* published on “FRAME” magazine, issue #78, Jan/Feb 2011, under the title “Degrees of design”
From a recently graduated designer’s perspective, it seems that product design schools are at a point of struggle. While main design agendas in the last twenty years – sustainability, social and conceptual thinking – have become accepted considerations of the designer, as well as an inherent part of the curriculum, they have also become questionable trademarks, with a blurring border between their market value and their ethical one. This is not to say that the market doesn’t make a difference – on the contrary in fact. But the role of the design school seems to be greater – as shapers of future designers their traditional purpose is to target new questions, and challenge the common answers. Design schools have always been there to frame a future and push towards it.
Yes, agenda is not a dirty word.
What should be this agenda is a tricky question. It is clear that key elements of the field are changing, namely – distribution, manufacturing and authorship. All are catalyzed by the biggest phenomena of the last 20 years – the Internet, or, to put it more accurately, its consumers – I am one, to an extent at least, and I guess you are too. Design, mind you, has always targeted consumers. These consumers, us, are the ones who eventually set its tone. But we are small scale. The early adopters, the extreme group engaged with the online trends, are predicting the future of us all. This is already a common marketer’s idiom.
Can the academy really afford to treat this as mere curiosity?
The Replicating Rapid prototyper – “RepRap” – is a 500$ 3D printer. It is not just another 3D printer, but one that holds an innovative, even revolutionary vision, aiming to change our way of life. Since 2005 Adrian Bowyer of Bath University is heading its development with a direct goal – full self-reproduction. Already today it can replicate around 40% of its parts. With technological developments already occurring in the field – printing of metal, circuitry, ceramics and different plastics to name a few – the day of full reproducibility might not be so far. We will all be able to print one for our friends with no costs other then raw material.
This example is one of many affordable tools for home manufacturing that are surfacing. Both Prof. Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, founder of “the center for bits an atoms” and “fablabs”, and science fiction writer/design critic Bruce Sterling have published books in 2005 (“shaping things” and “Fab”, respectively) predicting a factory in every one of our homes by 2030, and one with reusable material – a bewildering, but not so far-fetched idea manifested by current developments in research of de-polymerization. But the “RepRap”, at least on conceptual, is a unique endeavor, a social one, as it deals with de-centralization. It is, in fact, dealing with the most fundamental social(ist) question – the decentralization of the means of production.
The debate over the social definitions of the web remains, so far, unresolved. On one hand, more and more intricate capitalist measures aim to utilize it, while on the other, it winks at forgotten social concepts – the community, the co-operative, the counter-class system. Wiki sites, open source systems, peer-to-peer networks and social networks – indeed, all of the web 2.0 developments have defined, redefined and overruled political systems of commerce, networking, debate. Above all, they have pointed at a new, active, consumer – who’s also a manufacturer; an individual who’s part of a community; one attempting to skip middlemen that stand in the way of his agendas, needs, ideals.
The Internet consumer and that of the upcoming home factory are tightly linked. They both emerge from de-centralization: The Internet – of media, the printer – of production. The Internet consumers are the predecessors of home manufacturing: amateurs, communities, discussions, blogs, copyright infringement, etc. Those are the terms that will define the use of these new tools, the form they will take. Amateurs and hackers are the ones professional designers will have to face. Because yes, it is incredible that in ten years or less we would be able to print our IPhone, but far more interesting would be the hacked and tweaked phones, interfaces, and shapes that will emerge. The effects of the home factory are far greater than saving us from going to the store; the deconstruction of physical retail is part of it, but reusable materials also have an effect on ecological issues (imagine shredding your product, then feeding it back to the printer – where, then, is transport, material mining, landfills?). Actually, it’s more. The decentralization of production points out to a decentralization of design. When everyone has a factory and easy-to-use computer programs that allow him to design, redesign, tweak or re-contextualize, than at least hypothetically, all designs exist. And then, and these are the potentially bad news, what about us, professional designers?
Graphic designers had to consider this reality a while back with home publishing and redefine their practice. They didn’t fade away, but they were forced to change focus and create new roles – web designers, interaction designers, etc. Musicians and writers redefine ownership with the “creative commons” license while challenging record companies. Even newspapers and magazines are struggling with the fast pace online. Fortunately for us, the tools of online product design have not fully ripened yet, nor have home production tools. But let’s not be cocky – the day is near. For product designers, this reality is one they need to be ready to face. And they can start now. The online creative consumer is already present, and design (even if lately somewhat forgotten) is for consumers. This consumer asks something different then what design has provided in the latest Milan fairs. He doesn’t want to be a source of inspiration for the conceptual designer, to be educated by the ecological designer, or to have new gadgets pushed down his throat by the commercial designer. He wants to be part of a conversation, part of the creative process. He wants to work together with the designer.
Buds of a fresh approach are already emerging: designers who design the tools for this conversation, in which many objects could exist, while still being framed as a singular object. Dutch office EventArchitectuur’s “Spaces” furniture system, exhibited in the last Milan fair, carries a DNA, aesthetical and functional, but un-contextualized, and asks the consumer to be involved in programmatic choices. At the same fair, Belgian studio “Unfold”, together with Tim Knapen, have presented “L’artisan Electronique”, a digital spinning wheel the visitors could use, with creations later printed in porcelain. With that, they have designed an interface that relates to old methods, new technologies, and consumer involvement. To create software that can communicate with the consumer means limiting its capacities. These limitations, however, create the language of the designer and his involvement in the process. This is exactly where designers can be professionals in this future – by designing languages, interfaces of communication between them and the consumer.
And how did academia prepare me to face these consumers? Well, I was lucky enough to attend a school that aims at a clear, worthwhile agenda, yet some roots are hard to pull out. As suggested above, the final result, the “finished object”, might not be the main point. Not for long at least. Home manufacturing navigates us to the borderline between the physical realm and the realm of data. The creative consumer asks involvement in the process, and the online environment offers tools for a dialogue with the designer.
Projects dealing with this dialogue are usually self-initiated by students. But programming, interfaces, open-endedness and the language of this conversation are becoming major issues that deserve a place in the curriculum. Not only that, but the social aspects of the Internet are becoming a key point in understanding our customers (one third of all people with internet access are on “Facebook” – this is not just a “phase”). The new consumer deserves its place in the curriculum as well. Their new, digital interiors can benefit from the intervention of a product designer.
It might be worth reminding students whom are they designing for, why, and what do these consumers want.
They can educate us on how.