Roles & Relationships

The usage and evolution of the Arduino has flourished on several interdisciplinary relationships. It incorporates a melting pot of cultures from many different backgrounds. Designers and artists are using microcontrollers, a tool traditionally used by engineers. Engineers are finding more ways to use their creativity that expands into the arts. Deschamps-Sonsino is aware of the varied audience the Arduino encompasses. She says "The definition of what we call art, and who owns the creative process and who is able to qualify themselves as an artist is being completely rethought." The sentiment that arts and engineering mix together, exemplified by the Arduino microcontroller, was not always the case. Limor Fried[1] created artwork in the Electrical Engineering (EE) department at MIT in 2002. Fried created a black box with wires hanging from its perimeter and installed it in a parking garage on campus as part of her EE coursework. The Assistant Dean for Student Conflict Resolution & Discipline considered Fried's artwork to resemble a bomb and cites Fried's relationship to art and engineering as a plausible reason why Fried's work exhibited unacceptable behavior. Whereas "it" refers to Fried's artwork: "A note attached to it described as a Course 6 EE art project, a questionable claim as art is not usually associated with electrical engineering."[2] Due to the advent of the Arduino, the typeset of engineers and hackers will continue to grow in the field of art and design. Carla Diana recognizes the role shift occurring, "We as designers face an interesting situation where there may actually be more creativity happening around us than there is inside our own offices and studios."[3]

The majority of artists and designers interviewed heard of the Arduino through word of mouth. For example, Buechley heard of it through Labrune; Vondle heard of it through Buzzini; Hartmann heard about Wiring through Bill Verplank and then the Arduino. Hartmann recalls, "I first heard about Wiring, (…) through him [Verplank]. My understanding is that Wiring, and later Arduino, were both at least indirectly influenced by Pascal's work, with Bill as the intermediary." As demonstrated by Hartmann, the majority of interviewees knew the history of the Arduino microcontroller. The social network of the Interaction Design Institute of Ivrea (IDII) grew after the program was complete. Kuniavsky asserts, "Interaction Ivrea was a highly connected group of international students and professionals who took their Arduinos all over the world". Buzzini points to the importance of the cross disciplinary relationships Arduino advocates: "…all the different permutations of the Arduino is a very good representation of what the current relationships between designers and technologists are. The only reason why this type of board came about is because the reflection of the interactions and the need that was clearly manifested in design schools, and particularly Ivrea." In other words, the artists and designers are taking it upon themselves to create the tools they need in order to solve problems. 

This approach does not surprise Paul Graham, "What hackers and painters have in common is that they're both makers."[4] The perception that artists don't know how to make things that function is currently in flux according to artist and Professor Kate Hartman.[5] Hartman notes that the quality of physical computing projects have gone up significantly in her classes as the Arduino is changing the concept that artists can do circuitry themselves. Collaborative work will typically be stronger and more robust due to bringing people of diverse backgrounds together. The Arduino brings together artists and engineers and uses a common language with terminology from the Arduino's modified code that they both understand. Hartman notes that Arduino makes her students multilingual. She says that when working with the Arduino, both electrical engineering and computer science are taught at the same time. Hartman cites the benefits of a common vocabulary and working knowledge of the Arduino, "You all know what is possible and what the limitations may be and you are able to have an educated conversation about your work as a whole." 

The usability of the Arduino opened up the number of artists and designers able to use a microcontroller platform. Everything on the Arduino is shareable, easy to replicate and easy to pass on to a friend. Jen Bove,[6] an interaction designer, has had a similar experience to Hartman. Bove illuminates the condition which is so successful for prototyping: the ability to have a physical object already working when going through the steps of imagining the design. This allows for play interactions rather than abstractions. "Everyone sees the same thing, and can tweak in real time. The Arduino makes things real."

Most versions of the Arduino were designed by more than one person within the Arduino community. Deschamps-Sonsino says she has noticed partnerships being established. For example, Buechley and the company Sparkfun have a partnership to manufacture the LilyPad. Many partnerships formed out of the Arduino between artists or designers and engineers do not happen because the artist or designer does not know how to program, but because their counterparts enjoy it more, are faster at it, or have a more detailed knowledge than they do. Hartman and Rob Faludi[7] are both artists and engineers, and both graduates of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. Together they designed the LilyPad Xbee discussed in Section 5.2.2. Artists design with a full understanding of the functionalities and capabilities of the Arduino. Kuniavsky and Kurt of ThingM work in this capacity. Kuniavsky says "I know how to use an Arduino, but it is what Kurt enjoys to do and I enjoy doing the design work". Kurt also has worked with artist Beverly Tang to create Crystal Monster, Fig 17. This relationship was more traditional, differing from Kurt"s relationship with Kuniavsky. Kurt was responsible for some of the assembly, the LED design, and all of the electronics, while Tang was the creative force.

crystal-monster.pngFigure 5-1 Beverly Tang and Tod Kurt, Crystal Monster, 2009, Continental Gallery, Los Angeles

Many partnerships evolve around geography. There is not a SVN[8] for physical things such as hardware, which makes it harder to collaborate in assorted geographic locations. Buechley and Sparkfun began both based in Colorado, Kurt and Kuniavsky based in San Francisco, and Hartman and Faludi were based in New York. The next section describes several evolutions modified from a lineage of designs and the partnerships it took to create different Arduino boards.


  1. Limor Fried (Founder of LadyAda) in discussion with the author, August 2009.
  2. Research. LadyAda, http://www.ladyada.net/pub/research.html (visited on 01/18/2009)
  3. Carla Diana, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hackers. Interactions, 2008, 15, no. 2, 46
  4. Graham Paul, Hackers & Painters. Cambridge: O'Reilly, 18
  5. Kate Hartman (Co-creator of the LilyPad Xbee) in discussion with the author, June 2009.
  6. Jen Bove (Co-found of Kicker Studio) in discussion with the author, October 2009.
  7. Rob Faludi (Co-creator of the LilyPad Xbee) in discussion with the author, May 2009.
  8. Subversion Network, used to store and access versions of software.