Brainstorming, turning ideas into patented inventions, incorporating inventions into technical standards, making them accessible to the public... the path of invention is intimidating. But behind all these steps is a person, believing in herself and troubleshooting. There are so many amazing women inventors who have gone on to change history with their inventions.
So, before getting into the nitty-gritty of mockups and patents, consider the advice of Dr. Marta Karczewicz, vice president of technology at Qualcomm Technologies: “Keep in mind that sometimes it is good to be naïve. When I was getting started over 20 years ago, I would look at the technology in front of me and think that in this relatively new field of video compression, there must be better ways of doing things. I felt compelled to fix it and worked hard to make sure that my inventions were the best they could be. Being curious and willing to learn are essential when you want to be an inventor.”
Thinking up good ideas is difficult. Telling if the idea is actually good is even harder. And hearing that an idea isn’t good and tossing it out can be the hardest of all. Dumping an idea you love is just as brave as pursuing an idea you love. You are better off throwing out the idea now than in two years, so if you think you need to do it, dump the idea now. It’s okay. It takes most inventors years to come up with their next big idea. So, having a procedure to test out your concepts is an important step in the innovative process.
One such procedure could be as follows: First, develop an oral proposal for an idea. Then, tell a friend. Your friend might tell you right away why it’s a bad idea. But you do this until your friend says, "Wow, that’s a great idea!" Next, find a bunch of different people to try your ideas out on. And, of course, a friend will put up with more bad pitches and giving feedback than a mere acquaintance would. It takes very little knowledge to recognize a bad idea, because most ideas are problematic in so many ways, and a friend only needs to be able to see one of them. If you are going for mass appeal, then pay attention when one of your first listeners says they don’t like it. If you are going after a niche market, make sure your sounding boards are people within this demographic.
After pitching one idea three times, you should know which part of the proposal stops interested parties cold. Decide if you can overcome it. If you can, continue until no one is getting stopped in their tracks. After you have a thumbs up from friends and trusted advisors, you can have confidence that your idea is good and ready to be taken to the next level.
Ideally, we would live in a world where ideas are shared freely and we all benefit from innovation and new inventions, but we aren’t quite there yet. Since big companies often have the upper hand in having the resources and money to establish intellectual property rights over most things, it will be up to you to document and establish ownership rights over your ideas. Chances are, if you do work for a big company, they may have already requested you sign a document stating any ideas you have while working for them are their intellectual property.
Even if you do have legal rights to all your own ideas, you must have the documentation that shows that you were the first to conceive of an idea and each step in the process. If you're not sure what rights your employer has over your ideas, consider consulting an attorney. As you are in the developing stages, make sure you document everything you can (ideally with witness signatures) in multiple formats about the concept, design and future of your invention.
There are a lot of people in the world, and you never know who had the same idea you did only one week, month, year or decade before you. So be sure to do a thorough patent search. You don’t want to find out about an existing patent once your product is on the market and end up getting in an intellectual property or copyright battle down the road.
After you have done a preliminary patent search, look through existing media, art databases, academic papers, movies and any other sources you can think of for anything that could be claimed as the same idea. Even if no patent was filed for the first edition, if any media related to your invention does already exist, you will have a harder time patenting your product and again may run into problems down the line.
The next step is to bring your invention to the real world. Whether this is the new smartphone, a portable fireplace, a software, a methodology, a recipe or a mop, you have to make sure your invention will work out in practice the way you have it in your head. This will look different in different situations but often follows a general trend of a sketch (on paper or digitally), a mockup in 3-D, a model that works, testing and repeating. Creating your working model may have been part of your invention-process, and you don’t have your complete idea until you have your working prototype. If this is true, great; if not, no worries — making your product will just be your third step.
In general, there are two types of patents: a utility patent and a design patent. You can submit a patent application without a lawyer, but unless you know a lot about patent law, your chances of approval will drastically improve with help from a professional. Having a patent lawyer will also be important for the future if and when others infringe on your patent.
Your motivations for inventing and patenting could range from money to a desire to increase access to useful tools to creating a lasting legacy. Whatever your motivation, consider asking yourself some questions and developing a plan for rollout that will honor your motivations, your invention, yourself and society. Consider what you are building and the physical or social effects it could have (positive and negative). Consider who your audience is and the type of relationship you want them to have with you, your invention or both. What outcomes are you most interested in seeing, and what strategies (or strategies to develop strategies) do you see helping you achieve these outcomes? Marketing your invention doesn’t have to look like a classic promotional campaign or an “as seen on TV” roll-out. Decide what fits with your vision and your principles moving forward.
Turning an invention into a reality is a long, complicated, difficult road. It is easy to lose the forest for the trees or lose the trees for the forest so check in on yourself regularly and consider the following tips as you move forward:
You can visit this website to search for existing patents. You should be able to do this without a patent lawyer and it might even give you inspiration or motivation to continue inventing.
Online surveys, such as those you can make for free with Survey Monkey, can work like informal focus groups for you to gather feedback and incorporate it into your invention.
Fast Company is the Buzzfeed for industrial design. To stay up to date with the latest articles on design, participate in community discussions or just get inspired, this is a great resource.
Core 77 is similar to Fast Company, catering to a global audience of industrial designers and offering everything from articles to community events, to discussion boards and a range of portfolios.
On Shape is a website that offers interactive CAD modeling training. Accounts are free for makers and for educators, and they offer various subscription and training packages on top of the free CAD training they offer.
This book is a classic when it comes to design. Published in 2002 by Donald A Norman, The Design of Everyday Things is considered a must-read for any inventor.
This book from Laurence King goes into detail on creative and manufacturing processes for 50 contemporary domestic designs. It is a denser read than The Design of Everyday Things but still a good resource, especially for inventors of physical domestic products.
This resource is fascinating for anyone, inventor or not, but it is a textbook and therefore might not make the best light bedtime reading. Universal Principles of Design was published in 2003 and delves into user experience and teaching design, on top of the mechanics of invention and design.
99pi is a popular podcast that dives into the details of things we don’t always think about, the “unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” The episodes vary on the amount of invention and design specificity they include, but they are always interesting and effective catalysts for kicking listeners out of thinking inside the box.
The world’s first popular podcast about design, Design Matters goes into the creative culture. This podcast utilizes interviews and brings on many inventors, designers, artists and “luminaries of contemporary thought.”
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