Open design is not a clear and unambiguous development or practice. Jos de Mul names a few of the problems he perceives with open design, without venturing to suggest any indication of how they might be solved. He then goes on to extend his well-documented and widely published ‘database’ metaphor to design, attempting to define the concept of design as metadesign.

Jos de Mul

At the 2010 edition of PICNIC,  EVENTS an annual Amsterdam event that aims to bring together the world’s top creative and business professionals to develop new partnerships and opportunities, Tom Hulme talked about ‘Redesigning Design’ 1 : “The design industry is going through fundamental changes. Open design, downloadable design  DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN and distributed design democratize the design industry, and imply that anyone can be a designer or a producer.” The subtext of this message seems to be that open design 2 is something intrinsically good and should therefore be promoted. Though I generally view open design as a positive development, it is important to stay alert to potential obstacles and pitfalls in order to avoid throwing out the (designed) baby with the proverbial bathwater. Like other fields influenced by the ‘open movement’, such as open source software, open science, and open technology, open design is closely connected with the rise of computers and internet. In view of this intrinsic association, the fundamental characteristics of the digital domain are worth examining further. To develop the positive aspects of open design without falling prey to its pitfalls, the designer should not abandon his activities as a designer; rather, the designer should redesign the activities themselves. The designer of the future has to become a database designer, a meta-designer, not designing objects, but shaping a design space in which unskilled users can access user-friendly environments in which they can design their own objects.  TEMPLATE CULTURE

Design as Open Design

Openness is a fundamental part of life – and so is closedness. Although organisms have to remain separate from their environment in order to retain their discrete identity, they also need to open themselves up to their environment in order to nourish themselves and to dispose of the by-products of their essential processes. However, whereas the openness of other animals is limited in the sense that they are locked up in their specific environment (their niche or Umwelt), human beings are characterized by a much more radical openness. Their world is unlimited in the sense that it is open to an endless supply of new environments and new experiences. This makes human life incredibly varied and rich, compared to the life of other animals, but at the same time it also imposes a burden on us that animals do not share. Animals are thrown in an environment that is just given to them (which does not exclude, of course, that their environment may sometimes undergo radical changes due to forces beyond their control or understanding), but humans have to design their own world. Dasein, or ‘being-in-the-world’, as Heidegger characterizes the life of human beings, is always design – not only in the sense that they have to shape an already existing world, but in the more radical sense that human beings have to establish their world: they always live in an artificial world. To quote German philosopher Helmuth Plessner, humans are artificial by nature. 3 This is a never-ending process. Over the past few decades, accompanying the development of computers and the internet, we are witnessing the exploration and establishment of a whole new realm of human experience that leaves hardly any aspect of our lives untouched, including the world of design. Although human beings have, from the very dawn of humanity, been characterized by a fundamental openness, the concept of ‘openness’ has become especially popular in the last couple of decades. Wikipedia – one of the most successful examples of an open movement project – offers the following definition: “Openness is a very general philosophical position from which some individuals and organizations operate, often highlighted by a decision-making process recognizing communal management by distributed stakeholders (users/producers/ contributors), rather than a centralized authority (owners, experts, boards of directors, etc.)”. 4 In the global information society, openness has become an international buzzword.  OPEN EVERYTHING One of the recent developments has been the emergence of open software, from operating systems to a variety of applications. However, the demand for open access not only concerns software, but also extends to all possible cultural content, ranging from music and movies to books. All information (enslaved by copyrights) wants to be free.  MANIFESTOS Moreover, open access is not limited to the digital world. An increasing number of scientists are pleading for open science and open technology. They cooperate with the public and demand open access for their publications and databases. The Open Dinosaur project, for example, which advertises itself on its website as ‘crowd-sourcing dinosaur science’, involves scientists and the public alike in developing a comprehensive database of dinosaur limb bone measurements, to investigate questions of dinosaur function and evolution. 5 However, in this case, the demand for open access not only targets the results of their research, but also extends their objects. The OpenWetWare organization not only promotes the sharing of information, know-how and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology and biological engineering, it also tries to prevent efforts to patent living matter, such as DNA. I could list many more examples of the open movement, from open gaming to open love. We seem to be open to everything. In the presence of so many trends towards openness, it does not come as a surprise that we also are witnessing the emergence of an open design movement, albeit slightly later than in many other domains. It seems to be part of a shift in the world of design from form via content to context, or from syntax via semantics to pragmatics. 6 But what does ‘open design’ actually mean? In his article The Emergence of Open Design and Open Manufacturing, 7 Michel Bauwens distinguishes three different dimensions of open design:

Input side
On the input side we have voluntary contributors, who do not have to ask permission to participate, and use open and free raw material that is free of restrictive copyright  ACTIVISM so that it can be freely improved and modified. If no open and free raw material is available, as long as the option exists to create new one, then peer production is a possibility.

Process side
On the process side, it is based on design for inclusion, low thresholds for participation, freely available modular tasks rather than functional jobs, and communal validation of the quality and excellence of the alternatives (peer governance).

Output side
On the output side, it creates a commons, using licenses that insure that the resulting value is available to all, again without permission. This common output in turn recreates a new layer of open and free material that can be used for a next iteration.

Making Almost Anything

At the Fab Labs, founded by Neil Gershenfeld at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, these three dimensions are merging. Fab Labs give individuals access to tools for digital fabrication; the only provisos are that you must learn to do it yourself, and you must share the lab with other uses and users. Users can use the Fab Lab ‘to make almost anything’. This sounds exciting – and indeed, it is. However, there are also some serious problems connected with open design, three of which are associated with the open source movement in general. The designer of the future has to become a meta-designer, shaping environments in which unskilled users can design their own objects. The first problem is particularly linked with open source movements that deal with the production of physical objects. Where any immaterial project is concerned, as long as there is a general infrastructure for cooperation, and there is open and free input that is available or can be created, then knowledge workers can work together on a common project. However, the production of physical goods inevitably involves costs of raising the necessary capital, and the result at least needs to recoup the costs. Indeed. such goods compete with each other by definition; if they are in the possession of one individual, they are more difficult to share, and once used up, they have to be replenished. Thanks to the 3D printer, this problem seems to become less urgent every month. The first consumer 3D printer has been announced for this autumn, produced by Hewlett-Packard.  PRINTING Although it will still cost about 5000 euros, it is expected that the price will soon drop below 1000 euros. Nevertheless, the laws of the physical economy will remain a serious constraint, compared to open source activities in the digital domain. A second problem for the open design movement is that many people are not able or willing to join the open design movement. Human life is an eternal oscillation between openness and closedness, and this holds true for design. Many people do not have the skills, the time or the interest to design their own clothes, furniture, software, pets, or weapons (see below, under the fourth problem). Third, we should not automatically trust those who think that they are able to design. As long as the individual is happy with the result, this issue does not seem like a big problem. But as soon as the crowd starts sourcing,  CROWDSOURCING the varied input might affect the reliability, functionality or the beauty of the design. Unfortunately, crowdsourcing does not always result in wisdom; quite often, all it produces is the folly of the crowds. In You Are Not a Gadget, 8 Jaron Lanier argues convincingly that design by committee often does not result in the best product, and that the new collectivist ethos – embodied by everything from Wikipedia to American Idol to Google searches – diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice, and that the ‘hive mind’ can easily lead to mob rule, digital Maoism and ‘cybernetic totalism’. 9 Fourth, I want to address an additional problem. We should not forget that the 3D printers and DNA printers  PRINTING in the Fab Labs and homes of the future probably will not be used solely to design beautiful vases and flowers; they could also be used to engineer less benign things, such as lethal viruses. This is not a doomsday scenario about a possible distant future. In 2002, molecular biologist Eckhard Wimmer designed a functional polio virus on his computer with the help of biobricks and printed it with the help of a DNA synthesizer; in 2005, researchers at the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington reconstructed the Spanish flu, which caused the death of between 50 and 100 million people in the 1920s, roughly 3% of the world’s population at that time; to understand the virulent nature of that influenza virus, consider this: if a similar flu pandemic killed off 3% of the world population today, that would be over 206 million deaths. Although we have to take these problems seriously, they should not lead to the conclusion that we should avoid further development of open design. It should urge us not to ignore or underestimate the potentially dangerous pitfalls of open design, and invent new strategies to face up to them.

Design as Metadesign

In the digital era, we have moved from the computer to the database as material or conceptual metaphor. It functions as a material metaphor when it evokes actions in the material world. Examples of this are databases implemented in industrial robots, enabling mass customization (e.g. ‘built-to-order’ cars) and bio­technological databases used for genetic engineering. Conversely, it functions as a conceptual metaphor if it expresses a surplus of meaning that adds a semantic layer on top of the material object.

The psychologist Maslow once remarked that if the only tool you have is a hammer, it may be tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. 10 In a world in which the computer has become the dominant technology –more than 50 billion processors worldwide are doing their job – everything  is becoming a material or conceptual database. Databases have become the dominant cultural form of the computer age, as “cinema was the key cultural form of the twentieth century”. 11

They are ‘ontological machines’ that shape both our world and our worldview. In the age of digital recombination, everything – nature and culture alike – becomes an object for manipulation. The almost unlimited number of combinations that databases offer would seem to prescribe some form of limitation imposed on the possibilities. In the case of open, database-mediated design, this calls for a new role for the designer. The designer should not give up his role as a designer (or restrict himself to his traditional role as designer of material or immaterial objects).

Instead, he should become a metadesigner who designs a multidimensional design space that provides a user-friendly interface, enabling the user to become a co-designer, even when this user has no designer experience or no time to gain such experience through trial and error.

Designing Models

The task of the metadesigner is to create a pathway through design space, to combine the building blocks into a meaningful design. In this respect, the meta-designer resembles the scientist who no longer creates a linear argument, but a model or simulation that enables the user to explore and analyse a specific domain of reality, or a game designer who designs a game space that facilitates meaningful and enjoyable play, if he is successful.

The Tower of Babel

This implies that the designer’s task is to limit the virtually unlimited combinational space in order to create order from disorder. After all, like the infinite hexagonal rooms in the Library of Babel postulated by Jorge Luis Borges 12 , most of the (re)combinations of design elements will have little or no value. To some extent, the designer will create these design elements himself, while others will be added by the co-designer. The recombination of the elements will also take the form of an interaction between the possible paths within the design space on the one hand, and the choices of the co-designer on the other. Of course, data mining and profiling algorithms will also play a role by suggesting or autonomously adding design elements (depending on the metadesign). You might ask yourselves what makes the metadesign presented here essentially different from forms of mass customization that already exist, for example on the Nike website. The answer is that mass customization is part of the project of metadesign, but only part. In the main article I referred to the three dimensions of open design.

In the case of mass customization, as with Nike, the aspect related to openness only exists in the output dimension, and even there the openness is rather limited: a customer can choose from a small range of available colours. It would naturally be impossible to offer a detailed blueprint or road map for exactly what metadesigns  will look like; this discussion is merely my reflections on the topic – or perhaps my considerations of a development yet to come. Creating them will be the task of the meta-designers of the future.


Some time ago, Kevin Kelly published an article called ‘Better Than Free’ 13 which advocated a new business model, based on free copies in almost every domain – from music, books and films to your DNA – which should be supplemented by added value. He lists eight ‘generative values’ that might enhance the value of the free copies, and for which people will be prepared to pay: immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and findability. I think we should add one more value: designability. It is my belief that this value will encompass all the others, presenting a great challenge for the meta-designer.

  1. link: , accessed on 16 January 2011.
  2. In this article, for brevity’s sake, I use the term ‘open design’ as a catch-all to cover open source design, downloadable design and distributed design.
  3. Plessner, H, ‘Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die Philosophische Anthropologie’, in Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. IV. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975 (1928), p. 310.
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  6. Oosterling, H, ‘Dasein as Design’. Premsela Lecture 2009, p. 15. Available online at , accessed 16 January 2011.
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  8. Lanier, J, You Are Not a Gadget. Knopf, 2010. More information at .
  9. Lanier, J, ‘One-Half of a Manifesto’, on the Edge Foundation’s forum. Available online at , accessed 16 January 2011.
  10. Maslow, A, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. 1966, 2002. Available online at , accessed 16 January 2011.
  11. Manovich, L, The Language of New Media. MIT Press: Boston, 2002, p. 82. Available online at , accessed 17 January 2011.
  12. Borges, L, ‘The Library of Babel’, reprinted in The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. The Penguin Press, London, 2000, p. 214-216. Translated by Eliot Weinberger.
  13. Kelly, K, Better Than Free, 2008. Available online at , accessed on 16 January 2011.
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