Kano Taught Thousands Of People To Build Computers. Next Up? Gadgets

The DIY computer company with a cult following is now selling cameras, speakers, and pixel grids.

When Kano launched on Kickstarter in 2013, it quickly earned a cult following. The company’s mission sounded familiar: to make building a computer and learning how to code as simple and fun as playing with LEGO bricks. Thanks in large part to the design of its story-based instructional guide and intuitive snap-together components, it went on to sell over 100,000 kits to customers in 90 countries and become part of 4,000 educational programs; to date, Kano’s user community has written over 19 million lines of code.


Now, the company is expanding from computers to gadgetry, with three new kits that aim to demystify, educate, and empower people about the inner workings of consumer tech. Launching today on Kickstarter, Kano is introducing a camera, Bluetooth speaker, and pixel grid, with a goal of raising $500,000 to get the $129 kits into production.

“We’re trying to build a system and platform and that embodies a creative computing brand,” says Alex Klein, CEO and co-founder of Kano (which was a 2014 Innovation By Design finalist). “[The company] has to be global, has to speak to what the new generation cares about, and be unabashed about taking on the older computing brands. We’ve definitely got some exciting kits, but it’s more about winning the war of ideas and embedding creativity in our culture.”

The challenge lay in applying Kano’s values and design language to a set of devices that would naturally extend from the backbone of the brand–its computing platform. Like the computer, the camera, speaker, and pixel grid arrive as a kit of parts that users assemble. Once completed, there’s an instructional guide that users can follow to connect their device to Kano’s online programming platform–which is web browser based–and customize the what their gadgets can do.

Kano has grown since its early days, and today it has an in-house design team that’s about seven people strong. But to help guide its new product line and crowdfunding campaign, the company enlisted the design consultancy Map, which collaborated with Kano on its original Kickstarter and subsequent screen kit.

“We were looking for products that were familiar, but could be expanded, unpicked, and where you could do something exciting with a line of code–that was the core,” says Jon Marshall, principal of Map. “They’re three very simple archetypes that exist in our lives, just like the computer. The kind of strength in what we’ve done is taking [the products] apart asking, what is it? The camera is a lens, it’s a flash, it’s timers, it’s sensors. People can play around with it. There are different lenses you can snap on, different programmable effects, and a range of different modules you can plug in, like a little sensor that senses movement so you can plug it in and write some code so it takes a picture when there is movement. People can play around with it and develop their own projects.”

The first kit was built around a Raspberry Pi, and the design challenge there revolved around the packaging, the housing, the keyboard, and cables. The camera, speaker, and pixel grid are designed from the ground up. “The industrial design challenge was to take the best things from the existing Kano screen kit in terms of design language and materials, the unboxing experience, and the storytelling approach to building and what could we translate easily to these new products.”


The products feature translucent housing and color-coded modules–which snap together–that speak to what each component does: red means power, blue means sound, yellow means imagery, green means data, and orange conveys construction, keeping consistent with the original kit. This approach also hews to the brand’s original design values, of being simple, physical, and playful.

With the physical components, Kano had to strike a balance between the right level of customization and design clarity. “How do you split the difference between infinite modularity, which is what the engineer inside of us wants, and having clear archetypes, which is what the human in everyone wants?” Klein says. “That dialectic was really challenging for us. There were versions [of each product] that were way more modular, but having something for everyone was less interesting than a familiar archetype given that start to end experience. There are enough steps to keep you interested, but the hard work of the infinite modularity was achieved through the software.”

Users head to the online interface to program what the products can do. For example, the camera–which has a five megapixel lens–can be coded to take photos if something passes in front of its motion-detecting sensor. Or it can apply custom filters to snapshots, shoot video, and even make GIFs. Meanwhile, the speaker can be turned into an alarm clock and record sound–or you can turn it into a Theremin, an instrument operated by gestures, using a motion sensor. The pixel grid–essentially, an interactive light grid–can display numbers and graphics. And those are just a few of Kano’s suggestions on what to do with the product, not a finite list.

Kano has steadily built its software to harness its community of programmers, who provide tutorials and share projects of their own. All of these features feed into the three values the company has built its user experience around: emergence (being able to discover more creative projects), immediacy (being able to see an instantaneous response to writing a line of code), and community (harnessing the knowledge of other Kano users). Klein hopes the new kits push more people to engage with the culture of programming, and that Kano becomes a platform that inspires the next generation to get more creative with technology.

The key to unleashing more innovation, Klein argues, is an open invitation to remix what’s around us–instead of accepting what big companies are packaging up and selling.

“We’re living in a time where there are 10 billion sealed screens and connected devices [in use] that track our moves, that give us insights into ourselves and our society, but only a fraction of users have any control over how they work or the algorithms that serve us content,” he says. “It’s not mandatory to get inside computing, but your average human in 2016 is exposed to so much stimuli, all of them mediated by computing . . . It’s about curiosity and giving people a sense of control of this ever-present but invisible world of the screen that’s around us all the time.”


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.