The good, the bad, the ugly, the open

As a subset of design as a socially embedded field, open design is distinguished by a variety of unique qualities that demand highly targeted inquiry. The most frequent topics of investigation are the abstract question of authorship, the logistical question of the mechanism of distribution, the technological question of the means of manufacture, the financial question of the cost and renumeration, and the aesthetic question of the physical outcome. What is rarely put to discussion is the premise that open design is, both theoretically and effectively, an interesting, progressive, and justifiable approach to products, furniture, and architecture. We suppose that the tactics of open design will render “better” outcomes by some metric, although it is difficult to specify which one—perhaps it will be cheaper than customised design (but not as cheap as IKEA); perhaps it will reduce the need for storage and shipping, since there is no need to keep a stock of immediately available products; perhaps it will make “good” design more accessible to a greater number of people; perhaps it will create a more informed and involved user base for design.

What is design, really? First, it is the mechanism through which the world is populated with objects and modified by systems and techniques. Second, it is a series of interconnected human relationships—entrepreneur to designer, designer to manufacturer, packer to shipper, vendor to customer, user to garbageman, and so on. Third, it is a generalised set of aesthetic, technical, and conceptual principles, more or less adapted to specific sites, eras, industrial capacities, and cultural mentalities, and conveyed through apprenticeships, formal education, or social contingencies in the places where designers did not venture until the recent economic crisis made it fashionable (in the absence of more commercial opportunities). Considering these various components, it is obvious that the field of design can be easily distorted by political hegemonies that rely on passive capitalist consumption, just as it can be assimilated as a tool of the state in authoritarian or communist regimes. In its brief history as an officially recognised field distinct from architecture and applied art, the problems of design have been extensively documented. The question is if it is fair to hold up open design as an alternative—if not, to what extent does it share the problems of design in general, and to what extent does it create new problems?

Before we continue, it is necessary to point out a few caveats. One is that design is not the same as invention. Copyright law protects creative commercial icons like Mickey Mouse, and patent law protects unique assemblies of mechanical or electronic processes; in general, however, iterations on furniture archetypes do not fall within the remit of intellectual property. From that perspective, there is a substantial difference between Benjamin Franklin refusing to patent his inventions1 and a designer offering a 3D model of a chair for free download. The phenomenon of the “patent troll” is instructive: a legal entity purchases or establishes patents for the sole motive of aggressively pursuing lawsuits against other entities whose products use peripherally similar technologies. The proof of infringement in such trials lies in the mechanism of the object, rather than in its aesthetic appearance. In design, the opposite is true: in the rare case that a company has the resources to sue a knock-off producer, the “trade dress” (the external visual aspect) is the object of intellectual property, while the actual manufacture or execution is not protected.

If we make a distinction between trade dress as styling and the conditions and processes of making as design, then it emerges that design exists in the rather ambiguous and narrow range of human production not recognised as original creation. Perhaps this shows design to be inextricable from the basic modus of human interaction and cooperation. The issue, nevertheless, is not merely social but also technical. A skilled designer knows how to make an approximate reproduction of an existing object; we could even say that design already occurs in the hypothetical understanding of how to make something, regardless of if it is actually produced or not. As a consequence, the original designer’s attitude towards openness is not really a prerequisite for his or her design to be copied, modified, and distributed by others—at least, not nearly to the extent that it would be for an engine, a pharmaceutical product, or a film.2 (This, of course, glides over the rich history of copying as a socially-embedded aesthetic practice.)

Another caveat is that open design in physical objects differs from open design in digital technology. While both forms may be shared online, open digital design is enacted on communal Internet platforms both as a working process and as a product. The digital designer who offers freeware or shareware is not distributing instructions for manufacture but the finished work itself, which can be immediately activated but also directly tinkered with by users. Therefore, many of the frictions faced by open design for physical objects are irrelevant for virtual creations. That does not, of course, make open digital design innately “better” than open physical design from an ethical standpoint. It is simply that openness in digital design (in particular, in code) has, to some extent, already won. When companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and even Airbnb and Netflix distribute open-source tools, they show that owning the product or even the means of production is no longer important in the digital universe.3 What matters now is usage, the advertising encountered during that usage, and the data generated by and about the user. The digital products given away freely by the aforementioned companies are part of an attempt to carve up and discipline the digital realm into territorial slices defined by their operating protocols: by creating the language of data, they assume control over its transmission. Ownership, in that case, becomes irrelevant.

To reiterate: the openness in contemporary digital design may contradict the ethos of early open-source projects like Linux, but it is inarguably a major force of online creation. Openness in physical design, meanwhile, is not yet a prevailing force, but its proponents argue that it should be, and that it will correct some of the most egregious sins of the mainstream design and architecture industries. That assumption, however, should be approached with skepticism, no matter how promising it sounds. To that end, I would like to point out several paradoxical factors in the brief history of open design, while examining its potentials to overcome these challenges.

The most successful open design is not participatory (or, we love a good icon!)
If open protocols are meant to make design production more adaptable, contextual, and egalitarian, then it ought to give us pause that one of its touchstone examples—Enzo Mari’s “Proposta per un’autoprogettazione”—is a set of 40-year-old wooden furniture by a famous Italian designer. Let us ignore, for the moment, the fact that his designs have since been recontextualised as exclusive furniture through their acquisition by Artek. Let us also ignore that the original book of technical drawings, despite its humble printing and binding, is treated as a valuable collector’s item. Omitting these considerations, we could still ask: is the success of Mari’s tables and chairs due to their “openness”, or is it largely a function of their association with an otherwise celebrated era in design in general? Furthermore, to what extent is the design popular for its “openness” versus its iconic value as an object? Is its value as a design icon antithetical to its value as an artefact of open design—or, to put it more explicitly, is its potential for adaptation and customisation by the user actively discouraged by its power as a symbol of aesthetic taste and the cultural avant-garde?

Anyone who has ever built or used the Autoprogettazione furniture knows that the tables are lovely but the chairs are downright uncomfortable. Yet this design quality has not been “evolved out”, because the chair is not simply a chair; it is an Enzo Mari chair. Those who espouse open design must confront the fact that people acquire and use their furniture for a variety of reasons outside functionality, that the symbolic value of their objects as possessions is one of their most important reasons for being. Icon power is one of the most obvious ways to generate symbolic value, but icons need time to be tested and judged by popular consensus—and, during that interval, formal change is counterproductive to the establishment of image resonance. We cannot be cynical about symbolic or image value: it is one of the most egalitarian ways of communicating function and purpose, requiring no written instructions or special permissions.

What open design could do, in this context, is test the possibility of icon power divorced from purely capitalist financial gain. It might do that in one of two ways, though both have their own pitfalls. One way would be to experiment with icons and symbols as shareware, although efforts like COMMON, founded in 2010 as “the world’s first collaborative brand”, tend to emit an air of mad corporate domination under the wreath of Silicon Valley ideology. Another way would be to target open design at existing icons, as in Matthew Plummer-Fernandez’s work on Mickey Mouse. His projects sekuMoi Mecy and Smooth Operator trace the exact limits of what defines the Disney Corporation’s trademarked and copyrighted icon, based on the willingness of commercial 3D printing companies to produce his altered models. This approach, although it has artistic and critical merit, seems unlikely to produce comprehensive, constructive design solutions—but it may provide the origins for such an outcome.

Open design is a ghost town (or, intentions are not users)
One of the biggest causes for failure in startups is called the ghost town problem: if a platform depends on user contribution and interaction as its main asset, then the quality of its framework will always be secondary to the intensity of its user base. Without a critical mass of users, even the best-designed platform is bound to fail. However, startups and design initiatives face very different forms of evaluation. The lack of user engagement that would bring about stasis and financial downfall in a startup can be easily ignored or glossed over in design platforms. And the more experimental those platforms are, the more likely they are to be insulated from the consequences of being ghost towns. There are no museums, galleries, or grants for obscure, unused startups, but unpopulated or hypothetical open design projects are frequently put on display or funded as bellwethers of future design.

To eradicate this practice entirely would imply some form of design-based social Darwinism, and it is clearly a justifiable format to place some projects in the public gaze (especially those operating in the realm of critique, as in Matthew Plummer-Fernandez’s work). In open design projects that have truly constructive aims, however, putting them into a museum in a larval stage may actively stunt their growth—for one, because they substitute public feedback with institutional validation; for another, because they place pressure on the design platform to produce consistent aesthetic results. The early works made within an open platform are often merely suggested outcomes by the platform’s own designer, but when they are showcased and published, they acquire disproportionate weight in creating the norm for that platform and suppressing its use towards unanticipated ends. Indeed, by displaying future-oriented open design systems whose output meets our current aesthetic standards, design museums and galleries may have an ironically conservative effect. If, on the other hand, we celebrated platforms for their user numbers and not for their utopian value, we might face some unpalatable truths, as seen in the next paradox.

Open design is bad design (or, everyone’s an artist)
The promotion of open design results within a narrow aesthetic bandwidth is a rather hypocritical endeavour. It claims to promote the agency of the end user, but, as seen in the previous example, it tends to display open design platforms at a nascent stage, when their only input comes from trained designers. But is it a reasonable way to evaluate the merit of such platforms, if the creator is supposed to be the empowered, technologically-facilitated amateur rather than the professional?

Designers today, unfortunately, face an ethical morass. In the critical culture surrounding contemporary design, express references to the genesis of form and surface come off as rather gauche; in some intellectually-charged contexts, they would be unthinkable. The narrative of open design relieves the designer of the need to take public responsibility for the formal results of their framework, to the extent that they can be described as algorithmic, contextual, or process-based. But, as explained above, in most cases the platforms have few users beyond their own designers. Paradoxically, design education or training are needed to use these platforms towards desirable outcomes, but they cannot be directly acknowledged, lest the framework return to the elitism of mainstream 20th-century design.

Thingiverse is probably the best example of an open design platform whose user base includes a high amount of hobbyists and amateurs, but its collection of models is rife with ugly knick-knacks, obscure technical machine parts, and smartphone accessories. Few of those objects would be accepted as design in an academy, exhibition, or publication. But Thingiverse is a more honest version of open design than most theoretical platforms. Those who espouse open design must be more explicit about the tradeoff between expanded authorship and the conventional design qualities that are taught through years of practice. Openness means accepting the possibility of failure, awkwardness, tastelessness, and kitsch, where before we have seen only graceful economy. In other words, an open design platform should be judged as much by the bad design it generates as by the good.

Open design does not mean open production (or, Marx again?!)
While open design could evolve into a much wider approach, including the input of many people outside the design field, we must also address the fact that one of its primary factors—customisation—is already firmly entrenched in the logic of commercial enterprise. Customisable sneakers, to take the most obvious example, have been available for more than a decade. Open design, therefore, cannot be considered as an alternative to mainstream industrial manufacture merely upon the merit of non-uniformity, any more than customisable products could be said to guarantee a substantial political turn in the culture of consumer objects. If the conditions of their production remain the same, it hardly matters what colour our shoes are.

Rather than focusing exclusively on open design, we ought to ask what open production could mean. That is precisely what designer Tal Erez does in Bande à part, a speculative scenario in which a distributed network of CNC machines, situated in personal homes, creates instabilities in the standard chain of decision-making between designers, manufacturers, and consumers. Through Bande à part, Erez finds that distributing the means of production can withdraw manufacture from the grip of corporate control, but it also dissipates the potential for workers to organise for collective rights. By zooming out from the object at hand, the project begins to hint at the real transformative power of open design—while acknowledging that transformation is always a conflicted process, benefiting some agents at the expense of others. At the same time, the fact that the project is something of an anomaly in its scope and political awareness reveals another paradox about open design—that, in most cases, it is almost identical to other forms of design as practice.

Open design is like conventional design (or, if it looks like a duck…)
Behind the veil of radical innovation and freely distributed drawings and instruction manuals, open design clings to a traditional economic model in which design skills are treated as an inimitable and highly valued human service. As in the case of customisation, this attitude can also be found in mainstream industrial manufacture.

In 1984, the unlikely pair of Toyota and General Motors opened New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated (NUMMI), a joint factory in Detroit.4 In order to improve GM’s atrocious track record, their employees were flown to Japan to learn the Toyota system, which rewarded teamwork, efficiency, and ad-hoc improvements to the production process. When another factory tried to replicate the success of NUMMI, a plethora of circumstantial factors (including a hostile unionised workforce and unresponsive engineers) ensured its failure. The factory manager, Ernie Schaefer, spoke of his surprise that Toyota so readily opened its doors to their competitor: “…they never prohibited us from walking through the plant, understanding, even asking questions of some of their key people…And I think they recognised we were asking all the wrong questions…All of our questions were focused on the floor, the assembly plant, what's happening on the line. That's not the real issue. The issue is, how do you support that system with all the other functions that have to take place in the organisation?”5

This account hints at why freely downloadable models or drawings do not guarantee the success of open design platforms. There are many reasons why unskilled consumers do not build their own furniture, gadgets, and houses; the drawings themselves are probably among the least of their concerns. That open design practitioners so nonchalantly give them away basically confirms their acknowledgment of that fact. At the same time, in the absence of a viable economic alternative, many of these practitioners must make their living through normal design work, in some cases by refining and customising the open-source archetype to the specific needs of various clients.

That might seem reasonable enough as a working model, but the spate of San Francisco startups that have “disrupted” their own industries suggests another reading of the situation. These companies have largely transformed the way goods and services are delivered (and making a shocking amount of money in the process) by replacing high-level organisational work with algorithms. Although such enterprises are by no means ethical paradigms, they do highlight the uncomfortable truth that personalised service work is quickly becoming a luxury performed only for the very rich. Arguably, the promoters of open design do not go far enough: instead of presenting open design as a high-minded alternative to the mainstream, they should actually justify it as the only force that can sustain the act of design in the interest of the majority. As seen in the aforementioned paradoxes, open design becomes decadent and self-contradictory when it attempts to follow the lines carved by traditional design through the 20th century. It can only succeed as a real revolution, with all of the visual chaos, fragments, and detritus that evokes.

  1. “… having, in 1742, invented an open stove for the better warming of rooms, and at the same time saving fuel, as the fresh air admitted was warmed in entering … I wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled "An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces; wherein their Construction and Manner of Operation is particularly explained; their Advantages above every other Method of warming Rooms demonstrated; and all Objections that have been raised against the Use of them answered and obviated," etc. This pamphlet had a good effect. Gov'r. Thomas was so pleas'd with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin'd it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” From Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1916.
  2. Given its reliance on digital files that could be uniquely identified, the rise of CNC manufacturing may alter this scenario.
  3. Until the late 1990s, before a computer’s potential was measured by its ability to link seamlessly to others, the opposite was still true for software behemoths like Microsoft.
  4. The story was reported on the radio show This American Life on 26 March 2010, days before the factory closed and a few months before it reopened as a Tesla Motors factory.
  5. Ernie Schaefer, interview with Frank Langfitt, “NUMMI”, This American Life, WBEZ Chicago, 26 March 2010.