From backstreet hack-labs to the Royal Society of Arts, design hacking is slowly making its way into the mainstream. But what does it offer? William Wiles investigates
Is "hacking" a quiet revolution set to transform design, or destined to remain on the fringes? Hacker culture has lurked at the edge of design discourse for years now, rich in potential, and its appeal seems to be growing. Last year the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) launched a "design resourcefulness" initiative, aimed at spreading design thinking and skills among the public, drawing on hacker thinking. This month sees the second annual British "Maker Faire" in Newcastle – a festival organised by the American DIY, crafts and design-hacking magazine Make. There's a drip-drip of new products aimed specifically at facilitating hacking, such as the pins and hinges made by Australia's Makedo, and Sugru, the silicone adhesive launched in December 2009 under the slogan "hack things better". And meanwhile there's the inexorable rise of the "hack lab", informal social events where people meet to collaboratively adapt and rework electronics and design objects. "Hacking is definitely catching on," says Otto von Busch, an artist, fashion theorist and "hacktivist". "As a lot of design takes on political and critical issues and with the spread of the open source mindset it seems like hacking rhymes well with many of today's agendas."
"Design hacking has reached the cultural zeitgeist now," says writer and consultant Scott Burnham, author of "Finding Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking", a report commissioned by the RSA as part of its resourcefulness drive. "The critical mass of hacking ethos ... is in the middle of transforming our relationship with design."
The term hacking is of course most familiar from the world of electronics, where it means to gain illicit access to a machine or system in order to use it for purposes that it was not intended for. In the past five or ten years, the verb and the philosophy it implies has spread beyond computers and has steadily infiltrated almost every other field of human activity – the website Lifehacker, founded in 2005, has members exchanging advice on how to "hack" everything from personal finance to driving. Within design, the term has crept to cover everything from what might be considered straightforward DIY – adapting off-the-shelf furniture to suit individual conditions, for instance – to include repairs advice, home manufacturing (icon 073), creative reuse, "upcycling" and the "parasite products" that help people re-use waste materials (also icon 073). Broadly, it's about the user taking on some of the role of the designer and figuring out solutions for themselves rather than simply buying products to fill the breach. Hence, it can be seen as a very sustainable movement – but also a subversive one, undermining modernist concepts of the designer as sole author of a design and of the consumer object being the inviolable zenith of the design process.
Hacking has, so far, been slow to catch on in the UK. Brock Craft, senior interaction designer at design studio Tinker.it, which organises hack labs in the UK and elsewhere in western Europe, says that there's a "vibrant scene" of labs in London, but that they are still primarily electronics- and technology-based rather than interested in broader hacking of design objects and household goods. But there is, however, an increasing penetration of this electronic tinkering into the home as people use interaction tools like Arduino to build "intelligent" systems for the house: like a cat flap that will inform you via Twitter when your cat goes in or out.
This chimes with Burnham's experience. "London has a very big open source, free software community, and [the hacking scene is] still based in the tech side of things," he says. In other places, there has been more of a spillover into design: "It's in places like Brooklyn or Berlin, especially the Brooklyn [hack lab], which has become kind of infamous, it's basically a straight-up design workshop ... but then again that's kind of interesting too, that London is still taking this kind of older definition of hacking and applying it to the tech world."
As the groundswell of grassroots hacking activity has been slow to materialise in the UK – unlike in the USA, where organisations like the magazine Make have established a thriving hack-culture – there have been some efforts to stimulate the scene from above, in the belief that a society of consumer-hackers would benefit everyone. This was the RSA's thinking in launching its "design resourcefulness" initiative, and in his RSA-commissioned report Burnham suggests that companies intentionally try to get hacked by making their products more open to consumer tinkering. Emily Campbell, director of design at the RSA, calls this approach "screws not glues" – making things that can be dismantled, reassembled and altered.
Campbell is sold on the advantages of design hacking, but is sceptical over the phenomenon's ability to break through into the mainstream. "It's hard for me to see how deep it can really go in terms of penetrating everybody's interaction with products on a very wide scale," she says. "You have to be pretty either mechanically or technologically savvy or you have to have an aesthetic vision of your own – the threshold is quite high I think if you compare it to the realms in which ordinary people get involved in design ... it's a whole lot more technologically involved."
Campbell's view that design hacking – or at least the RSA's vision of teaching design thinking to make people more resourceful and self-reliant – is at the moment primarily useful for helping people with particular needs. "If you break your back," she says, talking about an RSA pilot project with people suffering spinal injuries, "you're in rehabilitation, and your goal is to regain your autonomy. One thing that can help you regain your autonomy or self-reliance is to learn to think a bit like a designer."
But separate to this, the steady rise in popularity of online design hacking forums – such as huge sites including Lifehacker, Instructables and Make and smaller niche sites like the Ikea Hacks blog – that might end up wielding the most influence over design. These sites are essentially social networks or communities based around design. One of the most appealing aspects of design hacking, to its advocates, is that it inserts narrative and meaning into a person's possessions: "When you repair something, it becomes more unique and valuable to you," says Carolyn Strauss, founder of design education organisation Slowlab. Design hacking "in public", sharing the process with other users on a forum, adds to that value. "[Instructables has become] a lifestyle brand in its own right," says Burnham. "Forums are forming their own design identities. Forums allow dialogue, giving people even more connection with their design." The story might not be how design hacking will transform design, but how social networks will transform design – as Burnham points out, once people get into asking for help and sharing instructions on sites like Instructables, they're not confining their design activities to Instructables, they're also using Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and so on.
Where does this leave the designer? "I think there can be a 'design for hackability'," says von Busch, "or at least a designer role which acknowledges the involvement of users, both in the design of the product as well as opening the lifetime for engagement – for repairs, updates, modifications and mutations – and most importantly for the spread of knowledge and practical skills. It is important to recognise that hacking is not only about the material modification of something, but about the empowerment of the hacker him/herself."
So the role of the designer in this changed environment could be a more complex one of education and network-building. Strauss calls this new approach "slow design". "Slow design is a form of design hacking, a subversive movement in parallel to the fast flows of consumption," she explains. "It's not just about designing products – it's a more holistic approach about solving problems. ... More than products and consumer experiences, we think of it more as people and networks, and the decisions you make every day." If hacker culture does continue its stealthy spread, we might find that design, rather than being a field of craft and industry becomes something of an ethos itself – an approach, a way of thinking about the world. That would be the moment design itself is thoroughly hacked.