The future of open design

Free sharing redefines traditional design categories: but it is a real innovation?

Let’s start with the million-dollar question: how can we qualitatively define what design is? I think primarily it can be understood as a mechanism that we use to populate our everyday environment with objects modified by systems and ideologies. Design is an aesthetic language of cultural nature, a set of technical and conceptual principles adapted to cultural mentalities and communicated through institutions and professionals. But most importantly, design is an interconnected web of human relationships: from designer to manufacture, from factory to shipper, from shop to customer and so on.

In the recent history one subset of design has pushed its way into our contemporary culture and has caught the attention: a phenomenon called open design. Although not a recent invention, it has reached a critical threshold and gained attention of popular culture. Open design is a socially embedded practice where information sharing is free. It puts in question the notion of traditional authorship, logistics, mechanisms of distribution and more customization in products for the end consumer. These notions need to be redefined in order the understand the complex and profound changes open design will subjugate over traditional practices and what might be the implications of those changes in our everyday lives.

If we take a glance at the most prominent open design platform Thingieverse, the most popular objects are toys, various tools and fantasy figurnes. All are created and designed by professionals who have an academic or design related background. Most of the content is made of obscure mechanical parts and smartphone accessories which would neither pass the test of academic scrutiny nor could be exhibited as anything more than a curiosity. Based on this observation it is hard to see the phenomenon (at this moment) as anything more than a consumer hobby platform where enthusiasts download and print files created by professionals. Nevertheless, even if it hasn’t started that “new industrial revolution” promised by its advocates, we should rather celebrate the true nature and honesty of it. 

Open design promises better outcomes and results in some measurable ways, both practically and theoretically. Perhaps open design will mean more customizable products and decentralized production, reducing the need for storage and shipping. Maybe new cost efficient production methods enable the potential to make design more accessible to a greater number of people (can you beat IKEA?) and involve consumers as users, which afterwards could become educated and well-informed contributors of the movement. To me open design presents itself as a powerful agent of cultural paradigm shift that will inevitably alter or change the current design practice, or at least it should rightfully be honored a separate branch in the tree of design. 

A distinction is necessary between open design in physical objects and in digital technology. When physical objects are openly shared online, what is actually being shared are instruction manuals or 3D printable files. On the contrary, the digital designer who offers shareware or freeware works is giving the finished work itself. One could easily say that digital sharing is actually more suitable for the concept of open design than sharing of physical objects.

Looking at the history of open design in physical objects, we must point out it is not brand new. Before digital sharing even existed,  open design of physical objects had existed for centuries, mainly sharing manufacturing information of industrial machines, which was ended by rigorous copyright laws. One key example is Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione. Conceived over 40 years ago by the famous Italian designer, it is a guidebook for making simple wooden furniture using standard wooden beams. Ironically, the creations are not celebrated as a milestone in open design but as a design icon by famous creator. To what extent should we valuate these objects for their associations with openness? Is their iconic value as objects more important than the intended ideology behind the object?

Even though open design promises life-altering changes, and it certainly has the capacity to do so, the results are yet to be seen on a larger scale. Open design is set to operate on an alternative economic model but the creators need to make a living through standard design work. Moreover, the great majority of consumers don’t want to struggle to build their own furniture or gadgets. Having all the necessary instructions available doesn't seem enough..
As an independent designer and creator of unique hand crafted objects, one could make the assumption that I don’t perceive open design as a force for good. On the contrary. The movement should be celebrated but simultaneously honestly criticized. We must accept all the amateurs creating visual chaos with half-baked concepts and the mountains of garbage it produces. This seems to be the only way forward for open design: not so present it as intellectual alternative for standard design model but justify its existence as the primary force that can keep the design in the hands of the individual.

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