Open Standards
Design for Adaptation:
A New Design Vocabulary

Thomas Lommée

Over the last 20 years, we have been witnessing the early developments of a networked economy that is operated by its interconnected participants. Decentralized information streams and sources have altered people’s attention scopes, ambitions and goals and stimulated a more critical and pro-active attitude. Rather than swallowing manicured advertising made up by professional PR departments, consumers are now informing, inspiring and instructing each other with home-grown content – using Twitter feeds, blogs and YouTube movies to communicate their skills, knowledge and ideas.

But the global mouth-to-mouth mechanism of the World Wide Web  TREND: NETWORK SOCIETY not only initiated a dialogue among consumers, it also started a conversation between consumers and producers. This emerging dialogue is generating exciting new business models and rearranging current artistic practices.

On the one hand, it enables consumers to participate in the design process at various levels. Blogs facilitate product reviews and ratings, while easy access to online instructions stimulate consumers to personalize, adapt, repair  REPAIRING or hack  HACKING products. On the other hand, producers can now obtain a huge amount of feedback on their products by observing all these millions of small movements online and subsequently respond to them in their next product releases. Some producers are even actively involving the end user in the creative process by asking them to design new applications (e.g. Apple’s app store) or to propose new uses for their products (e.g. the Roomba vacuum cleaner 1).

Out of this creative dialogue, the need for a common design language, a kind of shared design vocabulary with its own specific rules, characteristics and outcomes, is slowly  STANDARDS emerging. This vocabulary is manifesting itself through common agreements within the dimensioning, assembly and material cycles of the object. The concept of introducing a set of open standards is nothing new. Whenever a need for sharing has become apparent, open standards have always emerged as a means to generate more flexible and resilient models of exchange. The internet, for example, is entirely based on HTML coding, a common, free-of-charge text and image formatting language that allows everybody to create and share web pages; Wikipedia is nothing more than a common standard template that can be filled in, duplicated, shared and edited over and over again.

Despite the obvious advantages that these common standards and design protocols bring, there is considerable scepticism among designers to adopt and embrace them – probably because, until recently, a seemingly infinite amount of resources indicated little need for more flexible and open systems, and the hierarchical, top-down monologue of mass communication offered few opportunities for exchange.

In addition, these open models also raise questions of accountability, profitability and formal expression. How do we credit the contributors? How do we generate money? Last but not least, how do we balance openness and protection, freedom and restriction? Since every standard by definition imposes a restriction, it limits our choices and obstructs our freedom to design and shape, and it disrupts our independent position as designers.

Nevertheless, the more we continue to share and exchange, the more the need for common platforms will surface within all aspects of our culture. This doesn’t mean that one system will replace the other. Sometimes the commons will do a better job; other times the classical systems will prevail. Both open and closed systems will continue to exist, but it is the evolution of both in relation to the emergence of a networked society as well as the growing range of hybrids (closed systems with open components) that need to be closely observed and tried out.

Designing within certain common standards will require a different mindset from all stakeholders of the design process. In order to think ‘within the box’, in order to accept and embrace the new opportunities that emerge out of common restrictions, we need to acknowledge that we are part of a bigger whole, rather than being the whole itself. It requires us to give up the myth to create ‘something new’, something that ‘hasn’t been done before’ and to replace it by a willingness to dissolve into bigger projects that just make common sense. This new mindset will severely damage the romantic ideal of the ‘designer-creator’  DESIGNERS and shift it towards the ‘designer-collaborator’.

And, let’s face it, that’s quite a different perspective to work from. No designer of our generation wants to be a pixel; we all want to be the full-colour image.

  1.  The Roomba is an autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner that comes with a serial interface. This interface is incompatible with standard PC/Mac serial ports and cables. It allows the user to monitor Roomba’s many sensors and modify its behaviour. Programmers and roboticists create their own enhancements to Roomba, resulting in numerous ‘Roomba hacks’. Some hacks are functional, others are purely fun. So far, Roombas have been converted into floor plotters, robots controlled by a Wii remote, ‘hamster-powered’ vehicles, etc.
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