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Icon Magazine’s Essay on “Fabbers, Dabblers and Microstars”

01Jul09 by Matt Sinclair

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“We, the people, the untrained majority, are the future of design. We have the tools and we will be the masters of our personal environments… We’re not dumb consumers, we’re creative consumers… We won’t buy anything that isn’t uniquely specified by ourselves.” So begins an essay in July’s edition of Icon magazine, written by the editor Justin McGuirk.

Icon is a ‘glossy’ design mag in the same vein as something like Wallpaper, as such, whilst it’s read by designers, it’s aimed primarily at consumers. And so the article is something of an overview, and doesn’t go into enough depth to reveal anything which those with an interest in consumer design won’t have heard before. Nonetheless, there are some interesting opinions which clearly set out the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps, and it demonstrates the extent to which fabbing, and consumer design are beginning to appear in the mainstream of design culture.

McGuirk begins by introducing sites such as Ponoko, Etsy, Shapeways and Materialise, and outlines how the cost of manufacturing is dramatically reduced when you move from mass-manufactured tooling to rapid manufacturing technologies. The article explains how the initial high investment which mass manufacturing requires leads to a fear of unpopular products, and thus to a design culture which seeks to minimise risk. At this point I felt like I was reading the introduction to my own thesis, so closely does it tie in to some of the things I’ve written in the past. McGuirk quotes Will Wright, designer of The Sims, who says

“It’s always surprised us [that] whenever we’ve given the players the opportunity to participate in the creation process, in every case they’ve exceeded our expectations. What they’ve done with the tools that we provide is always so far beyond what we thought was possible… When you have a million players all out there making stuff, against a small number of smart people always trying to do there best, it seems [the million] always win.”

The article also includes an interesting quote from Philippe Starck, the epitome perhaps of a ‘design superstar’, talking about the Mydeco venture (of which he is co-chairman). Starck’s feeling is that

“it doesn’t matter that 99 percent of design produced by the public is tat, because one percent will be brilliant – the kind of thing that professional designers are too well trained to come up with.”

It was at this point that I started to recognise a familiar flaw in the argument, one which professional designers are quick to spot. Because Mydeco is not about design, except in the sense that cheap-to-make TV programmes showing which colour to paint your lounge and which cushions fit are about design. Mydeco isn’t really about problem solving either, and it certainly isn’t about innovation; probably the best that can be said for it is that Mydeco encourages self expression. Not that self expression is a bad thing, but equating it with design just impoverishes and devalues what designers actually do. It doesn’t help consumers understand or become involved in design to imply that the most they can hope to achieve is the purchase of a more tasteful sofa.

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Sarah Jessica Parker’s living style by Hazel Whittaker, voted the most popular room on Mydeco © Mydeco

The Starck quote also betrays an attitude which most designers (myself included), find difficult to shake off, namely that they are guardians of the right to decide what is ‘good’ design and what is not. By proposing that 99% of consumer design is tat and 1% is brilliant, it pre-supposes an ability to determine what is worthwhile and what is not, over and above the opinion of the person who created it for no-one except themself. I look at the image above and see a cute, anodyne pastiche, but at some point I have to confront the fact that this room has an average five star rating from those who’ve voted for it. Does my understanding and inculcation in the canon of modernist industrial design give me the authority to tell those voters whether this design is tat or brilliant?

McGuirk continues this theme by quoting from Jonathan Ive and Marc Newson, who spoke together at the London launch of Objectified. When questioned, Ive said that

“It sounds egalitarian to say in future people should design their own stuff, but that’s the designer’s job – to solve problems.”

Newson backed him up by claiming of digital design tools

“They’re just tools, they’re not the things that enable you to design something.”

Whilst I’m sure both Ive and Newson probably are quite dismissive of consumer design, to some extent the article is selectively quoting to strengthen it’s argument. Both were actually much more scathing of the way in which professional designers work, rather than untrained consumers, decrying the “awful arbitrariness of form” and the way in which a disconnection from the object results in designers doing “a lousy job”. I’m not sure that either would agree with the assertion that only professional designers are able to

“sit down and rethink a product from the inside out with a new approach to the way it’s used.”

And of course Eric von Hippel has a lifetime of research showing that often it’s only those consumers who really understand and push a product’s functionality who are able to innovate in ways which designers discount as irrelevant or unfeasible.

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Consumer design concept for the iMac Mini © The Apple Collection

One of the more surprising quotes in the article comes from Bruce Sterling, who opines that

“People just don’t have the extra time in their day or the emotional energy for design…[Consumer design] doesn’t use design principles: it’s not user-centric, it doesn’t consider serviceability, it’s not going to clear anyone’s legal department.”

Sterling is a person who clearly loves designers… In Shaping Things he talks of Harry Bertoia and Marcel Breuer, of Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss and the Eames. He recounts meetings with Tucker Viemeister who said a lamp that Sterling designed was “good”, of his awe at Michael McCoy’s description of a chair, and of how Laurene and Constantin Boym’s book is “wittier and cleverer” than his own. Sterling claims never to have met a designer he didn’t like. Even when criticising the affectation of ‘designeriness’, Sterling can’t help defending designers by asserting that “a conspicuous lack of charlatanry and pretension means that little is happening in the designer’s cultural battlefield”. So it’s probably not surprising that he imbues designers with a certain mystique, believing they are capable of creativities out of the reach of normal mortals. But to argue that non-designers don’t have the emotional energy, that they can’t be bothered to design things, seems totally against the spirit of the future which Shaping Things describes. Indeed, the front cover of the book proclaims

“…this book is for designers and thinkers, engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and financiers, and anyone else who might care to understand why things were once as they were, why things are as they are, and what things seem to be becoming.”

shaping-things

Shaping Things, MIT Press, Cambridge MA

So Sterling seems to be saying that people should be interested in what designers do, in the way that what designers do will change, and what that will mean for the way everyone experiences objects in future, but they should have no interest in actually trying these things out themselves. This, despite the fact that he predicts a time when fabricators “will rule the earth.” I just can’t understand how Sterling’s thoughts in Shaping Things are reconciled with his view of the public as passive consumers of design. Sterling distinguishes between great guitarists and “the vast majority of people who play the guitar [to] amuse themselves and a few friends”, why will the same distinction not be possible in design?

The article continues by considering what a future in which rapid manufacturing dominates will look like. It again picks up on some of my favoured themes, by predicting a time when products exist primarily as 3D data, downloadable, customisable, printable and repairable. Naomi Kaempfer of Materialise MGX suggests that rather than everyone owning a 3D printer, consumers will take their files on a memory stick to a high street copy shop. Adrian Bowyer of Rep Rap fame explains

“It’s like when we moved from an agricultural to a an industrial society. The manufacturing industry will go the same way as agriculture: it will account for very little of our economic activity”

Bowyer’s more interesting quote however, speaks of the uncertainty of what may come

“When people first thought that everyone might have a personal computer at home, what they envisaged was that people would do their accounts on it, not watch pornography and talk to their friends.”

This reminds me of something I read in Wired many years ago, though unfortunately I have no idea who originally said it. Talking about the introduction of the motor car, the piece told of how people imagined in the future everyone would be fat and unhealthy, by never walking anywhere. What no-one imagined was that people might drive to gyms in order to get on a machine which allowed them to walk in the same place for an hour. The future is usually no respecter of how things have been done in the past, and that’s what I find so strange when reading designer’s reactions to these new technologies. Over and again I see phrases like “designers will always…” and “people will never…” But ‘always’ and ‘never’ are so definite, they allow no possibility of an alternative, and as such they sound slightly desperate.

Which brings me, finally, to the one person in the article who doubts the future of rapid manufacturing for reasons other than ‘things have never been done like that before, so they never will in future.’ Tony Dunne is professor of Design Interactions at the RCA, one of the best known disruptors of conventional design thinking and, incidentally, my personal tutor when I was a student. Dunne sees 3D printers as the future equivalent of fax machines – technologies just waiting to be made obsolete by the equivalent of e-mail.

“[Fabbing is] a conceptual in-between stage that helps us understand products not coming from shops. The shift to biological technology – growing design – is more likely, but that’s still a long way off.”

Given that there are already laboratory experiments into the ‘printing’ of biological organs, he may be right. But how long do we wait for biological design, before saying rapid manufacturing isn’t an in-between stage, it’s a conceptual shift in its own right?

POSTED IN: 05 Enabling End User Design, 1 Comment

One Response

  1. brian t

    I’m studying Engineering as a mature student, while trying to live frugally, which means shared housing. I’m appalled by the lack of serviceability I see in so much interior design and fittings.

    Fitted carpets are my number one bugbear: it takes a professional to clean them properly, until then they just gather dirt in the areas you can’t clean. Plastic and glass shower doors that gather crud in the slots, so you have to take the doors apart to clean them. Kitchens with floors you can’t swab properly, fitted with appliances that invite rodents to move in behind them. Closets that are too shallow to take clothes on a hanger. If/When I get to furnish my own place, I have so many ideas for improving interior serviceability that I could possibly make a design business out of it!