I recently gave a presentation at the TCT Live event (organised by Time Compression Technologies magazine) in Birmingham, UK. Below are the individual slides with my annotated notes, you can also download the presentation by following this link. You can click on each slide to open a larger image. Please note that although this presentation is covered by the Creative Commons licence at the bottom of this page, actual images contained within the presentation may be subject to copyright.
What I want to talk about today is a subject which makes up a significant part of my PhD research.
The PhD is based on two premises.
Firstly that as digital fabrication technologies become cheaper and easier to access, consumers (ie non-engineers and designers) will use them.
And secondly that this will happen whether designers, and others, like it or not.
The first time I presented these statements, at the end of the presentation someone asked if I really believed what I was saying. When I replied that I certainly thought they were possible, I was told that “You’ve obviously never worked as a designer then.”
So following the advice that it’s always wise to get your retaliation in first, these are some of the products I’ve been involved in designing during my career, firstly as a designer at Nokia and then as a consultant running my own company.
Although most people can recognise products such as these as being “industrial design’, actually defining it is a lot harder.
But one thing which most definitions agree on is that ID is about designing for industrial production.
If we look at a typical model of the ID process, we see on the left that the designer receives a brief, and then spends time researching and understanding it. Then the designer might create scenarios to help define how a product might be used. And then they will begin concepting – generating early ideas for how the product might be resolved. During these stages the designer is widening the possibilities of what the product might be.
But in a typical project, this widening only accounts for a quarter, maybe a third of the process. The rest is about consolidating, filtering, rejecting unsuitable designs and refining more suitable ones. A number of designs will be prototyped and then further refined. A number of stages might be repeated. But the ultimate goal is to end up with one, final design.
So ingrained is this process, that many industrial designers define what they do as design for a mass market, they believe that ID is about designing a single product for multiple users. They say that this is what distinguishes design from art or craft.
But this is wrong. Industrial design only looks like this because it is in the service of industrial manufacturing, or mass manufacturing. If manufacturing changes, industrial design will change also.
This quote is from a discussion about digital manufacturing held recently at the RSA. What is meant is that in future, design and manufacture may not be about the mass production of identical objects, but instead about a more individual approach to objects which are unique to their owners.
Clearly some consumers are already able to design and manufacture their own products. But they tend not to look like the ones I showed earlier, the ones I’ve spent my career designing.
This example is from the IKEA Hacks website. The guy on the right has taken an Ikea table, cut two holes in it and attached two baby chairs, so that he can feed his twins at the same time. But this kind of design would be unlikely to get made by a conventional manufacturer. The profits involved in a product for twins is too small; the economic argument would be to make single products and expect the parents of twins to buy two of everything.
This is from the Maker Faire show in NY which I was at a couple of weeks ago. It shows a system which allows a person in a wheelchair to DJ, to mix tracks and to scratch using the wheelchair’s wheels.
This is a set of dice which were made for Dungeons and Dragons or Games Workshop type games, and are on sale on the Shapeways website. I like these because there’s no way they would have been designed by a professional industrial designer. But they’re completely suited to the aesthetic of the game.
So in future, designers will be required to design what Cameron Tonkinwise describes as “unfinished objects”.
If you think that sounds crazy, actually it’s already happening…
Mass customised products present the consumer with an unfinshed product, and invite their wishes and opinions to create a unique object.
With this example of a bike by Trek, the consumer is able to change the colour of the frame and logo…
The consumer can change the drivetrain: the cranks, cogs, derailleur, chain…
The consumer can change the wheels, and then change the colour of the logos on the wheels…
In fact, almost every aspect of the bike can be changed – the saddle, the tyres, the handlebars, the tape on the handlebars.
But when presented with mass customisation as an example of consumer design, designers often say that this is configuration, not design. That choosing from a menu of existing options does not make someone a designer.
And this is true. However, if the consumer wasn’t making these choices, about colour and components and specification, who would be? It would be the professional designer. And so whilst it might be true to say that the consumer is not actually a designer, it’s undeniable that what the consumer is doing is what, in other circumstances, would be described as design.
But of course, what’s not possible within a mass customisation scenario is the ability to actually change the shape of the bike, to affect the size or geometry.
So now I’d like to present a couple of projects which I have worked on, showing how this principle can be taken beyond mass customisation, and then to show some projects from other designers.
The first came about from a project where I’d been asked to consider how to make USB memory sticks for a number of brands, to be given away as gifts at fashion shows (they would contain images from the collection).
The production run was small, so obviously a number of digital fabrication options were considered. But as I was doing the project I started to think how it could be made much more personal. About what would happen if the ‘brand’ were a single person.
And that led me to thinking about graffiti tags, about how they could be thought of as personal logos. So we developed a system whereby, if you took a photo of a tag…
A piece of software would extract the tag from the image…
…and then create a vector path of the outline.
This vector path could then be input into a very simple, crude solid modelling application. It could be scaled and moved within certain boundaries governed by the shape and size of the core product.
And then it could be extruded to create a physical manifestation of the tag.
This slide shows the end result, a personalised MP3 player. And basically what this project shows is the possibility for a consumer to create a unique product without requiring ID skills.
This second project was looking at what happens if you offer consumers a choice of products and then ask them to modify one.
A number of USB memory sticks were modelled in Solidworks, which is a sketch-based, parametric modeller
Consumers were asked to choose one design and draw over it, to indicate how they would want to modify the design
The designer then updated the underlying sketches to try to replicate what was drawn.
And then what happened was we used a piece of software called Genoform, which basically iterates designs based on the underlying sketches and parameters which are set by the designer. So this slide shows a number of designs created from one of the originals.
And if we go back to this design…
…after being run through Genoform the consumer decided to go with an even more extreme version of the original design.
So what both these exercises show, I think, is that consumers are able to create unique designs if they are enabled and guided by the right tools. Basically what these projects, and the next ones I’m about to show do, is remove the fear of ‘blank paper syndrome’
What’s also important though, and fundamental to the success of these systems, is that they don’t allow the consumer to make mistakes. If someone is paying money for a product they’ve designed themselves, they want the confidence to know that it won’t break, or be dangerous – basically that it’s going to work.
I’d like to finish by showing a few examples from other designers.