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Why Open Design?

While using open source methods in software circles is commonplace, in design, it's not quite so open. It's still a relatively foreign concept for designers to, well, openly share their knowledge/creativity and the blueprints of their designs. So what's in it for the designer?

By Jeanne Tan / 02-07-2010

There's been a hive of activity over the last few months regarding Open Design: first the (Un)Limited Design Forum in Amsterdam introducing the topic and then over to DMY Design Festival Berlin in Tempelhof Airport where we delved deeper into the subject. 

The second edition of the (Un)Limited Design competition was launched internationally in Berlin accompanied by a series of workshops, talks and the (Un)Limited Design expo. The Maker-lab, manned by an international assembly of 'designer-hacker' experts was frequented by curious visitors who dared to experiment with digital manufacturing techniques and learn more about Open Design. Interestingly enough this was the only area in the exhibition that was sectioned off because of fire regulations due to the presence of so many machines with the potential to blow up. On the other side of the fence, most designers themselves were less enthusiastic about the idea of Open Design or were unaware of what it was.  

Here, we speak to the experts to try to answer some questions that designers might have, talk about the methodology and dispel some myths about Open Design.

What is Open Design?
Open Design is central to the (Un)Limited Design initiative run by Premsela and the Waag Society. The aim is to celebrate and promote the unlimited possibilities of design when it's operating within the context of shared creativity and open technology with a close connection to digital fabrication. Bas van Abel, creative director of the Waag Society offers a more technical definition: "On the one hand, you have the rapidly growing networked 'maker culture' that bases itself on transparency and the sharing of knowledge, and on the other, you have the de-centralization of affordable and flexible production technologies that make personal and small-scale fabrication possible. Together these developments ensure the creation of a global network of producers who can determine a large part of the physical world by making optimal use of knowledge-sharing over the internet."
With the project in its second year, the aim is for (Un)Limited Design to become a recognizable platform for Open Design. The major component is the competition which invites designers to submit and share their designs which can be digitally manufactured or modify an existing design into a new product. Contestants will have access to a temporary FabLab to make their products.
So why should designers share their knowledge and ideas?
"Because it's already happening," says Roel Klaassen, Premsela program manager for (Un)Limited Design. "It has the potential to democratize design and designing, to allow participation, to change design processes and therefore, designers, and to innovate. And also because you took others' ideas...That's how creation and innovation works."
Bas van Abel comments, "Social design issues must become an open, collective and shared effort, as in open-source, open content and ultimately open design." Basically designers can participate in Open design in two ways (usually online): shared creativity and knowledge by open collaboration on projects or sharing the instructions of how to create your designs allowing users to be able to make the product themselves.

Is Open Design always associated with digital manufacturing?
No, however FabLabs - fabrication laboratories - equipped with digital manufacturing tools like 3D printers (for instance Selective Laser Sintering), 3D scanning and milling machines and laser cutters can be located anywhere in the world allowing files shared on the internet to be easily downloaded and printed onsite from the machine.

Does Open Design mean giving away my design for free?
"No, this is the biggest misconception among designers," insists Van Abel. "It means sharing your design the way you want. There are many different licenses available for sharing your work. If you choose a Creative Commons non-commercial license, people are only allowed to build their own version of your design for personal use. If somebody wants to make it into a commercial product for the consumer market they have to make a deal with the designer first. Also keep in mind that making something takes time and is not very interesting for consumers, so there will always be a profitable market if there is a demand for the product. This is also the big difference with open source and open content. Downloading content and open source programs is the end of the 'product' chain, whereas with Open Design you still need to make the physical product if you have the digital information. This means consumers of open design products will naturally pay for the product (the production, materials, distribution)."

How do designers make money from Open Design?

Ask Isael-born/Berlin-based designer Ronen Kadushin (or actually don't ask because he's probably answered this question one too many times) who was a speaker at the forum in Amsterdam and Berlin. You can listen to the highlights of his speech at the forum here.
Basically Open Design can be thought of as an extra PR tool for the designer. While Kadushin happily shares the instructions on how to make his furniture, (and asks that users send him pictures of their creation) through this initiative, he also receives orders from clients who like his design but don't want to make it themselves. A gallery sells the same pieces made in a limited edition, with the added value of being numbered and signed by Kadushin. Furthermore he lectures widely on the topic and has been invited by big guns like BMW to introduce the concept to their industries. His latest design, the iphone Killer which was lauched at the forum, has become a viral hit and orders have started coming in. Ofcourse for this to work, the design has to be worth making (or buying) in the first place...

In the not-too-distant future when people will have their own 3D printers and will be able to download designs and manufacture their own products at home, will this mean the disappearance of the furniture industry as we know it?
Van Abel: "No, it will coexist (we will always need mass production), but Open Design and new technologies give designers, amateurs and makers a way to go to market with 'long tail products.' There will be more diversity in the products and more products will be developed from personal needs where the market doesn't provide."
"As open design is something that's already happening, the furniture industry does have to find a way to deal with it in their businesses model. It does change the way the game is played in the design arena (like with the music industry) and now is the time to think about how to innovate driven by these cultural and industrial changes."

What about the (dis)connection between digital manufacture and craft/hand work?

One of the most innovative projects discussed at the (Un)Limited Design forum in Amsterdam, which kicked off this year's (Un)Limited program in May, was from Belgian Duo Unfold who developed a ceramic printer which was complemented by a 3D virtual pottery wheel. Basically the designers hacked a self replicating Rep-Rap machine to be able to print in clay. Using special software, the duo developed a 3D virtual pottery wheel which allowed users to 'shape' their creation by hand - as they would by using a normal potter's wheel - in the computer, which is then saved as a file and then printed layer by layer in the 3D printer. 

What about sustainability? Does this mean producing more crap?
In short, there are several good reasons relating to sustainability in production, to embrace digital manufacturing. The ability to print/prototype in 3D removes the need to invest in expensive moulds and tooling. Also pieces are printed only on demand, ruling out the norm in the design industry to produce in bulk to sell to make back the costs of investment. Energy in transport is saved as FabLabs can be located anywhere in the world and files can be shared on the internet. This also opens up the product to be 'mass customized' allowing it to be adapted to the individual's specific needs. In Berlin for example, a temporary FabLab was set up during the design festival to allow visitors to experiment with making their own designs.
Van Abel expands: "I think there is a big difference in making the 'tools to create' easy accessible opposed to making 'making' easier (which will result in more consumerism trash). Open design to me is about distribution of the means of production and knowledge, as in making it possible for everyone to participate if they are ready to invest time and knowledge. This is also why I don't like the prospect of 3D printing in a way. It is a cool technology for designers, makers and amateurs, but it is a dangerous one looking at it from a consumer perspective. It's like people printing every email on paper, because they can. Making things takes time and effort, that's why maker culture is amateurism, people who love what they are doing. But maker culture is also making stuff out of necessity, like in Africa (, where there is scarcity in money and an abundance in time and creativity. I must say, that I still have hope for where it is going to, maybe some will have the desktop printer as an example of where it is going to, but I always like to think of an analogy with the DIY stores. Not everyone started to build there own houses and cars and kitchens when these stores opened.... but it just makes it possible for people to do so if the want.
So let's hope maker culture does not become consumerism (the prosumer), but it stays amateurism."

Will amateurs take over the professional designers?

Van Abel: "No, because amateurs are not in it for the money!"

What is the aim with the second year of the (Un)Limited Design competition?
"More entries, innovative designs, evolved designs. We have a fourth category this year: Fusion. To stress the importance of blending, mixing, cross-overs," Klaassen says.

What do you want designers to get out of entering?
Klaassen: "Share, evolve, invent!"

Read our article with Tjep. about Open Design here.

(Un)limited Design is a project of Premsela Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion, Waag Society and Creative Commons Nederland in collaboration with the Dutch Fab Labs.

Images of the Maker-Lab at DMY Berlin, courtesy of Premsela Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion


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