This portrait of open designer Ronen Kadushin reveals his vision of ‘opening’ industrial design and putting the designer firmly back in the centre of the design process. It tells of successful examples of Ronen’s design practice – the Hack Chair, the Italic Shelf – showing how Ronen works as a designer and revealing how he envisages earning a living from Open Design.
“I’m smelling the beginning of a beginning of a beginning of a trend,” Ronen said to me when I visited him at his Berlin Mitte flat in September 2009. He moved to the city “with his wife and dog to work on Open Design”, to explore how today’s products could regain their contemporary relevance in relation to “the grand vision of human society”, as expressed in the internet. “You don’t get to have many adventures as a professional designer”, DESIGNERS he said in his lecture at Premsela’s Unlimited Design Forum, 11 May 2010. “I’d say this is a good adventure. A revolution REVOLUTION in product development, production and distribution is imminent due to the disruptive nature of the internet and the easy access to CNC machines. Open Design is a proposal to make it happen. Its aim is to shift industrial design, making it relevant again in a globally networked information society.” TREND: NETWORK SOCIETY
MY AIM IS TO MAKE INDUSTRIAL DESIGN RELEVANT AGAIN IN A GLOBALLY NETWORKED INFORMATION SOCIETY.
I first heard about Ronen Kadushin at an event showcasing projects using CC licences, 1 which was held in a former military barracks in Zurich in January 2009. It was not until August 2009 that I first met Ronen in person; we were launching the first (Un)limited Design Contest in Vierhouten, the Netherlands, at Hacking at Random, the 2009 international technology & security conference. EVENTS This big family get-together of European hackers was attended by over 2000 people. The contest was intended to promote open design; as its number-one proponent, Ronen seemed just the right person to kick it off. Unknowingly, we were inviting Ronen into a community he had only recently discovered for himself; his memories of the event still bear the glow of his first explorations in open design.
Ronen gave a fascinating talk on Open Design on that occasion; it was only his first stop on a series of subsequent talks that took him to Vienna, Tallinn and London. In the time that I have known him, Ronen has developed his view of “Open Design” (the capitals are his) quite a bit, from the early 2009 Introduction to Open Design 2 to the Open Design Manifesto 3 of September 2010. MANIFESTOS
Ronen’s interest in open design stems from his Master’s thesis, which he completed at Middlesex University in 2004. Before that, Ronen had studied industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Design in 1991. He went on to work in furniture design in Tel Aviv at Studio Shaham and for Znobar, and in London at Ron Arad’s One-Off studio. In 2005, he moved to Berlin to found his open design venture and to become a lecturer at the Universität der Künste (UdK). In 2010, he taught open design at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design, Halle, as a visiting professor.
I looked at other design fields, such as graphic design and game design, and they were having a field day on the internet! Creativity was booming. But industrial design wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
Ronen has been preoccupied with bringing the ideas of open source software to the world of industrial design: sharing the source code for designs over the internet, allowing anybody to download, copy and modify it and to use it to produce their own products. “I looked at other design fields, such as graphic design and game design, and they were having a field day on the internet! Creativity was booming. But industrial design wasn’t even a blip on the radar.” Sharing CAD files on the internet under a permissive license is the first condition of Open Design. The second condition is that Open Design products must be able to be produced on CNC machines, directly from the CAD file, without requiring specialist tooling such as moulds or matrices.
We’re talking about a new movement in its infancy here: People are Taking their first steps with the technology, producing the stuff they just need.
Designs that adhere to these two conditions – and the associated derivative designs that evolve from them – are continuously available for production, in any number, with no tooling investment, anywhere and by anyone. For Ronen, this is no longer just an aspiration. “We’re talking about a new movement in its infancy here. People are taking their first steps with the technology, producing the stuff they just need.” Yet these early adopters are more into making things for the sake of making, regardless of what they create, whether it’s some mechanical toy or a decoration for their laptop.
Perhaps just for the sake of validating the Open Design movement, Ronen designed a chair: the Hack Chair.
“If you’re in a design movement, in a style, or if you’re an individual designer, you would probably want to do a chair that would embody the basic attitudes and points of view or technologies. The chair is a central object in our culture and a central object in design. So the Hack Chair is my first Open Design chair. DESIGNERS I wanted it to be an object or a chair that makes you say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ At the same time, the Hack Chair is very sculptural, very dangerous, but also very funny; it’s pure expression. I had no buyer for it. I was not working for some producer who told me how to design it so it could be sold. I suppose it won’t be a bestseller, but that’s not the point. I did it because it helps me make a statement about being an independent designer. It says loud and clear that I’m able to design something like this, and share it, and make it open; if you want to make the chair more cushy and comfortable, it’s an open design. Go ahead, make it comfortable, add your nice round radiuses. I see the Hack Chair as very concise: my story, in a very basic product. Hack.” HACKING DESIGN
Of course Ronen’s Hack Chair employs certain procedures that are considered ‘clever’ in design, such as producing a three-dimensional object out of a single, two-dimensional sheet of metal. Ronen has been doing this for years, and has even given the technique a name: ‘thinology’. He wanted to invest this chair with a sense of his own aesthetic preferences:
“I was designing the chair so everything would look wrong and be as unconventional as possible; an un-chair, a chair that has a look that makes you stop and consider your own self, reassess your relation to an object that is not the expected. You may not enjoy its beauty, but you’ll enjoy the conflict between its appearance and your experience of sitting and of chairs in general. I could have designed it to be straight and rounded and nice, but I chose not to.
“The chair has conflict in it. There is some anger in it, there is some humour in it; there are many things in it that I want my viewer to experience. I don’t want them to just go out and buy it in the first place. It will be available to purchase shortly, but it is also open. There is an important connection between it being open and the way it looks. This is my choice; you have other choices, and you can have different points of view. If you’re a designer, or if you want to be a designer, or if you think you are a designer, you could make your own version. You are actually welcome to make your version.
“It looks edgy and sharp, but it’s quite sittable. It’s not the first chair to have a user-object conflict, but it’s the first one I’ve made.”
Ronen just sent me some photos from his Hack Chair exhibition, Recent Uploads, at Berlin’s Appel Design gallery. He extended the Hack Chair and produced several permutations. The exhibition was truly process-oriented. The walls were decorated with the remains of the 2D cut-outs. AESTHETICS: 2D Throughout the evening, Ronen would take new sheets of metal and fold them, within a matter of a minute, into yet another Hack Chair derivative, a clear nod to the active process of creation rather than the finished product. People could sit in the chairs and interact with them; there were also miniature versions that the audience could buy and fold themselves. It was an intriguing concept – and indeed, the exhibition chairs were all sold out.
When sharing his own designs, Ronen offers friendly production instructions:
“In order to produce this object, you need to be somewhat proficient with handling DXF files, have knowledge of laser-cut part AESTHETICS: 2D production, have two good hands and a creative personality that thrives on experimentation. If you have all these, there’s a good chance you are an industrial designer or design student; if not, welcome aboard.
I AM SAYING: PLEASE COPY. BUT IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A BUSINESS OUT OF IT, THEN CALL ME AND WE’LL DISCUSS ROYALTIES. IT IS MY INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY, AFTER ALL; THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE.
“Please note that you can use this design as many times you like, change it, send it to others, and express through it any personal point of view and creativity, as long as you follow the Creative Commons licence.”
The Creative Commons license that he applies allows anybody to reproduce and modify his designs. There are only two limitations: these modifications and derivatives must be shared under the same license, and the licence prohibits commercial uses.
“I am saying: please copy. But if you want to make a business out of it, then please call me and we’ll discuss royalties. It is my intellectual property, after all; that’s the bottom line. If you want to use it, I would love you to use it; we can talk about it. But if you’re making money out of it, then I would like a share SHARING of it also. That’s the principle behind my design.
“Open Design is not an intellectual property trap. It is not something I do to get money out of suing companies. I consider my audience to be designers and makers and anyone who is interested in creating.
The intellectual property rights, the Creative Commons license I publish it under, these are just a legal framework that supports my work, but they are not at the centre. The centre is creativity through designing objects.”
Ronen is well aware that his ability to prosecute somebody is fairly limited, particularly if a big manufacturer copied his designs illegally, without his consent.
“Copyright protection gives you the big guns, but can you afford the ammunition? You can register your intellectual property, but you don’t usually have the money to defend it. This is life; the big fish eat the little fish.”
“Suppose you have a good bicycle. You like it and you want to keep it, so you buy a really nice lock for it. If a thief truly wants your bicycle, no matter how good your lock is, he will find a way to steal your bicycle. Intellectual property protection is exactly the same. I’m not saying that I’m leaving my bicycles completely unlocked; they have a lock. But the lock says, ‘hey, why don’t you take a ride and give it back when you’re finished.’ So you can take it out for a test drive, but if you want to keep it, I’m asking you to buy it from me, and I am willing to sell it to you. If you want to produce it, I will let you do it. There are many other options available too. People should just be honest about it.”
And many people are honest. While Ronen gets many emails asking if he’s really serious about sharing his designs, he does not get to see most of the private copies or modifications. An exception was São Paulo-based designer Oswaldo Mellone, who produced a Hanukkah design based on Ronen’s Candle Holder1 and sold it at a gallery; proceeds went to a local educational project.
Suppose you have a good bicycle. You like it and you want to keep it, so you buy a really nice lock for it. If a thief truly wants your bicycle, no matter how good your lock is, he will find a way to steal your bicycle. Intellectual property protection is exactly the same.
Ronen is not out to squeeze every eurocent he could possibly get from every user of his designs; he does not even see recovering production expenses as a truly commercial enterprise.
“My answer to this is always, you’re welcome to sell them to cover your expenses; it would be my pleasure to have you make some money out of it.”
He occasionally makes some money himself, too. In September 2009, his original prototype of the Italic Shelf was included in the Phillips de Pury & Co. auction ‘Now: Art of the 21st Century’. The estimate was around four to five thousand pounds; the shelf sold for six and a half thousand pounds, plus the 25% commission for the auction house, bringing the final sales price to GBP 8,125.
“The interesting thing about selling in an auction is that buyers usually research the background of what they might be going to buy, because each piece has a name, a designer’s name, a history, and so on. They probably knew beforehand that the shelf was Open Design and that anybody else could copy it and build it, so there is an interesting conflict between the rarity of an object and the fact that anybody can copy it. Even so, they got the prototype. There is no real difference between the prototype and a copy. So putting yourself in that situation is an interesting concept. I wanted to do it that way, displaying things in a gallery. It takes Open Design and the concomitant legal copying of an object and brings about a confrontation with the collector’s situation, collecting rare things or limited editions. The limited edition is exactly the same as any other copy to be produced anywhere by anybody, legally. This is an interesting intellectual puzzle.”
The only thing that differentiates the original from any other original copies is a little brass plaque on the edge of the shelf, incised with the words ‘RONEN KADUSHIN 2008/ITALIC SHELF PROTOTYPE’, naming the Open Designer as the author.
In the meantime, Ronen is garnering increasing attention with his Open Design products. His Square Dance coffee table already made it into Wired in 2009. The iPhone Killer which he launched in a style worthy of Steve Jobs, presenting it at Premsela’s Unlimited Design Forum in 2010, landed him a prominent spot on some of the most widely read web publications: Wired, BoingBoing, The Huffington Post. Ronen knows how the Net ticks; with no real marketing budget to speak of, his self-created media ripples are not to be underestimated. And he is certainly enjoying his ‘15 megabytes of fame’ on the internet.
Yet Ronen’s real Open Design business is clearly geared towards the producers of lighting and furniture accessories. It’s a business-to-business thing. If we’re talking about royalties and serious marketing, and production and branding, and so on, this is what I’m looking at.
THERE’S NO REAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PROTOTYPE AND A COPY.
“If an accessory producer or lighting manufacturer would want to include it in their collection, then we would have to sit down and work out the details: not just royalties, but the whole concept. There is no big company today – no big producer, no mid-sized producer, not even a small producer – that is doing something that is in any way connected to Open Design. There is mass customization, MASS CUSTOMIZATION yes, but not Open Design as such. I would like to convince the producer that it could be to his advantage to try it out, and it would not cost him more to try it out. Actually, it could be a marketing pitch for the company to position itself as the first business to embrace Open Design. This claim would be very likely to benefit the company that does it.”
The real benefit for a producer that adopted the principles of Open Design would of course be that a second and third Open Design product would not incur any extra costs for tooling. They would only have to care about marketing, packaging, production. However, the companies Ronen has spoken to so far have not considered this concept to be relevant. “They are investing in tooling to make a specific product. If a company produces something made of plastic, or that involves tooling by definition, Open Design becomes irrelevant. Making it open would also not make it relevant for any other user to make modifications. They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the know-how, KNOWLEDGE they don’t have the money; it’s too complicated.”
I’m not pleading, “oh please, please, do my design for a 3% royalty”, with the manufacturer equivocating, “no, well, maybe later”, and then changing it and so on.
Ronen still believes that commercial adoption of open design could be possible. Yet he’s not a fundamentalist about his own ideas; he is not pushing open design to companies. Rather, he is introducing it gradually, helping companies develop a basic understanding that they have ‘this type of designer’ in their network of contexts, a designer who sees things a little differently. This approach seems to be paying off; Ronen secured a rather large project about two years ago. “The company approached me because they liked the Open Design concept, and they liked the product that resulted from this concept. I was never put at a disadvantage, I was never mistreated; quite the opposite.”
So one day, Ronen dreams, another producer might approach him, asking him to become their chief designer. “What I would like to see is not about getting money from other people. I just want to be … let’s call it an ‘art director’ on this kind of projects. I want to be in a position where I can influence how people understand what quality is, how to make the connection between the producer, Open Design and consumers, to search for the next stage, things like that. That would put me in a very comfortable position; I would enjoy that. But it will take time. I’m waiting patiently, no hurry. I’m doing other things at the moment. But my plan is to introduce this concept to companies.”
Ronen’s Hack Chair has all the characteristics of an open design product. It is native to the internet, and was clearly designed to use the internet as a marketing and distribution channel.
Ronen believes that “if you do something this way, it will be watched, viewed, produced, copied, talked about, blogged about in more places than if it was a closed design, if it was a normal design”.
“So, in this situation, the designer is at the centre of an enterprise. If I meet a manufacturer, we’re talking eye-to-eye. I’m not pleading, ‘oh please, please, do my design for a 3% royalty’, with the manufacturer equivocating, ‘no, well, maybe later’, and then changing it and so on. It’s really about having control of your creative output.
“At a fairly low cost, a designer can select suitable producers and sell products at a price he or she thinks it appropriate. It is a flexible venture that adapts easily to the customers’ needs and locations, and it is scalable in terms of quantities. The presence of the designs on the web gives a large number of designers, producers and entrepreneurs access to creative content to experiment with. It can be considered as a business opportunity, on a ‘try before you buy’ basis. It also creates space for new business practices that are unknown in ‘normal’ circumstances”, Ronen writes in his 2009 Open Design primer. 4
At a fairly low cost, a designer can select suitable producers and sell products at a price he or she thinks it appropriate.
Ronen talks about his experiences with design schools and how they see open design. “Students are kind of suspicious, but once I tell them how I make money out of it, why people don’t copy from me, they get it; they understand that I’m on to something here. And the design professors complain that it’s not working for them anymore; they say that design is not what it used to be. So maybe we are discovering a new opportunity, a new approach here.”
This new approach as proposed in Ronen Kadushin’s concept of Open Design has another interesting aspect as well. “You’re designing for a consumer, but you’re also designing for a user. Somebody has to use it as a design, to change the design. And this distinction causes a lot of confusion in students. They don’t know how to handle it until they are pretty far into the projects.”
However, once they finally understand the concept, some students produce very interesting transformations. In a course on open design at the Institute of Advanced Architecture in Barcelona, students converted the Square Dance table into what they imagined could become a shelter for use in South America. For another design, they took the idea behind the construction of the Italic Shelf to build a church hall. Ronen is fascinated by what these students are doing: “They are turning Open Design into architecture.”
In the future, maybe ten years from now, Ronen imagines a couple walking down the street, peeking into the shop windows of designer outlets and saying to each other, “God, I simply can’t stand this Open Design junk anymore, it’s everywhere. Can’t they come up with something else?” So there still will be designers, their products will still be sold in design shops, and there will still be couples going shopping to furnish their new home.
But maybe the situation will have changed fundamentally. Maybe the producer will have disappeared altogether, or perhaps just have taken on a completely different role. Ronen is searching how to make his vision of Open Design a reality: “I have to find a way to ensure that my creativity will not stop at the producer’s front door. I will be independent in pursuing that goal.”
- link: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ ↩
- Kadushin, R. Open Design. Exploring creativity in IT context. An Industrial Design education program by Ronen Kadushin, 2009. Available at www.ronen-kadushin.com/uploads/2382/Open%20Design%20edu3.pdf, accessed 11 January 2011. ↩
- Kadushin, R. Open Design Manifesto. Presented at Mestakes and Manifestos (M&M!), curated by Daniel Charny, Anti Design Festival, London, 18-21 September 2010. Available at ronen-kadushin.com/uploads/2440/Open%20Design%20Manifesto-Ronen%20Kadushin%20.pdf, accessed 11 January 2011. ↩
- Kadushin, 2009, op.cit. ↩