Jay Margalus: Making Your Ideas Real

Many businesses offer a tantalizing promise: to make your dreams come true. From theme parks to health clubs, it’s a time-worn advertising trope, but it rarely delivers.

At DePaul University’s Idea Realization Lab (IRL), however, the slogan is a lot more pragmatic. Offering students, faculty, staff and alumni free access to state-of-the-art 3D printers, computer-aided design programs, machines, tools, materials and more, the IRL’s mission is to foster multi-disciplinary and cross-campus collaboration, promoting the creative act of learning through doing.

Jay Margalus, director of the lab and instructor in the College of Computing and Digital Media, is leading a session titled “From Bits to Atoms—Making for the Digital Age” at Alumni University on Saturday, April 6. We sat down with Jay to pick his brain about the IRL and why thinking through making is important.


What’s involved in the day-to-day life of the director of the IRL? What does your average day look like?

My job is to remove barriers that stand in the way of my student workers and our visitors. This ranges from making sure they have the appropriate equipment and consumables on hand to developing strategies that continue us on the path of sustained growth as our makerspace network develops around campus. I do a lot less “making” these days while I’m on the job, and a lot more “making sure other people can make,” which is a shift for sure, but a fulfilling one.

So I spend a lot of my day developing strategies that will keep the space running and growing over the next one, three, and five years out. This could be anything from co-developing a new Industrial Design degree that will utilize the space, to developing a broader network of makerspaces on campus to open access to those spaces for all students.

What’s your favorite piece of equipment in the lab?

The couch. I like to tell people that in order to illustrate the point that a makerspace isn’t just the tools inside it, but (more importantly) the people inside it. Places for people to relax and commune with each other are vital to any strong community, and we make a point to communicate that value to our visitors.

What are a few of your personal favorite projects you’ve seen come through?

One student project, an alternative game controller, was recently developed at the IRL and accepted into the Game Developer Conference’s “alt.ctrl” exhibition. I like seeing my students succeed, and that is a great example of a recent success. We also have students building us lots of furniture (couches, coat hangers, shelves) which is always fun because it shows that the things in the space embody its ethos.

Why is “thinking through making” important? What do you hope those who use the IRL come away with?

Thinking through making gets us out of subject/object mentality. In other words, there is a long tradition of capitulating to the individual’s perception as a basis for what’s real, but this leads us to the conclusion that there is no actual reality outside our heads. The idea that everything is subjective (which we often hear people say), for instance, implies that nothing is real.

Making things helps us realize that there are things outside subjective reality because, in a way, working with materials forces us to get outside of our own heads. Wood only wants to be cut a certain way, metal bent a certain way, etc. It doesn’t matter how you *think* it should work; rather, it works the way it wants to, and you have to follow that flow rather than try to impose your will on it.

This is actually a very powerful idea: that by interacting and making in the physical world, we are able to generate ideas and understand things that we would not have perceived otherwise.

As the director, what unexpected challenges and opportunities have you come up against? 

There are always challenges, but we typically consider those good problems to have. Large amounts of people requesting to reserve the space, have a hosted tour, or run a special workshop have, at times, stretched us thin. But that means people love the space and want to use it!

One thing that’s really taken off at the space is our silk-screening workshop (where attendees make their own custom t-shirts). We had the equipment to support the activity when we first opened, but it’s really ballooned. So, it’s nice to see where people take things, and then continue to support that direction so they can achieve whatever it is they’re trying to do.


Alumni University is Saturday, April 6. Featuring unique teaching sessions led by current DePaul faculty, Alumni U is your chance to step back into the classroom for a day. This year, sessions include:

  • Better Living through Chemistry: Examining Renewable Energy and Commodities
  • The Million Dollar Greeting *FULL*
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for Business Leaders *FULL*
  • Becoming your Best Self: Navigating your Career Journey with Authenticity *FULL*
  • Slavery and Cosmology in the African Diaspora
  • Esports and Competitive Video Gaming
  • (Change) Leadership (Change) in the American Theatre: From a Feminist Perspective *FULL*
  • Bits to Atoms—Making for the Digital Age *FULL*
  • “Honey Badger Don’t Care™,” Rethinking Expressive Trademark Use

Registration will close on Tuesday, April 2, so sign up for your sessions today!

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