Being able to sketch and rapidly iterate with electronics is a very powerful skill in creating tangible experiences. It allows designers to test our behavioral assumptions, both digital and physical together, with real people. Unfortunately even getting started can be daunting. Just collecting all the tools takes a bit of time and know how. *EDIT Please post in the comments if there are any other resources this guide should have*

Here is the collection of the best tools and resources I’ve found so far.


Arduino ($30) : Think of an arduino as a really small and simple computer made by a group of crazy Italians geniuses. The crazy Italian bit isn’t that important but the small simple computer is what we’ll use to tell our sensors and actuators (buttons and motors) what to do.

There are all kinds of arduino boards available now. Tiny arduinos, huge arduinos, sewable arduinos, supercheap arduinos and colorful arduinos. If you’re just getting started, ignore them all for now and just get a hold of a kit with the latest version of the original Arduino.

Right now that’s the Arduino Duemilanove (which is Italian for 2009). Arafruit industries has a great Arduino Starter Pack which I highly recommend as the place to get your arduino base kit. It has all kinds of extras you’ll need in order to get started.

Adafruit Starter Kit

Official Arduino Website

A little Arduino History


Bug Labs BUGS ($579): High end modular products with open source software. These cost a bundle but if you can afford them the BUG system promises to allow you the ability to build ‘your dream gadget’. The price point and closed hardware has meant bug labs has been slow to take off but it’s certainly worth looking into. Bug out at the incredible prices here. Plus it’s shiny.


Little Bits (Not Available Yet) : This is an open source hardware library of discrete electronic components. Each component can snap on to another using small magnets. Sounds really cool but as of yet I have not been able to find any way to actually purchase any of these. You can ogle at them from a distance at LittleBits or Smart Design. *UPDATE : They just had a launch party and should be available soon*

And while we’re one the subject, D.Tools, Tinkerkit and Sketchtools are few other platforms that are currently unavailable to the general public at the moment. I hope we’ll see these tools available to the public in the near future. Let’s keep out fingers crossed.


Chumby ($200): Another open source software but closed hardware device. It’s a bit like wifi enabled dashboard widget player. The website describes it as ‘a window into your Internet ‘. A designer should be able to host and play flash lite widgets on the device. Check it out at Chumbilciousland.


Elenco’s Electronic Snap Circuits ($32 – $129): Elenco offers a few different sizes of these kits. They come with a visual manual and number of snap components that allow you to play with creating a variety of simple circuits. I think they are great way to get familiar with what the electronic components are capable of. You can buy it directly from here.


*EDIT* Here’s a list of other toolkits available


So you can see just by looking at a few of the options available that the Arduino turns out to be the cheapest and most flexible platform by which to design physical interactions. It’s not perfect but we are certainly on the edge of something great. Yes I know you want lego style plug and play electronics with a visual programming language for under fifty bucks but we’re not here to make tools. We’re here to get the tools out of the way so we can start making products and experiences. So thems how things be right now. So pick up a Arduino kit and let’s move along to other things we’ll be needing.

Electronics Toolbox

Here are all the bits and bobs you’ll need to really start cracking!

Leatherman Squirt E4 : This is my McGuyver tool for everything. You can use it to cut and shape wires which you’ll be doing quite a bit. It’s the one tool I keep going back to again and again. You can get an engraved version from Makers Shed or you can just buy one at your local Frys.

Soldering Iron : Soldering is welding for electronics. Don’t go and get the super cheap onesbecause you’ll be using them all the time. I suggest the middle of the road version. Oh and you’ll need some solder as well. Just get a spool full of thin gauge solder. Also it’s useful to get a small fan and be sure to solder in an open space so you are not swallowing all that toxic gas. If you’re working with a group this can be shared resource.

Third Hand : This is a real must for doing any kinds of soldering work. They hold the electronic components together as you solder them. If you don’t have one you’ll have to borrow a hand from your friend. You should be able to get one for under $5 bucks from any hobby store. Also a shared resource if you’ve got workshop you can be part of.

Other tools you’ll need (in order of usefulness)

  • Art Bin – Great way to keep all your tools and electronics organized
  • Hookup wire spools – Get three colors. Black (ground), Red (Power), Blue (Input)
  • Break Away Headers – Very useful. These will allow you to plug things into the breadboards.
  • Jumper Wires – These will make your life a lot simpler when sketching out circuits on breadboards.
  • Protoboard / Perfboard – For making your sketches permanent. You want to have about five of these.
  • Mini screw drivers – Really useful for For opening up found objects and toys
  • Mini Breadboards – So cute you’ll want dozens.
  • Alligator Clips – Useful for quickly making circuits. You can buy the clip heads and use your wire to make clips on your own if you’re crafty.
  • Heat shrinks – Plastic tubing that shrinks when heated. Useful to keep your work clean.
  • Multimeter – I like these pocket sized multimeters. Don’t spend too cash much on the multimeter. Just make sure your multimeter has a continuity detection (it’s able to beeps when you touch both ends together!).

Electronic Components

Often these will depend on the project but it’s always useful to keep some on hand.

  • LEDs – All shapes, sizes and colors. You should have some in your kit.
  • Resistors – A mix bag of these should be part of your kit.
  • Potentiometers – These are variable resistors. I usually have a few 10k ones with adjustable knobs.
  • Buttons – They come in all shapes and sizes. There’s some tiny ones in your kit but I suggest picking up some larger ones.

Where to get stuff

Some videos on electronics and electricity

MAKE presents: The LED from make magazine on Vimeo.

MAKE presents: The Capacitor from make magazine on Vimeo.

MAKE presents: The Transistor from make magazine on Vimeo.

Feeling and Doing

Feeling : INPUTs with the use of Sensors

Doing : Outputs with the use of Actuators

Software and Scripts

Arduino Software – The software that comes with the arduino. You’ll find it here.

ProcessingArduino’s sister project. Or father project. Anyhow, software from both is very similar and both are based on the revolutionary work done by John Maeda in his book Design by Numbers.

Flash/AS3 Glue – The AS3 Glue allows for communication between Flash/Flex/AIR applications and Arduino boards. You can read about it here.

Nada Mobile Tools – Tellarts Nada tool Library should allow us to be able to connect the arduino the iPhone. I haven’t tried it yet but it sounds really cool.

Tiddly Wiki – It’s really useful to start is a code library that you can start using and reusing. TiddlyWiki let’s you create your own personal notebook/wiki to do just that.

iResist - iPhone app to help you find out what those colors on resistors stand for

ARTtoolkit – Combining virtual and physical spaces using this open source software – A visual programing language for arduino


Cool! Now you you’ve got everything you might need. Now let’s get start making things.






littleBits workshop from ayah bdeir on Vimeo.

The Tang in Tangible

Fab Houses: Fabrication houses help with creating the tools and other parts you may need to develop your ideas. Some of this stuff you may be able to get done cheaper if you own or have access to the machines yourself but with the power of the internet we can leverage micro economies of scale to bring you new solutions. But don’t forget low fidelity methods. An xacto knife and blue foam will help you iterate faster.

  • Shapeways – 3d Printing
  • Ponoko – Laser cut objects
  • Thingiverse – Open source digital designs for physical objects
  • ThingM – Makers of smart programmable LEDs and other goodies
  • Liquidware – Makers of touch shields and game shields
  • Lulu – Self publishing for the masses – make yourself a manual for that product you made
  • Arduino Gift Guide – Pretty complete list of all things arduino


Fashioning Technology

Getting started with arduino

Other Books

  • Making things talk – Once you’re comfortable to take on more complicated stuff
  • Analog in / Digital Out – A bit outdated in terms of technology used but very interesting
  • Being Digital – Just an amazing book on what the future that was written more than ten years ago


Now that you have access to these tools and tutorials go out and and get your hands dirty. I always try to keep the following in mind. 1. learn my making 2. make simple things 3. show what you make 4. share what you learn.

There’s a gallery of examples to see what others have made as well as a flickr group you can use to share your own creations.


  1. mano
    August 30, 2009

    It looks like you have done a lot of research.
    Thanks for all the info. Now I don’t have any excuses to start prototyping!

  2. Arduino Readings and Materials | HCID Prototyping Class
    November 14, 2010

    [...] Tutorials from Arduino Language Reference Designer’s guide to getting started with electronic sketching [...]

  3. prezent
    November 14, 2011

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