In one of his many appearances, Nobel prize economist Milton Friedman uses the pencil to explain the global cycle of the free market. He describes a long chain of production, which interweaves wood from the US, Graphite from South America, Rubber from Malaya, which came from trees imported by the British from South America and so on. “Literally thousands of people cooperated to make this pencil” he states. “When you go down to the store and buy this pencil, you are in effect trading a few minutes of your time, for a few seconds of the time of all those people”. Friedman even goes so far as to argue that this global productive collaboration of people is one with political effects, as it fosters global harmony and peace.
Friedman’s example stops there, in his analysis of the participants in harvesting the raw materials of the pencil, yet there are even more people involved in the route of this pencil. Businessmen, engineers, factory workers, marketers and store owners, distributors and ship captains. All this facettes, disciplines, nationalities and hierarchies collaborate to place this pencil on a shelf for a consumer to buy while making him eager to buy it.
In the midst of this massive economic machine which drives the western world and links politics, finance, social struggles, ecology, business plans and territories, stands the industrial product. It has been designed to cooperate with these mechanisms.
The Industrial revolution was one of scale. While to some extent, they were present for centuries, it was the transition to mass production that permitted such immense interrelations to become the economic mainstream, by making them profitable and affordable, both by cutting the costs of production as well as by generating a market for its products by distributing the notion of consumption to the masses. Yet this kind of operation needed to be orchestrated, and the businesses which manufactured and traded those mass produced goods that were able to do it. to make this transition, products had to be adapted to fit these mass production methods based not on artisanry, but on large factories and a division of labor. It was this division that required the designer. Not exactly an evolutionary stage of the craftsman nor of the engineer and with only a few precursors in the renaissance and a slowly forming definition in early industrial revolution, the term ‘Industrial designer’ was not even coined before 1919. Contradictory perhaps to the way it is communicated, it is not an age old profession like architecture, and does not carry a long theoretical and practical history. It was formed for the scaling up and systemization of the production of tangible goods. With the outspread of urbanisation and the middle class as a result of the industrial revolution, a growing consumer market required messages and marketing to advance to mass scale, and other practices of design were surfacing. ‘graphic design’ was coined in 1922. Design was a product of the dramatic industrial turnouts of the early 20th century, and was birthed to serve these new industrial constructs.
As consumption grew to define and drive our economy, the designer’s role has been fixed as a bridge between the interests of companies as defined by manufacturing capabilities, target costs and business strategies on one hand, and the desires of consumers as were defined by marketing, through the point where business and consumer met – the product. The design discipline existed on the gap formed by the division of labor, which was, in turn, created by scaling up – the gap between those who produce, and those who plan, so that identical products could be made by different workers of generic skills. Unlike the artisan, in the vast economic system of mass production, distribution and consumption, the designer was a key service provider, at the center of the economic system.
This is, if anything, what makes design unique: A cultural field deeply embedded and in direct service of the economic mechanisms that drive society. It is a creature both of culture and of market, and it doesn’t see them as standing in opposition. herein lies its power. It is not a reflection on popular culture – it is part of popular culture. Therefore, it always partakes in the definition of the cultural Zeitgeist. Industrial design, only as old as modern industry, with no real historical and theoretical bindings, is always corresponding with industry’s changing face. Whether it is critical or complying, whether aimed at a large or small audience, It has never been a discipline with a parallel lifeline to the economic and social systems. It leans, serves and reacts on them – on the businesses that fund it, the advertisements that sell it, and the policies that define its boundaries.
Yet the structure of industry is transforming. Digital culture and the internet have been gradually creating alternative economic structures, rapidly breaking down the intertwined product cycle into separate core elements, while distributing these services, once almost exclusive for the orchestration of business, as platforms and tools directly approachable by consumers. Gradually in the course of the last half century, production economy is transforming into service economy, and through the course of twenty years the internet has dramatically increased alternative operations to key elements of the system and introduced new ones. Financing is becoming ever more attainable to individuals through different platforms, like direct online micro-financing and micro-loans; distribution of ideas, products and concepts is readily available through portals, social networks and intricate algorithms; marketing leans on individuals using ratings and reviews; business models are being challenged daily by peer to peer initiatives; Traditional commerce is being re-invented in alternative “free” transactions.
Online, another tectonic shift separates production and design again.
On the internet and in digital media, production is no longer the junction of industry, as it is slowly transforming into yet another service for hire. On Alibaba, factories of any scale and technique take job orders from any business, large or small, at a few clicks of a button. Labor is distributed and attainable on different scales, from craftsman to makers and designers, and up to a multitude of people who will take work starting at a single cent. These transformations find a direct connection to the physical world through New tools for digital manufacturing. They both symbolically and literally plug the internet, its structures and culture, into personal or small-scaled production facilities. 3D printers’ costs have so dramatically reduced, That some now cost less than a mid-level smartphone.
And on the other hand, design is also sold and shared independently of products. On financing platforms such as Kickstarter products are sold as potentials, before their production feasibility has even been proven. Around the web digital files for production are for sale or for free, instructions for making, how to videos and apps for adaptations and customizations of design are expanding. Tender platforms sell design files on specific briefs. Many traditional designed products are now being realized only partly before getting known or sold as PhotoShoped prototypes or high end models. For what seems to be the first time in its history, consumers pay separately for a product’s design and its production.
Consumers are changing as well. Gradually redefined as users, they are urged to be creative by being given tools to voice themselves, while utilizing these new services to create new gatherings, to figure out their strength as groups. They are exposed to an immense amount of knowledge, raw and edited, as well as tools, both specific and generic for making, adapting and distributing. As such, users are eager to generate new content or to adapt and re-contextualize existing content. More and more, they are invited to produce themselves – images, music, photo albums, videos and physical products, from shoes to furniture. Moreover, this user involvement exists on a huge spectrum. No longer either makers of goods or consumers of it, online users can place themselves on the scale in between. They can be highly involved in planning and production, like in the makers community, or very mildly involved, or not at all. They can be Either journalists, or bloggers, talkbackers or readers. Whether willingly or not, users are now playing a triple role – as a resource for data, as manufacturers of content and goods, and as consumers of it.
In the midst stands the designer. In the transformation to a service economy; in the digitization of so many once physical products; in the leveling of the production and distribution playing field – the product is losing its role as the center of the chain, while the designer – which now holds knowledge and skills, and accessibility to services once out of his reach – as the service which can generate products, has now the grounds to take the lead.
No longer a peon in the economic game, he is faced with new tools and opportunities, new responsibilities and knowledge, and new competitors. The internet has not only generated new tools but also dramatic new social issues. questions of privacy, data mining, regulation, control and copyright can no longer be avoided by design. While some aspects of the economic system become increasingly exposed and distributed, others are becoming more intricate, hidden behind complicated algorithms and almost unfathomable business models. These issues are now issues of the physical world through tools of digital manufacturing. They are underlining every discussion over the “internet of things”. This time around, with a dismantled production cycle, the designer can no longer hide behind the business. With his knowledge and education in all these mechanisms now for hire – marketing, financing, production, consumer psychology, cultural trends, pricing, etc. The designer now seems a prime candidate to be the orchestrator of product cycles, rather than service one. He is left to stand in front of the user, and can be held responsible for the consequences of his designs.
For the product designer, the internet is a no-man’s land of unexplored opportunities and new tools. How will products be designed peer to peer? How can big data be used as a tool? What kind of interfaces can be offered to users? How can products handle a dialog with the growing power of communities and social networks? How will copyright and privacy be addressed? How will the concept of “free” adhere to products? How can one put a price on design in separation from production? These are only some of the practical questions that designers never faced before. They will inevitably generate new products, models and social structures.
In face of the new industrial structures and new users, the designer must redefine his or her position. In an endless array of knowledge and possibilities, in the midst of adaptations and recontextualization, the designer must take a step back from the narrow perspective of a physical product. In a web 2.0 world of platforms and direct interaction with consumers, A design is no longer a final product, but rather a set of boundaries in which products could happen, communities can be generated and new ideas can emerge. To stay relevant for creative consumers, designers must open up their practice for dialogue, while maintaining their expertise in defining the boundaries of this dialog. Yet it is not enough. in order to take a position that is valid, Designers must reappropriate a larger understanding of the system they are part of and the ways in which it operates – both in micro, with the new tools of design and communication, and in macro, with a control over new business models and production chains, social implications and regulatory and political consequences. It requires a ‘RealPolitik’ approach to design, one that is based on manipulation of the system in order to push for a goal. As systems gets more complex, with fewer places to hide, and in his unique position as linking production with users, the designer is faced with a new power to redefine the field he is part of, those who consume it and those which it serves.
It is a unique time to do so. The system is in flux, and all futures are open to it. Big businesses, traditional organizations, social movements and radical groups all try to capitalize on this change to push for their respective goals, from monetary profit to new political orders. All are trying to apply their weight on the way the system will eventually be defined. This battle, once purely digital, is increasingly reflecting in the physical world in new consumer behavior, new tools for making and new regulatory and legal issues. As such, not only can it still be influenced, but it directly touches those who are in charge of shaping the physical world – designers. They too, perhaps more than ever, operate on that spectrum – from the very capitalist agenda to the very socially oriented one, and all its in-betweens. Each new product introduced by and to this new system has a potential to redefine the system itself: In the way it is designed, marketed, sold and produced, in its longevity and adaptation, and in the new ways it can be used and made.
It is an exciting time for designers and for users, as new opportunities emerge, new questions need answering, as it seems nothing is fixed and endless possibilities unfold to influence and shape culture, business, services and day to day life.
Yet, amongst the many new fields that open up for design by the internet, it is worth remembering Friedman’s final conclusion. A product is never just a product. It is always part of a larger economic, and eventually political system. In the changing of the economic system, in the new power the designer holds, hides a socio-political shift. The products, systems, strategies and models designers will create will have a great influence on what will be the face of this new shift.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller