* Published on Damn magazine, issue #27, Jan/Feb 2011
For those who never succumbed to the delights of the ‘retail experience’ the future predicted by Tal Erez’s MA thesis – Design for a New Consumer – is like utopia. Yet for Erez, the convergence of a new, active consumer and an upcoming home factory is not theory-driven escapism. With the scent of a 3D printer-shaped revolution already in the nostrils and the social effects of the Internet, and web 2.0 in particular, driving this new world, it’s time ‘to challenge and confront [designers] with a new reality emerging and the need to be ready for it.’ Text by Tal Erez
By 2030, a variety of experts claim we will all have a 3D printer at home. In his 2005 book ‘FAB’, Professor Neil Gershenfeld, head of the Centre for Bits and Atoms at MIT and founder of the FABLABS, predicts that it will also use re-usable material, allowing us to fully re-use one product to create another. Far-fetched as it may seem at first read, this is actually becoming a fast growing reality. Since the book’s publication, the availability of low-resolution home 3D printers has been spurred since the open-source RepRap project developed at the University of Bath, with DIY-assembly kits currently available for somewhere between €400-800. Materials such as plastics of different qualities, metals, circuitry and ceramics are already printable. Looking at the curve of technological advancements in relation to lowering prices in the PC industry over the last 30 years, it seems safe to assume that the affordability and quality of these home factories will only increase, and in a very short time.
The active consumer
The acceptance of such a technology is dependent on the consumers that embrace it. And indeed a new consumer has come forward in recent years, emerging from the biggest phenomenon of the last two decades – the Internet. This is no longer the passive consumer but a unique creative, a consumer that is also a manufacturer, an individual who is part of a community, who challenges common structures of trade and hierarchy, aiming to eliminate the middlemen standing in the way of the free pursuit of agendas, needs and ideals. By reviving terms that seem to be taken from the old socialists – the community, the cooperative, and a classless meritocracy – these consumers are advancing new forms of creation, commerce and debate. Wikipedia is a cooperative encyclopaedia, albums are financed directly by fans, and there are online tools for direct banking. Sites like YouTube become a public sphere for political debate and creation, and the tools of web 2.0 transform every user into a potential director, author, journalist or photographer. The 3D printer will allow users to become manufacturers. The Internet might allow them to become designers.
The convergence of these two developments – the upcoming home factory and the new, active consumers suggests that the foundations of product design are shaking. Distribution, production and authorship, the legs that have guided product design for more than a century, are being revolutionised. Design was born into mass production with the industrial revolution – the home factory needs no mass production. Does it need designers?
Yes. But it does mean there is a need for adaptation. The future outlined above insinuates the fading away of consumption society’s well-known structures – physical retail for one, will become almost unnecessary. We would be able to simply download our desired product from Ikea’s website and print it at home. We could do more. We could change it to meet our needs or taste. Reusable material would also make us re-examine the sustainable agendas we are facing today. Material mining, transportation and landfills could gradually become things of the past. This datafication of materiality, of objects, will allow us to create, re-contextualise and adapt our physical environment, with a few clicks of a button. It would create an outpouring of shapes and programmes, and would generate new types of designers. From amateurs, tweakers, cumulative designers, and even designers of object viruses (a file can be infected before printing) to another extreme, craftsmen who consciously distance themselves from the printer in their choice of materials and detailing.
But the adaptation may need to start sooner. As graphic design needed to face this reality with the emergence of home publishing, as the journalism and music industries are struggling today, it appears likely that product design would have a similar route to follow.
Design has always targeted consumers – that is the nature of the profession. The new active consumer wants involvement. They will soon have the tools and abilities to be part of the creative process. The relevance of the professional designer might be kept by taking a step back, opening the field for a conversation with the users. By designing the frame, the set of rules, the building blocks for systems that are modular not at the stage of assembly but in design, new languages could be created. In such a language many interpretations could emerge while still being framed under a single object.
Perhaps the mission of the professional designer is no longer to create a finished object for a passive consumer. It is to find new, intriguing ways to communicate the intricacy of the profession to users, while allowing the aesthetic and programmatic choices to be made by them. After all, this consumer is no longer a passive source of inspiration, someone to educate or someone to lure. This is the consumer as client, manufacturer, brief-maker and user. This is who we work for.