Renny Ramakers talks about Droog’s latest project Downloadable Design, about making money, designing for the masses, the development of the design profession, and Droog Design’s recent experiments and research in sustainability, local production, co-creation, upcycling and collective revitalization of the suburbs.

Roel Kaassen Peter Troxler

Roel Klaassen: Looking at recent and future developments in design in the Netherlands, Droog has played an important part, perhaps even a key role. One of your latest projects is about design that can be downloaded. Are you giving your designs to users so they can modify them?

Renny Ramakers: We started the Downloadable Design DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN project together with Waag Society because we saw that designers these days make products that could be downloaded very easily, but aren’t available for download. Take Jurgen Bey’s design for our store in New York, for example. Even though it’s based completely on laser cutting, it is constructed from so many parts and its assembly involves so much manual labour that it is not possible at this stage to offer it as a downloadable design.

We’ve seen the idea of flat-pack products that you assemble yourself, and are seeing the growth of the 3D printer,  PRINTING which can now be used to create physical objects from various designs. These concepts looked interesting, so we thought: let’s see if we can build a platform for these kinds of designs. Together with early internet pioneer Michiel Frackers and designer Joris Laarman, we are now working on the realization of this platform, which will be released as

We set up the project with the aim of achieving a number of goals. First, we wanted to eliminate some of the many steps between design and production, so the products become cheaper, similar in a sense to what IKEA has done. Compressing the process is an important reason. We know from our experience with producing designs that it may take up to two years before a finished product reaches the shops. Two years is a tremendously long time, so it’s interesting to explore whether designers would be able to design products without this second part of the process. It could be a very interesting development. Second, if you produce locally, you cut down on the need for transport. Reducing transport adds an ecological benefit. Third, local production on demand means that you don’t need to have your products in stock. This constitutes an economic advantage. From the consumer’s perspective, providing everybody access to design products also has value. Design is everywhere: even the most inane magazines feature design. However, a high level of design isn’t available to most end users; our products are just too expensive for the people who read those magazines. As a result, people end up going to stores like IKEA. We think that Downloadable Design will make it possible for us to bring our products within reach for people who would not otherwise be able to afford them. All these end users would have to do is assemble the product themselves.

Take Jurgen Bey’s design for our store. Even though it’s based on laser cutting, it is constructed from so many parts and its assembly involves so much manual labour that it is not possible at this stage to offer it as a downloadable design.

This leads me to another aspect: do it yourself, or DIY.  DIY There are countless DIY shows on TV; DIY is everywhere. So we thought: what if we not only made design products cheaper, but also introduced more variety. How many times have you found almost the perfect table, but it’s only 80 cm wide and you need a table that’s 90 cm or 120 cm wide to fit in your living room? In so many cases, your house is too small or too big for the standard sizes. What if you could adapt all these measurements to suit your space? That would be hugely practical, much more functional. Or you could choose your own colour, to make it your own thing. Downloadable design is also a form of co-creation.  CO-CREATION

Challenging the creativity of designers is yet another reason, and a very important one. Designers have to adapt their design process to the platform. They have to figure out which parameters of the product can vary, while still earning a profit. What we did here was not just to ask the designers to design a product and have the consumer choose a colour or a pattern; that’s already been done. We asked them to be creative and think of completely different ways for consumers to interact with the design. We also challenged designers to consider how they would make money on their design. We asked them to be creative in what they would offer for free and what they could be offering for an added fee. What if there could be layers in a design? For example, a product could be more expensive if it bears the designer’s signature. The business model requires creativity, too, and it is the most challenging part. As I said, we were inspired by laser cutting and digital technology, but our focus is not limited to digital technology; we also want to revitalize craftsmanship.

We plan to set up a whole network of small studios for highly skilled crafts; as I’ve discovered, it is not easy for small-scale workshops to survive. This network of craftspeople is as important to us as the 3D printers and laser cutters. The emphasis on craftsmanship is crucial, particularly since Ponoko and Shapeways are already offering 3D printing and laser-cut products. AESTHETICS: 2D I think that including crafts gives us a distinctive edge. It also facilitates cross-pollination by introducing digital technology into crafts workshops and vice versa. Finally, using local materials is also important to us; local sourcing is a high priority.

Let me zoom in on making money. Designers have to come up with new business models. Do you have ideas or examples from your experience with the Downloadable Design platform?

At this stage, the designers are not there yet; they are just getting started. One designer came up with an interesting suggestion: as you download a product, say a chair, you receive more and more pixels. If people could stop a download half-way, they could get the design for free, but it would be incomplete or low-resolution. If they decide to download the whole product, they would have to pay for the privilege.
Another idea was to offer an interior design service, so customers could have their interiors custom-made to suit their individual needs, based on variable designs that would be available on the platform. They would pay for the customization rather than for the products. Rather than buying a ready-made cupboard, they would pay to have the basic design adapted to their individual requirements.  MASS CUSTOMIZATION

In so many cases, your house is too small or too big for the standard sizes. What if you could adapt all these measurements to suit your space?

I asked the designers to think of different stages, different levels or different services; to think of a way to create a need for their services. While this is the most obvious idea, it’s not easy for a designer to conceive a product that generates demand for a service. It’s easy to do that with something like a phone, which comes with software, but it becomes a real challenge when you’re working with purely physical products. But there is another difficulty: customers have to get used to customization. Take the example of Blueprint, a physical blueprint of a home — or rather parts of a home — in blue Styrofoam which Jurgen Bey designed the Droog shop in New York. The idea was that people would buy the products but could specify the materials to their own liking. There’s a display model of a complete fireplace in blue foam, with a chimney and everything. If somebody wants to have this fireplace in their home, they could have it that shape done in tiles or bricks. But people don’t dare to buy it like that; they first want to see it for real, as a tangible object. They want to know what material it is made of, what it looks like, how it feels. We’ve learned that a project like that could only work if you produced an actual, physical specimen and offered that for sale.

Similarly, people don’t want to make all their clothes by hand themselves; they want to try the garments on in the shop to see how they’ll look. We’ve also discussed whether we would want to offer a separate category of designs: to expand what we offer, not only for download but also for sale. But what would be the point of a platform for downloadable design if you also have a web shop? Not having a standard web shop is one of the important reasons why I’m working on this project, so we’re not going to have one. However, the fact that this topic keeps cropping up is certainly a sign of things to come.

What do you feel it signifies? Is it just laziness on the part of the consumer?

No, it’s a lack of confidence. Changing the colour of your sneakers at Nike ID is less of an issue.

I’ve done it once; it was quite fun.

But now try doing that for a whole cupboard or bookcase, a design that would become a physical object. Imagine that you could change all the parameters. Not just an option for customization, but a required part of the process. You would have to specify each and every aspect. So the question is, wouldn’t people rather go to a shop and simply buy a cupboard?

It may have to do with lack of confidence. Also, not everyone is an expert in interior design. That’s also why standard furniture exists. Not everyone starts out with an empty floor plan. All those consultants and home decoration centres are there to help people define their interior design preferences. This is a separate issue from the presumed lack of confidence; you could call it ‘assisted design literacy’: how to design your own world.

We would be willing to help people. All these design magazines offer plenty of advice on home decoration, and there does seem to be a demand for it. But then we need to consider the extent to which design can be open. I remember modular furniture in the 60s. People wanted to see examples, too, back in those days; they wanted to see a visual impression of the best way to combine those modules. These are investments that people make. Downloading something that’s purely digital doesn’t cost much.

And if you don’t like it, it’s not a big deal.

But with downloadable design,  DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN people really need to take the next step. It means that they would have to go to a workshop to have the product made, or they would need to make it themselves. You say that it sounds like fun, but I doubt it would be fun for the majority of people out there; they wouldn’t want to take the time. That even holds true for me; I wouldn’t want to do it either. I’ve got other things to do.

This trend, this movement, this development: how does it change the design profession?

Designers have always wanted to work for the general public. in the 1920s and ‘30s, it was products for the masses that they wanted to design. Designers gave directions for how to make things that were good for the masses, and the belief was that the masses needed to be educated. Then, in the 1960s, there was an emancipation of the masses. The re-industrialization led to incredible market segmentation, so the masses had more choices and could buy more. As a result, designers started to follow the preferences of the masses. When the market is saturated, it becomes segmented; it’s a logical progression.

If you download music, You can start listening to it immediately. Design is different; you still need to go somewhere to have it made, or you have to make it yourself.

After that, a counter-movement emerged, as evidenced by Memphis and Alchimia, who got their inspiration from the choices of the masses and used it to design highly exclusive products. The inspiration from the masses has always been there, always. However, design is always a top-down process.

In the 1990s, some designers started to turn away from an overly designed environment; they reached a saturation point. They were interested in the fluidity of form. These designers would initiate a process, then stop the transformation at an interesting point and produce the result. It was presented as a free-form exercise, but it was very much directed by the designers.

New opportunities are emerging from the Internet and from digital fabrication, which means that the masses can start to participate in design.

That seems like a logical next step, at least from your perspective. But when I look at the products showcased on sites like Ponoko and Shapeways, I am concerned that the result will be a huge volume of unattractive and clunky design. This trend will not end well.  AESTHETICS: 2D

You say this as an expert in design?

I say it as a human being. I am worried that this trend will spread like a virus. In my opinion, the internet has brought us a lot of ugly stuff. There have been a lot of beautiful things, too, but a lot of ugly ones. Leaving people to their own devices… I don’t oppose it on principle, but it’s not my thing.

The design world draws inspiration from these developments, but these trends are not all that’s going on. Looking at what’s going on in the design world, the designers we work with and the projects we work on, I see two things happening. On the one hand, there is the open source story, which is about trying to find possibilities for participation; that goal is in line with the principles we espouse.

The other side is a devotion to local sourcing, a type of anti-globalism.  MANIFESTOS Many designers are concerned about the transparency of production processes and would like to see more use of local materials and local sources. That is part of our platform, too, since we want to encourage working with local sources and local workshops. Another important issue at the moment is sustainability, the concept of relying on renewable resources.

Designers are becoming entrepreneurs. By telling them to create their own way to make money, we relate to their sense of entrepreneurship. However, the concept of finding their own innovative ways to earn a profit has not yet been developed. This is a real challenge; they really have to make that mental shift towards entrepreneurial design.

On the one hand, there are designers like Tord Boontje,  DESIGNERS who distributed the design of his chair as a file as early as the 1990s. These digital designs were the start of a growing trend, but the content was static. There wasn’t much you could do with it, other than possibly choosing a different upholstery fabric; the idea was simply to distribute it as-is. It was essentially a predecessor of open design. As a designer today, I can imagine that I would have to get used to deciding what to give away for free and what to keep. I would define the parameters, but to what extent would I really have to relinquish control of my design? It is an interesting dynamic, and designers do need to maintain a creative focus on it.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is that designers do not really believe that consumers would download their designs. If you download music, then you have it and you can start listening to it immediately. Design is different; you still need to go somewhere to have it made, or you have to make it yourself. That’s more onerous.

People are too scared to add their own contribution to a lamp they bought for about 100 euros.

The Downloadable Design platform is a learning process for us, too. We started it as an exploration of a concept, and we want to investigate it thoroughly. It is important for us that the platform is curated, that we have a certain amount of control over what is put on the platform. We are playing around with ideas for allowing people to upload things, but I’m still undecided about whether or not I want to do it. In any case, I would want uploads to be related to the designs being posted by our designers. Maybe people could upload how they made the products they downloaded, so it would remain within the parameters defined by the designer.

Open design as a new way of designing. What does that mean to you?

At Droog, we’ve been doing open design all along, right from the start. Our work has always been connected to projects or events.  EVENTS We’ve always been interested in the interaction with consumers. Consistently, one of the key elements in our work has been that consumers could personalize a design, that our designs had an element of fun, pleasure or interactive co-creation.  CO-CREATION

A very good example is do create, a concept that we realized in collaboration with the KesselsKramer PR agency in 2000. 1 One of the projects was do scratch by Martí Guixé, a lamp that’s covered in black paint. People were supposed to scrape patterns in the paint to create their own drawing. This lamp has been sitting around in the shop for seven, eight years, and nobody has ever bought one. People are too scared to add their own contribution to a lamp they bought for about 100 euros. Even when we added sample drawings that people could copy onto the lamp themselves, nobody would buy it. We only started selling the lamp when we had artists do the drawings. After that experience, we decided not to continue this product. This type of interactive design did not seem to work.

Then, in 2008, we did Urban Play in Amsterdam, which also involved a contribution by Martí Guixé. 2 It was a large cube built from blocks of autoclaved aerated concrete or AAC, a low-density, non-toxic material that can be carved very easily. The idea of this Sculpture Me Point was that everybody could add their own sculpture. Everybody chopped away from day one, but after six weeks the result was deplorable. So we ended up with two questions. A, are people willing to do something? And B, what happens when people actually do it; is the result interesting?

Did you do further research on co-creation involving interaction with users? What did it reveal?

One of the projects that started from the Droog Lab is a digital platform for co-creation invented by Jurgen Bey and Saskia van Drimmelen. That comes fairly close. It is about co-creation,  CO-CREATION but it provides a platform for designers to work with other designers. Jurgen and Saskia moderate participation; only people they find interesting can get involved. It is extremely curated; they decide who gets in, who stays out, and who will be making something together, but they also allow room for people’s individual development. We are also working on a different platform which is about ‘upcycling’ dead stock from producers. The aim here is to make dead stock accessible for designers. It’s got nothing to do with using digital technology; it is about all the material that would otherwise simply be thrown away. In point of fact, most of these discarded products get recycled.  RECYCLING But the point here is that all those designs vanish into thin air. Thousands of shavers just disappear. A designer designed them; a certain amount of development went into them. Costs were incurred, and a lot of energy was spent. That’s another development we’re pursuing: we try to direct design towards re-designing what already exists.

China, for instance, might be coming to the end of its tenure as a cheap manufacturer pretty soon. That’s one of the reasons why we started Downloadable Design: to invent new systems.

Again, this is about the creativity of designers. In some sense, it could be considered co-creation, since a designer is building on something created by another designer. The challenge here is whether it is allowed. Somebody designed it, but now it’s dead stock that the company would rather throw away than have us picking it up and putting designers to work on it. There are very loose links to co-creation, to bottom-up design. More importantly, however, these are all developments that are part of what is happening now. So much more is going on now; the bottom-up part is only a small proportion of it.

You talked earlier about services, mentioning the example of interior design. The interesting thing is that you link the designer to the consumer directly, rather than through a middleman or organization.

That truly is a development that is happening right now. Take the fashion collective Painted, for example; they would love to make products for the user. The designers would prefer to make clothes for real people, not averaged-out stuff in shops; they would much rather make things one-on-one, in direct contact with the user. And I think that this really what’s going on in design at this very moment.

Distribution and the middle links in the production process are issues that IKEA has started addressing. We have first-hand experience with how much energy, money and time it costs. Everyone is trying to invent something to mitigate this problem, be it Downloadable Design or a designer who works directly for the customer. That’s where everybody is looking for solutions at the moment. It has to do with the current system; the whole production chain is starting to fall apart. There are environmental questions, economic questions, questions about production in developing countries. Not long ago, everybody was starting to have their stuff made in developing countries, but people in those countries are starting to earn more. China, for instance, might be coming to the end of its tenure as a cheap manufacturer pretty soon. That’s one of the reasons why we started Downloadable Design: to invent new systems.

Our other answer is a resolution of the dead stock issue. If we develop a system in which products are not thrown away, but instead are ‘upcycled’ and brought back into circulation, then we would not need to use so much new raw material; we could use what we already have. There are a few things that need to happen before people start adopting the concept, but we are interested in exploring systems to see how we could create new incentives for creativity, but also how we could start to fix the ecological and economic problems.
In the Droog Lab we are addressing yet another issue: the problem of globalization.  TREND: GLOBALIZATION You see the same stuff everywhere; you get the same retail chains everywhere; you get shopping malls everywhere. High-rise buildings are springing up all over the place; food travels all over the planet with no consideration of what’s in season. These examples are part of an incredible and very special aspect of globalization that makes people forget where things come from. People start to take everything for granted and lose touch with what is part of their own culture. That’s why we set up this lab, as a system to develop creativity based on local conditions, based on how people live and work. We want to develop creative ideas that come from talking to normal people – a taxi driver, a hair dresser – not graduates from an arts academy.  GRASSROOTS INVENTION This approach allows us to get to the heart of the matter, achieving a comprehensive understanding of how creative ideas are viewed by the end users. The aim is for designers come back with so much inspiration that they are able to develop new ideas in a global context.

We want to develop creative ideas that come from talking to normal people – a taxi driver, a hairdresser – not graduates from an arts academy.

Led by Jurgen and Saskia, the Droog al Arab team came back from the Droog Lab project in Dubai with the idea for a platform for co-creation.  CO-CREATION After seeing all these shopping malls, they have seen how the current system of mass production is a one-way street that leaves consumers in the dark about how things are produced. On their platform, they want to show how things are designed, especially how they are designed collaboratively, and they want to establish contact with customers and producers on that single platform.  MASS CUSTOMIZATION

In another project being done in the suburbs of New York, the team led by Diller, Scofiodio + Renfro wants to bring new life to these emptying satellite towns by turning residents into entrepreneurs. An amateur chef might start a sideline as a restaurant owner, or a person might open an informal library because they have a lot of books. Our designers are not at all interested in downloadables and the like, but they are investigating what happens at that level and developing ways to react to it creatively. At that point, they step back let the residents do their own thing. It’s such a fun project. Imagine going to visit a suburb, and discovering that one house has become a restaurant, another one a library, and another one a café. Imagine that somebody opened a cinema simply because they had a projector. All the fun things are available again, and people don’t have to leave the neighbourhood to find them. It creates a renewed sense of community.

Imagine that somebody opened a cinema simply because they had a projector.

On the one hand, I am fascinated to see what those people are actually going to do. On the other hand, I am interested in how we are blurring the boundaries between public and private; essentially, we are asking people to fulfil a public role in their private home. Accepting that involvement could even have an influence on the architecture of these people’s homes. What will houses look like if suburbs develop in that direction? If everybody, or at least a significant part of the population, becomes entrepreneurs, then their homes will look differently. Their private residence will include a public section.

That’s exactly why I do these things. I always return to the challenge of inventing a system, a method of generating innovation, regardless of how it happens. Downloadable Design, innovating the designer, upcycling dead stock, working within the local context, whatever. For me, these are all parts of the same story, facets of one whole entity. Maybe, two months from now, I will have dreamed up something else, have had yet another idea.

Those are a few of the projects we are running at the moment. All these initiatives are born from the same motivation: a sense of curiosity about the user, and a drive to bring innovation to design in a different way, by developing fresh methods while never forgetting that design is also fun.

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