Adafruit PCB Ruler

The Adafruit PCB Ruler is more than just a way of measuring things. It is also the ultimate reference (at least for the size) for folks designing their own PCBs. The ruler is made of a 6” length of PCB laminate, and naturally it offers the requisite inches and centimeters. Where the ruler diverges from the expected is that it is covered, both sides, in reference materials for PCB design: want to know what a 24-mil trace looks like? What about a 28-gauge via? The ruler also has footprints for over a dozen surface-mount components like minuscule SOT-23 chips, the size of half a grain of rice. At $5 the ruler is a great deal anyway, made all the better by the fact that you can get one for free from Adafruit just by spending $100 in their store.

-- John Baichtal  

Adafruit PCB Ruler


When trying to solve the world’s problems with software, it is incredibly difficult to get stakeholders and collaborators to relate and contribute to solutions until after the software has already been developed – creating huge waste.

Paper designs and low-fidelity static mockups force people to use too much of their imagination, and each person’s imagination and perceptions are different. In the past, the costs of collaborating in this environment were large.

Enter – the simplest and fastest way to get dozens of project collaborators on the same page with a high-fidelity, clickable prototype (something everyone on the team can relate to) without the cost of previous generations of so-called ‘prototyping’ solutions.

Other tools like AxureRP or iRise are expensive and complex to use, and myBalsamiq makes it too difficulty to get to high-fidelity.

I have been using it for 6 months and it has been an absolute game changer.

-- Jeff Evans  

Free and subscriptions ranging from $13 – $90/month


Girders and Gears

Girders and Gears is the place for fanatical hobbyists and collectors of metal construction sets. Serious enthusiasts show off what they build with their sets, and share their knowledge about building techniques, history of the sets, and how to restore the old ones. They work in every historical and contemporary construction set. Not all construction sets are toys. Heavy duty ones can be used for prototyping.

Constructor sets come in 3 categories:

Repetitive Hole Beam
Consistently space holes along the length permit modular connections.

Bitbeam - LEGO Technic-compatible building technology. Bitbeam can be printed on a 3D-printer or cut with a CNC router or laser-cutter, which means it can be made out of plastic, wood, or aluminum.

– Make your own. Contraptor is a DIY open source construction set for experimental personal fabrication, desktop manufacturing, prototyping and bootstrapping. Not sold. Make your own, with Sketchup files.

meccano2Meccano – In the US called Erector Sets. Steel girders, bolts to bind them.

Merkur – Metric-based Meccano/Erector-like system , made in Czech, popular in Europe.

Slot Beam
A long slot in the beam permits a secure connection with infinite adjustment of spacing.

T-Slots – Industrial scale and strength. Both fractional and metric.

– Mini-T is a miniature version of larger T-slot building systems.

OpenBeam – Smaller version of industrial t-beam, with free plans that you can manufacture yourself or purchase.

Makeblock – Hybrid: Repetitive holes and slots. Various special shapes.

Beams and Connectors
Complicated rods — more than simple beams — slip into complicated connectors

K’Nex – Flexible rods with plastic connects allow non-grid structures.

Lego/Technic – Highly crenelated beams and smaller parts with repetitive holes plug into different shaped connectors.

-- KK  

Butterick’s Practical Typography

A couple years ago, I reviewed typographer-lawyer Matthew Butterick’s book, Typography for Lawyers. It “isn’t just for lawyers,” I said then, “it’s for anyone who cares about how text looks in print or on the Web.”

Now Butterick has web-published a new book on typography for a general audience, Butterick’s Practical Typography. It covers the same subject, but without directives specific to the legal profession.

This time it’s not a print book. It’s not an e-book, either. It was created and coded by Butterick himself specifically for the Web. You can read it through like a book, but it’s set up as an easy reference guide, with links to font basics, font recommendations, text formatting, sample documents, etc. For those in a hurry, there’s a “Typography in Ten Minutes” section.

The book is freeware, but you can kick the author some compensation for his work through the website.

I love type. I’ve read many bookis on the subject. Butterick’s are by far the clearest and most useful of them all.

-- Russ Mitchell  

Sample Excerpts:


Criticizing Helvetica is one of the fa­vorite pas­times of ty­pog­ra­phers: It’s bland. It’s overused. It’s in­apt for most projects. All true statements.

Yet they sort of miss the point. It’s like criticizing Star Wars be­cause the vi­su­al effects are un­re­al­is­tic. Or be­cause the di­a­logue is wood­en. Or be­cause the plot is pinched from The Hidden Fortress. All true state­ments. But so what? It’s still Star Wars. And like Star Wars, Helvetica will be with us for the fore­see­able future.

Should you use Helvetica? Look, I like Helvetica. Though most­ly in the rear-view mir­ror. Today, we have bet­ter op­tions. For Helvetica diehards, there is neue haas grotesk, a love­ly re­vival of the orig­i­nal Helvetica de­sign. Others can try a font that’s neu­tral with­out be­ing dull, like my own concourse, or the ex­cel­lent new atlas. Even good old frutiger would be an improvement.

And don’t wor­ry—no mat­ter which al­ter­na­tive you choose, Helvetica will still be with us.



The hyphen (-) is the small­est of these marks. It has three uses.

1. A hy­phen ap­pears at the end of a line when a word breaks onto the next line. These hy­phens are added and re­moved au­to­mat­i­cal­ly by the automatic hyphenation in your word proces­sor or web browser.

2. Some mul­ti­part words are spelled with a hyphen (top­sy-turvy, cost-effective, bric-a-brac). But a prefix is not typ­i­cal­ly fol­lowed with a hyphen (nonprofit, not non-profit).

3. A hy­phen is used in phrasal adjectives (view­er-sup­port­ed ra­dio, dog-and-pony show, high-school grades) to en­sure clar­i­ty. Nonprofessional writ­ers of­ten omit these hy­phens. As a pro­fes­sion­al writer, you should not.

For in­stance, con­sid­er the un­hy­phen­at­ed phrase five dol­lar bills. Is five the quan­ti­ty of dol­lar bills, or are the bills each worth five dollars? As writ­ten, it sug­gests the for­mer. If you mean the lat­ter, then you’d write five-dol­lar bills.

How Buildings Learn

Every building that endures will be modified. Yet few structures are built to be easily modified. The more stylized a building is now, the harder it is to change. Stewart Brand (who invented the ancestor of Cool Tools) teases out design principles for making buildings that can adapt — or “learn” — to new needs, new uses. While his examples are architectural, showing how the greatest buildings evolve, his advice is aimed at any kind of hard-to-change organization. Software programmers think this book is talking to them since they are often asked to adapt skyscrapers of code built with no concern about adapting it later. This book will be useful to anyone trying to build complicated things that will outlive them.

-- KK  

How Buildings Learn
Stewart Brand
1995, 252 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:



I’ve long wanted a font based on my own hand. The easiest, cheapest and quickest way is MyScriptFont. To get my personal script, I wrote out an alphabet on their printed-out template (block letters only, no cursive), scanned the sheet and uploaded it, and then installed the scaleable font they handed back. It’s free. Takes only minutes.

Once I had my handprinting font, I figured I could quickly make other homemade fonts. It’s a quick cheap way to make any kind of unique hand-drawn font you want.

-- KK  

Free, donations accepted

Sample Excerpts:


Sign Game

It’s always fun to cruise through Fantagraphics’s store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. You never know what you might stumble across amid the new comics releases, independent zines and assorted odd runs and old stock there. I happened upon a copy of Justin Green’s Sign Game (ST Publications and Last Gasp Of San Francisco). It’s an 80 page paperback collection from 1995 of the monthly comic strips Green did for the sign painter’s trade newsletter Signs of the Times from back in the 1980s and 90s.

As detailed in Green’s comics, that was a turbulent time of transition for sign painters. Just as desktop publishing and digital photography transformed the graphic design and photography businesses (ask bankrupt Kodak about that!), the dawn of the computerized vinyl letter cutting machines undid the business of hand-lettered and painted signage.

Each densely rich comic takes on one arcane aspect of this dying art, from the ins and outs of doing gold leaf lettering, or how to wield a mahlstick, to the fine points of font design and brush technique needed for painting on the corrugated surface of metal trucks. Green’s sardonic tone and hilarious perspective also illustrate each hard won lesson of running a business, filled with characters like hard-boiled artists, chiseling customers, and back-biting competitors.

As a comic, Green’s one-page masterpieces employs a myriad of graphic techniques: send ups of Johnson Smith & Co. catalog layouts, Goofus and Gallant-ish profiles, Dick Tracy Crimebsuters comic crooks, and an endless supply of cartoon lettering intro panel gimmicks that ape plexiglass, peeling vinyl letters and stencils.

One installment is most telling: his predictions for the sign biz from 1994. Many were already coming true then, like computer-less mini vinyl letter-cutting systems. One thing he did NOT foresee: the current hipster renaissance for all things artisanal—like hand painted signs and lettering! A brand new book and documentary film Sign Painters by Faithe Levine and Sam Macon promises to tell that tale, and I hope it will be as funny and informative as Green’s Sign Game.

-- Bob Knetzger  

Sign Game
Justin Green
1995, 80 pages
$12 and up (out of print)

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Pogo Connect

I’ve been using this stylus like crazy and I am in love! It’s a touch sensitive stylus for drawing and painting on the iPad which works incredibly well. Because of its touch-sensitive capabilities, this is the first stylus that allows me to think of the iPad as tool for serious illustration. I love my Wacom tablet, but using this is a completely different and, in some ways, a much more direct way to connect to my work… especially once I’d found the right drawing app. I suggest Procreate, which is designed to take advantage of the Pogo Connect.

Having said this, the Pogo stylus has a couple drawbacks. For example, the setup of the pen is unclear. This confused me and a number of other Amazon reviewers who expressed their frustration at never getting it working. Stick with it! Follow the directions… it does work and it works well!

Secondly, the build of the stylus is sorta cheap. During the first usage of my Pogo Connect, I pressed the (flimsy) plastic button into the hollow body. Arg! How infuriating! And I am not the first to have had this problem. With no button, the stylus was unusable.

The Pogo Connect is an awesome tool. Now that I have it, I’m unable to live without it! But I’ll always press that button with a feather touch!

-- Robyn Miller  

Pogo Connect

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Ten 1 Design Sketch by Robyn Miller

Sample Excerpts:


I’ve been using Notability on my iPad for over a year now. I find it handy for taking notes on the fly. You can type or handwrite (though it does not do handwriting recognition) I can take pictures of slides at a lecture and caption them on the fly. I also take pictures of any business cards I get handed, which gives me a visual record apart from the little piece of paper that can so easily get lost. You can also record a lecture while taking notes.

You can draw with a finger or a stylus, in a variety of line styles and colors, highlight your notes, annotate your drawings, customize paper color, make it lined, plain or graph, textured or not.

You can store notes by category, and email them to yourself or store them via Dropbox (though not to iCloud), import and export files as .pdfs and .rtfs. What I like best is that it’s really flexible and intuitive. I’m sure there are plenty of tweaks and features that I’ve failed to mention. I leave it as an exercise for you to discover them all.

-- Amy Thomson  

[Note: If there is a comparable app in the Android ecosystem, do let us know in the comments. --OH]


Available from iOS App Store

Produced by Ginger Labs

Sample Excerpts:

A Pattern Language

Don’t go to architecture school; devour this book instead and use it to design buildings and places that really work. This 1,000-page encyclopedia contains two hundred design patterns found in the buildings and cities that people love. For instance, pattern number 167: “Balconies and porches less than 6 feet deep are hardly ever used.” Therefore make balconies wider than 6 feet. Each pattern is what computer programmers call a heuristic: a compressed principle that can be unpacked in many ways. Each pattern is illustrated with exemplary examples and photos, and sociological evidence from studies of real places.

Employ this book to design attractive, timeless buildings (or towns) by combining as many of these patterns as can be consistently contained in one project. Does the house have a hat? An obvious central entrance? A transition zone between public and private? All these are eternal patterns that have worked in the past and will make a place better. First published 45 years ago by Christopher Alexander and team, this book has influenced tens of thousands of architects and urban planners who credit it with giving them tools to make buildings and towns that operate at human scale.

I used this pattern language to design our own house and my studio and both are structures that people love to be in. Among the many fancy homes I have visited, my three favorites are houses designed by the owners using Alexander’s pattern wisdom. These spaces are comfortable, humane, inviting, and the structures treat inhabitants intelligently.

-- KK  

A Pattern Language

Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein

1977, 1171 pages


Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

In both format (patterns) and content (timeless wisdom) this is a core text for anyone building anything at human scale.

A building cannot be a human building unless it is a complex of still smaller buildings or smaller parts which manifest its own internal social facts.


Ceiling Height Variety

A building in which the ceiling heights are all the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable.

In some fashion, low ceilings make for intimacy, high ceilings for formality. In older buildings which allowed the ceiling heights to vary, this was almost taken for granted.


Pools of Light

Uniform illumination–the sweetheart of the lighting engineers–serves no useful purpose whatsoever. In fact, it destroys the social nature of space, and makes people feel disoriented and unbounded.


On no account place buildings in the places which are most beautiful. In fact, do the opposite. Consider the site and its buildings as a single living eco-system. Leave those areas that are the most precious, beautiful, comfortable, and healthy as they are, and build new structures in those parts of the site which are least pleasant now.


Always place buildings to the north of the outdoor spaces that go with them, and keep the outdoor spaces to the south. Never leave a deep band of shade between the building and the sunny part of the outdoors.



 Each creates the transition with a different combination of elements.



Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, a change of sound, a change of direction, a change of surface, a change of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.


Lay out the space of a building so that they create a sequence which begins with the entrance and the most public parts of the building, then leads into the slightly more private areas, and finally to the most private domains.


A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk’s house itself, nor from  the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court, and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house.

What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who, that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive.

This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and drink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious,the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will become part of the building, like the wallpaper;  and the intensity of its beautify will no longer be accessible to the people who live there.


If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition–along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.

If the view window is correctly placed, people will see a glimpse of the distant view as they come up to the window or pass it; but the view is never visible from the places where people stay.


Balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used.



Everybody loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them.

It is easy to think of these kinds of places as luxuries, which can no longer be built, and which we are no longer lucky enough to be able to afford.

In fact, the matter is more urgent. These kinds of windows which create “places” next to them are not simply luxuries; they are necessary. A room which does not have a place like this seldom allows youth feel fully comfortable or perfectly at ease. Indeed, a room without a window place may keep you in a state of perpetual unresolved conflict and tension–slight, perhaps, but definite.


Bed Alcove

Bedrooms make no sense.

Don’t put single beds in empty rooms called bedrooms, but instead put individual bed alcoves off rooms with other non sleeping functions, so the bed itself becomes a tiny private haven.


Now, try to imagine how, on your particular site, you can establish this pattern. Stand on the site with your eyes closed. Imagine how things might be, if the pattern, as you have understood it, had suddenly sprung up there overnight. Once you have an image of how it might be, walk about the site, pacing out approximate areas, marking the walls, using string and cardboard, and putting stakes in the ground, or loose stones, to mark the important corners.

While you are imagining how to establish one pattern, consider the other patterns listed with it. Some are larger. Some are smaller. For the larger ones, try to see how they can one day be present in the areas you are working on, and ask yourself how the pattern you are now building can contribute to the repair or formation of these larger patterns.