Nerding out with the Vancouver Design Nerds


Interview by Emily Smith, featuring Sarah Hay from the Vancouver Design Nerds

Vancouver Design Nerd Projects at Maker Faire:

The Vancouver Design Nerds have submitted some exciting projects for Vancouver’s Maker Faire – including a large raft built of salvaged materials, Bristlebots & Vibrobots, or tiny robots that are propelled using a single vibrating (eccentric) motor, as well as the Gramorail, a pedal powered railway-gramaphone contraption.

I recently caught up with Sarah Hay from the Vancouver Design Nerds to pick her brain about what exactly these creative and inventive design nerds are all about.

1) What is a design nerd? And how did you find yourself on this journey to nerd-dom?

A design nerd is a curious creative person who is interested in collaborative projects that engage with the public realm of the city. Design Nerds thrive on conversations that transcend disciplinary boundaries. That is the beauty of the diversity of the Nerds.

I found myself on this journey to Nerd-dom when I was introduced to a few of the founding members in 2004 at Green Drinks and through some connections at Emily Carr. At that time, I had just moved here from Ontario, I was obsessing over anything and everything to do with ecological design. Here was this group of friendly intelligent people who shared the same passion and enthusiasm as I did for design (and socializing!). I was invited to a couple of jams where I presented some ideas / projects that I was working on. I began to see the jams as a way to overcome my irrational fears of public speaking, especially when talking about things I cared most deeply about. One thing that kept me coming back was the idea that we were building a really important community that had the potential to inspire and empower people through dialogue and design.

2) What does a “Design nerd jam” look like? How many people are usually involved, and how does a general evening unfold?

Design Nerd Jams are collective brainstorming sessions that take place on Friday nights and involve food and booze. They used to happen in living rooms. They would spring up with out a lot of notice without a lot of structure and would typically focus on a specific project / opportunity. Over the years, they have grown in popularity, and because of this we have been hosting them at larger venues where we can accommodate upwards of 60 people. On average we see about 25-35 people at each jam. Given the growing numbers we have had to design in more structure (i.e. time keepers and 90 second elevator pitches) and opportunities for break out groups. Toward the end of each jam we try to wrap things up by creating action plans and appointing project leads to take responsibility and keep the activity going. This is something we continue to work on.

3) Can you tell us a bit about some of the projects that the Vancouver Design Nerds have produced?

Since 2005 the Nerds have been undertaking various public art and design projects. Most of our projects are well documented on our website which I encourage you to visit!


In the early days, the project that garnered media and civic attention was Car Park . The Nerds ripped off the top of an old car and planted a garden. This ‘car’ was then towed to various car free day festivals and now sits at the corner of Clark and Broadway as a permanent fixture to a community garden.

More recently, the Gramorail has been turning heads at public events through out the city. Gramorail began with a vision by the Nerds to design and build pedal-powered cars that would connect to one another and form a human-powered “party train”; a train that could be paraded along unused rail corridors in Vancouver. Gramorail brings attention to the city’s rich rail heritage and promotes a sustainable mode of transportation. Over the last year the project has taken on an identity of its own and the spectacular vision has been realized with the completion of two railcars! I believe there is a spectacular railway parade planned for later this summer!

In parallel to the more kinetic / industrial projects I’ve just mentioned, a project group within the Nerds known as Urban Video Collective have been creating large-scale, multi-channel video installation works. Specializing in site-specific video installations, they create work that integrates with the built environment and responds to social, historical and architectural contexts in a manner that is both playful and insightful. Their goal is encourage a more imaginative perception of the urban world. You may have had the joy of seeing Purse Dog Factory at this year’s Illuminate Yaletown.

We are currently working on collaborative projects for Maker Faire and the City’s Summer Spaces program.


4) I’ve heard that your next Design Nerd Jam is going to be on “Biomimicry and Living Buildings.”  Can you give us some more information about the event?

This is true! Our Biomimicry Jam is planned for next Friday 29 April. We have partnered with Cascadia Green Building Council, their Emerging Green Builders, The Biomimicry Group and Vancouver HiVE. The idea is that we will explore how the genius of a single organism can inspire new design ideas for the built environment that take into consideration biological limits. This will be the first jam in our new space at the HiVE. I can’t wait!

5) If I’m a bit nerdy, and want to get involved with the Vancouver Design Nerds, how do I go about doing it?

Come to a Jam. We are an incredibly inclusive bunch. You can find out about upcoming Jams by joining our Facebook group, following us on Twitter or by signing up to our newsletter at the bottom left corner on our website.

Nerd on!