Investigating the roots of open design and identifying its resulting technological, economical and societal changes, Atkinson contemplates the vast consequences this development will have for the design profession and the distribution of design.

Paul Atkinson

The concepts of open design – the collaborative creation  SHARE of artefacts by a dispersed group of otherwise unrelated individuals – and of individualized production – the direct digital manufacture of goods at the point of use – at first sound like something from a utopian science fiction film. And yet, here we are. We can now easily download designs  DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN from the internet, alter them at will to suit our own needs and then produce perfect products at the push of a button. Magic.

Back to the Future

In many ways though, there are huge similarities here to much older practices of production and consumption. The emergence of Do It Yourself  DIY as a necessity for many is lost in the mists of time, but defined as a leisure pursuit, a pastime, it emerged from a perceived need to ‘keep idle hands busy’. In the hours following a long working day, it acted only to bring the Victorian work ethic from the factory into the home. DIY = productive leisure.

In promoting DIY as an amateur pastime, the profes-sional practices of design (which had themselves only appeared a short while earlier) were democratized. The printing of instructional manuals in the form of popular DIY handbooks and magazines enabled anyone having developed the necessary hand skills (which were then passed down from generation to generation) to engage with creative design and production processes and make functional items for themselves.1 This process of democratization was not all plain sailing – it was one which was strongly rejected by the institutional bodies of various professions, all seeking to protect the livelihoods of their members, and was a source of tension in the relationship between amateur and professional which remains to this day.2

At first, technological developments in the design of tools and the development of new materials aided this opening up of professional practice. Some of the key turning points included the emergence of domestic versions of professional power tools, beginning with the electric drill,3 DIY and the ready availability of new materials such as hardboard, plastic laminates, ready-mixed paints and adhesives. At a time when many products in the home, from furniture to kitchen fittings and from radios to standard lamps, were produced in relatively small numbers from materials such as wood and metal, these developments effectively de-skilled production processes, meaning that the individual handyman could fairly easily design and build many of the products of everyday life. However, as the professions became more and more specialized and further removed from everyday activities, technology became more complex and esoteric and the mass production of injection-moulded plastic parts became the norm, the design and manufacture of many products moved beyond the capabilities of all but the most dedicated of DIY practitioners, and the creative process moved further away from the hand of the individual. Allied to this, the lack of free time in increasingly busy private lives, and the economies of scale involved in mass production provided further disincentives. Why bother to build a bookcase yourself, when a professionally designed, perfectly well made and highly finished self-assembly version can be bought for less than the cost of the raw materials?


This distancing of the professional from the amateur in part contributed to the cult of the connoisseur: the idea of the professional designer as one who knew what was best for everyone, no matter who they were. The grand narrative of modernist design sought singular perfection and brought an elitist view of ‘good taste’ to the forefront of any design debate. This view held sway and did not even begin to be dismantled until the realization in the 1960s that a single design solution could not possibly fulfil the requirements of such a wide and heterogeneous market, and that the relevance of any particular design was determined by its user, not its creator.4 Slowly, the opinion of the user grew in importance and more enlightened design practitioners began to promote user-centred design processes, where the observed requirements of the user formed the starting point of creative product development. The logical progression of this view can be seen in the more recent emergence of co-creation design processes, where the user is finally fully involved in the creative process leading to the products they eventually consume. It is a short step from co-creation  CO-CREATION or co-design to a position where users take on the responsibility for creative and productive acts in their entirety – a step which technology has now enabled everyone to make. In open design, the cult of the connoisseur has given way to the cult of the amateur:5 those who know themselves what is best for them.

The processes of technological development that have variously brought amateur and professional closer together or driven them further apart are now acting to potentially remove the barriers between the two completely.6 The open distribution network of the internet promotes an interactive and iterative process of creative design development amongst a globally dispersed group of potentially anonymous participants: a virtual band of individuals who can coalesce around a particular design problem, and who may or may not include design professionals.  COMMUNITY After ‘solving’ a particular design problem, the band dissolves, only to reform with a different membership around a new problem. Furthermore, the people in this virtual band have at their disposal advanced manufacturing capabilities.

The appearance of Rapid Prototyping  HELLO WORLD technologies in the mid-1980s, at first high-level and hugely expensive machines, allowed mass production processes requiring investment in costly tooling to be neatly sidestepped, making it possible to produce one-off products cost-effectively. Low-cost descendants of these – the designs for which are themselves disseminated and downloaded via the internet and made by hand – now enable the desktop manufacture of individualized products in the home.
DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN Technology has moved the goalposts from a position of co-creation to one where the user has the capability to completely design and manufacture products by themselves. It is a return, if you will, to a cottage industry model of production and consumption that has not been seen since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. What at first glance appears to be a futuristic fantasy is revealed, in fact, to be just the opposite: a recurrence of past ways of doing things.

Orchestral Manoeuvres

We have seen how this situation of open design and production occurred through the technological development of tools and materials, and a change in the standing of the individual’s opinion. Both factors increased in importance with the introduction of wide accessibility to the internet and low-cost machines for direct digital manufacture. We can safely assume that open source versions of these machines, such as the ‘CupCake’ CNC rapid prototyping machine produced by MakerBot Industries7, the desktop rapid prototyper ‘Model 1 Fabber’ from Fab@Home8, or the self-replicating rapid prototyper the ‘RepRap9’, will continue to grow in capability, becoming more and more efficient, more accurate and able to use a wider range of raw materials. Such is the nature of open development.10


It appears, then, that there are two physical aspects to be considered in making such technologies more acceptable to the wider public: the development of more user-friendly interfaces, or more intuitive systems for creating three-dimensional designs in the first place; and the distribution of materials in forms suitable for use in such machines. No doubt web-based supply infrastructures will appear as a matter of course as the demand for materials increases, but many current open design systems still require fairly high-level CAD modelling skills  KNOWLEDGE in order to produce designs in a digital form.

Since 2002, I have been leading research projects within the Post Industrial Manufacturing Research Group, initially at the University of Huddersfield and since 2008 at Sheffield Hallam University. This work has explored the development of effective user interfaces to enable the open design of products, with the express intention of increasing amateur involvement in the design process and reducing the distance between amateur and professional. It has pushed such technologies through projects by the industrial designer Lionel T. Dean11 and by the artist/maker Justin Marshall.12

Future Factories

The web portal of FutureFactories allowed observers to watch computer models of organic forms for products such as light fittings, candlesticks and furniture randomly mutating in real time, freeze the design at any point and save the resulting file for later production by rapid prototyping. Marshall’s Automake project went a stage further, and gave the user more ability to interact with the design by allowing them to manipulate various computer-generated mesh envelopes within which selected components would randomly be placed by the computer until a finished form appeared, which could then be printed. PRINTING Depending on the mesh chosen and the scale selected, the finished results could range from fruit bowls and vases down to bracelets and rings.

The exhibition I curated at the Hub National Centre for Design and Craft in May 2008  EVENTS  showed the results of both these projects and allowed visitors to the exhibition to try out the Automake software for themselves. The outputs created were first printed out as colour photographs, becoming part of a growing display wall. A selection of those photographs were printed in 3D  AESTHETICS: 3D by the industrial sponsor each week and added to the exhibition. Visitors returned again and again to see the expanding displays, with those whose work was selected and manufactured proudly bringing friends and relatives to see the results of their endeavours. These people said it was the first creative thing they had ever done, and that they could not have achieved it without the Automake system. The system enabled them to engage in a form of design and production that questioned their familiar relationship with the object.

Generative Software

Numerous systems that employ generative software and allow users to manipulate designed forms for pieces of jewellery and then have them produced by lost-wax casting or laser cutting followed soon after. One of the best known is ‘Nervous System’.13 Visitors to their site can either buy ready-made pieces created using their software, or run various simple interactive applets and manipulate screen designs based on organic structures such as amoebas, orchids, lichen and algae to create their own unique pieces, which can then be saved and manufactured by the supplier.
AESTHETICS: 3D The result is a growing open design library of unique but closely related forms. The code for the software is also released under a Creative Commons licence to encourage others to produce similar work.

THE graphic designer’s role has moved from creating fixed products to A more fluid digital presence, where they may not be totally in control of the content constantly being added to their original creation.

These examples underline the value of systems that allow complex three-dimensional forms to be created by users who, for very valid reasons of lack of time and inclination, are unlikely to develop the type of Computer-Aided Design skills and 3D design awareness required on their own. The development of systems to help and support such people in the creation of their own designs should not be seen as a threat to professional designers – who might see their widespread adoption as an affront to their creative expertise and high-level training – but as an opportunity to retain key roles in the design of products. It would seem certain that the role of the designer in this situation will change rather than disappear altogether, and that this change in role will bring with it the requirement for a change in the attitude of the designer with respect to their relationship with the finished object, as well as in their relationship to the amateur user. Traditional models of authorship and ownership and the existing legal structures over rights and liabilities do not sit well with open systems of design and production, and trying to maintain them will only lead to heartbreak and disappointment. These lessons have already been learned in the allied creative industries of graphics, film and music production as they have tried to protect their income streams, and need to be heeded here.14

Graphic designers have had to learn to cope with the fact that anybody with a computer and the right software has access to the means to create and produce high-quality, finished pieces of graphic design (although the nature of the systems in place often fails to help lay users create anything that would be mistaken for ‘professional’ work). In many instances, the graphic designer’s role has moved from creating fixed, printed products to originating and possibly maintaining a much more fluid digital presence such as websites, where they may not be totally in control of the content constantly being added to their original creation.

The issues that the music industry has had to deal with include not only the enormous and unsettling changes to the processes of how their end products are distributed, but also the opening up of the existing processes of sourcing new, original material. The role of the A+R (Artist and Repertoire) person – acting as a ‘professional’ arbiter of taste and a filter between the plethora of bands aiming to get recording contracts and those that actually get them – has been replaced by the self-promotion and distribution of music by bands acting as their own producers, which is then filtered first-hand by potential listeners as part of a global online audience. Similarly, film studios have been subjected to huge amounts of ‘amateur’ AMATEURISSIMO material being made widely available through websites such as YouTube, which is filtered by enormous numbers of viewers rather than by a director.

The analogy alluded to here, between the role of the designer and the role of the film director, music producer, or orchestra conductor for that matter, is a good one. While the director is recognized as the creative force behind the film, it is widely understood that the process of film production is intrinsically a team effort of co-creation  CO-CREATION involving a large cast of equally creative individuals. Likewise, an orchestra cannot function well without a conductor, but while the conductor’s role is key, the quality of the orchestral music produced relies on the active involvement of all the musicians. Perhaps what we are seeing here is the transition of the designer’s role (which in reality has more often than not been one of co-creation in any case, working as they do with teams of engineers, ergonomists, marketing experts and a host of others) to a role more akin to that of a film director or orchestra conductor – with the cast or orchestra in this instance including every end user. The professional designer, I suspect, will become an agent of design, with the audience of end users selecting which designer’s system they wish to employ.

The professional designer will become an agent of design, with the audience of end users selecting which designer’s system they wish to employ.

This anticipated change of role would potentially have a huge impact. The relationship between the designer and the objects they initiate will change, as they might never see or even be aware of the results of their endeavours, changed as they will be by users to suit their own needs.  HACKING DESIGN The relationship between the user and the products they own changes too, as they move from being passive consumers of designed products to active originators of their own designs. Indeed, the terms ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ may well disappear as we move into this ‘post-professional’ era. Design education will also have to change its curriculum, perhaps moving closer to the learning style used in craft training – teaching students to create more meaningful, individual pieces rather than huge numbers of identically mass produced products. Designers will have to learn to develop systems that will be used by others rather than trying to remain the sole author of their own work. And while it might seem daunting for the designer to be further removed from the end product they design, it is in fact a huge opportunity for the designer to become far more closely involved with the process of production than before, with all the associated knowledge and awareness of material quality and behaviour that implies. The challenge will be to create systems that enable the design integrity of the end result to be retained and perhaps the identity of the original design intention to be perceived, while still allowing a degree of freedom for individual users to adapt designers’ work to their own ends.

These orchestral manoeuvres in design will change everything for everybody, but while there may be troubles ahead, it is not all doom and gloom. The innate ability of design to adapt to change will surely be its saviour.

1 See Atkinson, P, ‘Do It Yourself: Democracy and Design’, Journal of Design History, 19(1), 2006, p. 1-10.
2 “[P]rofessional attitudes to [amateur design] activities have continued to oscillate between fear and admiration.” Beegan, G and Atkinson, P, ‘Professionalism, Amateurism and the Boundaries of Design’, Journal of Design History, 21(4), 2008, p. 312.
3 Wilhelm Emil Fein invented the first electric hand drill in 1895. (www.fein.de/corp/de/en/fein/history.html, accessed 30 September 2010) The device was developed into the ‘pistol grip’ format common today by Black & Decker in 1916, as they were simultaneously working on producing the Colt pistol. After noticing war-time factory workers were borrowing electric hand drills to do jobs at home, they launched a lightweight domestic version in 1946 (www.blackanddecker100years.com/Innovation/, accessed 30 September 2010).
4 Sir Paul Reilly, Head of the Design Council in the UK, wrote in 1967: “We are shifting perhaps from attachment to permanent, universal values to acceptance that a design may be valid at a given time for a given purpose to a given group of people in a given set of circumstances, but that outside these limits it may not be valid at all.” Reilly, P, ‘The Challenge of Pop’, Architectural Review, October 1967, p. 256.
5 ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ is the title of Andrew Keen’s polemic 2007 book, which urges caution in allowing the user too much authority in any creative field if the status quo is to be maintained.
6 See Atkinson, P, ‘Boundaries? What Boundaries? The Crisis of Design in a Post-Professional Era’, Design Journal,
Vol. 13, No. 2, 2010, p. 137-155.
7 makerbot.com
8 fabathome.org
9 reprap.org
10 Charles Leadbeater, in his seminal book on open design We-Think, gives a variety of examples (including an excellent case study of the Cornish Steam Engine) where collaborative open development has created a much stronger and more successful end product than a protected, closed design. See Leadbeater, C, We-Think: Mass Inno­vation, not mass production, Profile Books, (2nd Ed. 2009), p. 56.
11 futurefactories.com
12 www.automake.co.uk
13 n-e-r-v-o-u-s.com
14 As Tadeo Toulis wrote: “Failure to appreciate DIY/Hack Culture is to risk having professional design become as irrelevant to the contemporary landscape as record labels and network television are in the age of iTunes and YouTube.” Toulis, T, ‘Ugly: How unorthodox thinking will save design’, Core 77, October 2008
(www.core77.com/blog/featured_items/ugly_how_unorthodox_thinking_will_save_design_by_tad_toulis_11563.asp, accessed 30 September 2010).
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