or divine inspiration, you'll need to conceive of the thing you want to build before, and while you build it.
As engineers, we often skip this step, to disastrous consequences. It can be fun to make a thing that works, but unless it's designed intentionally, it's not going to solve a real problem and no one is going to want to use it.
Design helps us answer questions like:
- Who is the user of this thing?
- How do they want to interact with the thing? How should it look and feel?
- When I start getting feedback from real users, how should I change the thing?
- What will be the environmental and ethical implications of the thing at scale?
The ability to make the thing work. A broader definition might be technical skill, so this could be writing, or playing an instrument, or painting canvas.
In the realm of engineering, the technical skill required to make a thing work can span from engineering design, to software architecture, to design for manufacture. It may involve circuit design, writing code, or solving a static analysis problem.
Engineering helps us answer questions like:
- Is it even possible to make this thing work?
- What are the engineering tasks required to make it work?
- Can I make it work on my own, or do I need help?
- How much is it going to cost to make it work?
The means to make the thing. Whenever you have an idea for a thing, if you aren't independently wealthy, you'll need to figure out how to finance making it. Part of that may include paying a salary yourself and your team, if this is your company. Or making the business case to get a budget, if you're inside a larger company already.
The most frequently overlooked of the 3 areas, engineering students often view entrepreneurship as boring, or as something they can outsource to a "business person." In fact, business and entrepreneurship are the enablers of getting your thing into the hands of your users. Design and engineering aren't enough. Without entrepreneurship, you may have a thing that solves a real problem, that works well, but fails in the real world.
Entrepreneurship helps us answer question like:
- Is there a large enough market of people who even want the thing?
- What kinds of financing are appropriate for making a thing like this?
- Can I manage to offer the thing at a price that works both for me and the user?
- What is the best way to reach all of the users of my thing?
- How do I build and grow a team to help make the thing?
Go Make Things
The exciting thing about today's landscape is that so many tools exist to apply leverage to these areas. Less technical founders can learn low code/no code tools like Shopify and Zapier. Design resources have never been so abundant, and the practice of design so front and center in how we think about the process of creation. Powerful advertising and marketing tools like Instagram Ads and Hubspot exist to help distribute products online.
What this means is that no matter what your background is, you're capable of making things, if you simply invest the time and effort to round out the areas you don't yet know.
At Teespring, we used to say everyone's got one good t-shirt idea in them. I'm pretty sure this holds true for all things.