The technology is in place for everyone to become a designer. But just how realistic is the utopian vision of a user-generated future, and what does it mean for society? Justin McGuirk talks to the evangelists and the realists.
Fabbers, dabblers and microstars
That’s the vision, isn’t it? The future, both absurd and inevitable, depending on your point of view. Could design, like journalism or photography, be overrun by user-generated content? The convergence of internet commerce, mass-customisation and 3D printers leads some scientists and designers to predict a utopia of democratised design. Others laugh at the idea, defending the indispensable skills of the profession and predicting a sea of homemade dross that will be compelling to no one except crazed hobbyists.
One thing is certain: what we call industrial design, and the system of mass production that goes with it, is being eroded. The tools to produce and even sell design are being placed in our hands. The question is how will we use them? Will we even bother? And just what will this creative-consumer society look like?
In a recent interview, Philippe Starck pronounced: “The next years will be the time of the microstar.” Like Warhol’s dictum that we would all be famous for 15 minutes, the remark had the plausible mystique of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Starck was promoting the website Mydeco.com (in which he has a stake), an Amazon-style hub for home furnishings that offers users basic tools to visualise their interior decoration fantasies. It’s just one of a growing number of sites where people can engage in design in a more involved way than merely exercising their taste with their wallets. Many, such as Shapeways, Materialise, Ponoko and Etsy, allow users to design, manufacture and even sell their own products. If there is to be an online design revolution, then it has already started.
According to Starck’s logic, 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. Designers have a deeply conditioned sense of where not to go, so most design stays within a comfortably tasteful part of the spectrum. It takes a neophyte to really explore the ugly, stupid avenues where, arguably, the most original work will lie.
Will Wright, designer of The Sims – the most popular computer game ever, in which you build and furnish a house – told icon last year: “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 their best, it seems [the million] always win.”
That might just be smart rhetoric, but game designers are not the only ones buying into it. Mass-customisation is the new buzzword as companies recognise that what consumers increasingly want is uniqueness and a creative stake. If Ikea is the culmination of the modernist dream of standardised good taste, then it is also a final flowering. The economic models that will make mass-produced furniture redundant are now fully established. What Wired editor Chris Anderson called “the long tail” – represented by e-businesses such as Amazon and Ebay – has the potential to change the nature of the designer’s job. Instead of producing a million iterations of one thing, you enable a million people to produce one thing each. Products with mass appeal will still account for the majority of sales but with new technology the products that only a few people desire are also available, and the cost of making them is no greater.
At the moment, manufacturing has a big entrance fee. Simply to create the mould for an injection-moulded plastic chair, for instance, costs a manufacturer tens of thousands of pounds. Consequently it has to sell thousands of them just to recoup the investment. The side effect is a low-risk design culture born of a justifiable terror of unpopular products. The beauty of 3D printing and internet commerce is that they drastically reduce the cost of failure.
No wonder rapid-prototyping – or fabricating, or just plain “fabbing” – is fuelling the fantasies of user-generated design advocates. For one thing, it’s getting cheaper by the day. At Desktopfactory.com you can now order yourself a 3D printer for less than $5,000 (£3,300). In other words, we are approaching the price of a high-end laptop. Rapid-prototyping evangelists foresee a home manufacturing revolution.
“I believe everybody will take part in this,” says Naomi Kaempfer, director of rapid-prototyping company MGX by Materialise. “The moment it hits the masses, it won’t be possible to stay outside it, just like now it’s hardly possible for you to carry on without a mobile phone or email account.”
Some thinkers believe that the structure of society itself is changing, and that it’s not just industrial manufacturing that will be undermined. One, Charles Leadbeater, argues that we are entering an era of increasing self-reliance, the first symptom of which is the Pro-Am, or professional amateur – a consumer moonlighting with semi-pro skills. “Professional monopolies on knowledge, painstakingly established in the 20th century, will erode rapidly in the 21st,” he writes in Production by the Masses.
If he’s right, then the designer’s role in society is set to change. Instead of just giving us their realised visions in the form of manufactured goods – which no doubt will continue – they will also start to design an experience for us. They will guide us through the design process, setting up templates and options for us on internet platforms. They will set out the parameters within which it’s possible to make a “good” design, often for our own safety. As Kaempfer points out: “It’s a more sophisticated role. The designer will have to limit the consumer, to protect the consumer.” From himself, that is.
What a load of quasi-utopian nonsense
At a recent public appearance in London, Marc Newson and Apple’s Jonathan Ive both expressed their scepticism of the idea of user-generated design. “It sounds egalitarian to say in the future people should design their own stuff,” said Ive, “but that’s the designer’s job – to solve problems.” He went on to decry the “awful arbitrariness” that defines so much contemporary design made using digital tools that allow things to be any shape. Newson backed him up: “They’re just tools, they’re not the things that enable you to design something,” he said.
Of course, Ive and Newson are right. The untrained consumer can only fulfil a limited aspect of the process we call “design”. They can choose colours and materials from a dropdown menu, but that’s a meagre definition of design. They’re unlikely to sit down and rethink a product from the inside out with a new approach to the way it’s used. The problem here is with the word “design”, which means everything from inventing a mechanical solution to choosing a colour. Perhaps the word will finally be broken down.
But is design a professional monopoly, to use Leadbeater’s phrase, that the consumer has any interest in assaulting? And, if so, how widespread is the public’s participation in the design process going to be? Most people have the inclination to snap something with their phone or digital camera, or even to create their own blog – in that sense, the deprofessionalising of photography and publishing has so far followed popular impulses. But when it comes to their homes, are people prepared to reject the designer’s talent for their own? Will designing your own furnishings be as popular as DIY used to be? “It’s true that we’re developing a self-service culture where you have to do everything yourself, but I still like going out and buying something by someone who knows what they’re doing,” says interaction designer Tony Dunne. Is design an impulse, and a skill set, too far?
“People just don’t have the extra time in their day or the emotional energy for design,” says science fiction writer and design commentator Bruce Sterling. “It’s like saying people are going to make their own films. You get these odd mashups on YouTube, and some of them are quite fun but it’s not design.” As for the public’s creative involvement in this digital design continuum, Sterling goes on: “It doesn’t use design principles: it’s not user-centric, it doesn’t consider serviceability, it’s not going to get cleared by anyone’s legal department.” He adds, mockingly: “‘Hey, who made this bicycle that smashed my son’s face?’ ‘Oh, gee, I just kind of downloaded the design and messed around with it a bit.'”
Dunne, meanwhile, has other doubts, more to do with the technology itself. He sees home fabricators as the fax machines of the future – just waiting to be neutered by the equivalent of email. “Fabbing is like [Marshall] McLuhan’s idea of the horseless carriage,” he says. “It’s 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.”
What about the seemingly limited potential of the internet to empower us? As with most truisms, there is an obvious corollary. We sometimes forget that while the internet is a vehicle for personal expression and opportunity, it is also remarkably reductive. Will we use Mydeco-style forums to shape our visions or to follow what everyone else is doing? “There’s the negative aspect of Web 2.0: conformity and the wisdom of crowds. There’s a sinisterness to this unification of the world because it’s really a few people who dominate it,” says Dunne.
Now for something entirely plausible
This doesn’t mean that you’ll make everything at home. As Kaempfer points out, 2D printing is a good analogy. Just as we used to have local copy shops, high streets will sprout fabrication shops where people can take their designs on a memory stick. It is quite feasible that a lot of products will start to disappear from our shops, and will exist simply as data. If it becomes the norm to download and print out certain products then it will become harder and harder to buy those things on the high street. That is an obvious side-effect of a digital design culture.
“We’re moving into a world where the only thing that’s for sale is information,” says Dr Adrian Bowyer, a leading fabrication engineer. “It’s like when we moved from an agricultural to an industrial society. The manufacturing industry will go the same way as agriculture: it will account for very little of our economic activity.” Sterling, too, says that “our relationship to objects will get dematerialised”.
Soon, perhaps, you might go to the shop and buy Ross Lovegrove’s Greatest Hits on CD. Or you could see something you like at your friend’s house and ask him to print one out for you: an action figure, a vase, a pair of spectacle frames. And if everything is a digital file, then everything is customisable, adaptable, tweakable. The idea of the singular design will be replaced by a world of subtle adaptations or, if you like, bastardisations, or even just straight copies. Because as the music industry found, once you give people the means of production, intellectual property becomes almost impossible to control.
Of course, this is all highly speculative. What people will actually use fabbers for is difficult to predict. “When people first thought that everyone might have a computer at home, what they envisioned was that people would do their accounts on it, not watch pornography and talk to their friends,” points out Bowyer. One designer, Tim Stolzenburg, designed and printed a functioning revolver, an early indication of William Gibson’s notion that “the street” finds its own uses for technology.
Sterling believes the real future of fabbing lies with the extremely poor. “It’s not very good for most things but it is good for things poor people might need. You can do fabrication in clay or sand, you could fab adobe theoretically. But it doesn’t mean they’re sitting around quoting Le Corbusier.”
The obvious limitations of fabbers at the moment are that most only print in one material – resin or plastic, although metal sintering is becoming more common – but that is changing rapidly. Researchers at Cornell University recently printed a torch complete with conductive elements and bulb, but not batteries, in a single shot. All of which is grist to the mill of fabbing evangelists.
Perhaps fabbers will be most useful simply to repair things. It doesn’t seem too idealistic to suppose that a repair culture could replace our disposable culture – that throwing away a remote control because one button has come off will be a socially unacceptable act. Instead, you could scan the offending product and print out a new part. “Let’s say the dog eats half of your Christian Dior sunglasses,” says Kaempfer, “it’s cheaper to print out a new polycarbonate or plastic arm than buying new sunglasses.” This conjures up a world of patched-up products with disjointed surfaces. Is that a good look?
One argument in favour of a democratised, post-industrial design culture is that – in theory at least – it ought to be more sustainable. No more planned obsolescence, no more landfills. You simply don’t produce anything that doesn’t have a proven user demand first, that way nothing is speculative or wasteful. There is an obvious flip side to that, of course. Given that we are error-prone, wasteful creatures, will putting the power to manufacture in the hands of everybody reduce the potential for waste or massively increase it? What happens when millions of people press print and then think, “Oh, actually, I don’t really like how that came out, let’s try again”? The real problem with the repair culture thesis, however, is that we don’t throw things away because they break; we throw them away because we get bored of them.