As soon as I started blogging, a little over a year ago now, I’ve always been interested in how my former life of industrial designer merged with the internet. I went to blogject workshops, read about the “internet of things”, went to “near field interactions” workshop, looked at Matt’s work on Second life, listen to the likes of Ezio Manzini and John Thackara talk about services and the lightness of systems, watched as buzz words like “rapid prototyping”, “user generated content”, “semantic web”,”web 2.0″,”netocracy” fly around and get tagged onto a whole bunch of different virtual businesses. Today was different though. Something weird is happening: the bottom-up approach is gaining industrial design, and this is completely changing the game… Let’s talk about clear examples then:
Article 1: USA today article on Amazon’s new plan to start looking at creating a platform for product development and distribution on a “user- generatable scale”. Their argument is that if we can create platforms for entrepreneurship on a virtual level, why shouldn’t we be able to do the same with products? Why shouldn’t GM be interested in niche markets and production?
Article 2: Teapotters,
a new online community of people who publish and share their 3D models. Not that this didn’t exist before of course, but i guess their web2.0 logo makes them more credible : P
Article 3: Crowdspirit which proposes to make electronic products that are less than 150 euros manufacturable by individuals.
“Our community will have the power for the first time in the history of manufacturing to be actively involved in the design, selection and the sales of highly innovative products. These products will no longer depend on big manufacturers having control over what is made and what isn’t.”
Well the PSS model just went straight out the window didn’t it?
One of a number of issues I see with a lot of this has to do with the discrepancy in perception. There is no such thing as a bad guy in manufacturing, there are large and small companies making products on large or small scale. The large old and dirty media and advertising companies who scew our view of the world aren’t the same. This is not the same battle as the rest of the web2.0 world, its not the same ballpark or the same sport.
The impact of an online services or business is worlds away from real manufacture. At this particular point in time, it costs very little to start an online business, a coffee maker, two to 3 clever people with a good idea, some VC funding, a server or 2, a couple of sleepless nights and voilà, your idea is accessible to all, has little material impact (if you exclude the shwag you’ll be producing to get groupies to promote you at geeky conferences).
Now when we’re talking about product design, architecture, engineering, this is definitely a different world. This is when some of the problems that industrial design always had in defining itself legally are coming back to bite it in the ass. If you’re an engineer or an architect, you are responsible under law for what you design. You have a responsibility and a duty to create and and maintain what you produce. Industrial designers never had that, because their field of work was way too vague and complex… what legal responsibility did you need if you were designing a salt and pepper shaker for Alessi? None. Even if you were designing window sills, you didn’t need to report or feel responsible to anyone. You didn’t even need to feel responsible for the material waste you created by choosing particular materials. Some of that has changed of course in the past 10 years… green became popular and industrial designers started to embrace “eco-design”, looking into reusing materials, offering environmentally-friendly products, etc… This was a small revolution that still takes place consistently in isolated areas of the field…
However, what happens when you put this power of creation in the hands of anyone? Well, that revolution ceases to have an impact on our thinking. As soon as you start putting the power of manufacturing creation on individuals, you stop asking yourselves the important questions, because then manufacturing happens on the basis of “i want one”, and the all important barrier to design: market and scale, ceases to have an impact. Why are these things important? Firstly, because you have to make sure as a business that your potential sales will be worth the tons of investment that you will make in providing the VERY expensive and pollution-heavy tooling. (Let’s also be clear here: making one or making a million is the same tooling if you want to get the quality right.) And then you need to think, where do your unsold item go? Where are the secondary markets?
These act as controls for products which might not stand the test of time. We also know how polluting manufacture is and this is why micro-systems like Etsy and Ebay act as great ways to give used objects a second life. But what happens when manufacture is necessary out of individual whims? It’s all good and well when it’s self directed and done through craft… but do you really want to put together, assemble, plan, spend energy and carbon on tooling for one object at a time?
And please don’t talk to me about rapid prototyping… the golden cow of glory that was supposed to save the world of designers since the mid nineties… it’s always been too costly to run and purchase and doesn’t apply to materials that last. It works as an intermediate step in the overall design process alone, or to make small sculptures of Second Life characters : ) not a cell phone!
There’s already so much that’s been done to encourage large companies to offer green services. We vote more and more with our dollars for the companies whose products we respect. When we wont have any company to identify who will be to blame, who will take responsability? Whose fault will it be when our landfills fill up twice as fast because now we have two models running at the same time: the industrial one, and the individual one?
Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, but I got shivers down my spine today…