(Un)Limited Design contest
Experimenting with Open Design

Bas van Abel

Open design covers an extensive area and its contours are not yet clearly defined, making it difficult for designers to come to grips with the developments. One of the most tangible open design experiments was the (Un)limited Design Contest, which challenged the designers to try something out and experience for themselves what happens next. Alexander Rulkens (Studio Ludens), 1 Sylvie van de Loo (SEMdesign) 2 and Goof van Beek 3 share their experiences.

All designs that were submitted were made with digital manufacturing technology, using machines that turn digital designs into physical products. Digital manufacturing offers the designer many new possibilities. Professional designer Sylvie van de Loo used a computer-controlled laser cutter to create her Fruit bowl 128DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN The bowl is constructed from 128 pieces cut out of cardboard. Her initial idea was to work out a prototype of the bowl in clay. As she was drawing the bowl in 3D on the computer with a friend, she began checking the possibilities for manufacturing the product digitally. For this, she went to the Fab Lab in Utrecht.

Sylvie: “I’ve been in the Fab Lab before, but I didn’t see the potential for my own work at that time. I thought it was all a bit too technical; I felt that a creative approach was lacking. Now I’m discovering that the technique is an important source of inspiration to me.” Sylvie took the advice to turn her bowl into a technical drawing program, which was capable of breaking the 3D form up into sectional planes with a specific width. This approach allows her to generate forms for different materials, which are then cut out with the laser cutter.
AESTHETICS: 2D It is a fairly technical process, which has had an important influence on the creative process and was one of the deciding factors in the final form and appearance of the end product.

Sylvie: “Working with the laser cutter was really a revelation for me. What a cool machine! Anything is possible. You can form 3D layers out of 2D layers. It’s very precise, and you can engrave the most beautiful forms with it. Because you yourself get to work with the prototyping technology, the process of making it is a valuable addition to the final design. If I hadn’t had the chance to experiment with the machine, the definitive form and choice of material would never have occurred to me.”  HELLO WORLD

But still, designer Alexander Rulkens van Studio Ludens feels there is a great deal of room for improvement in how people gain access to the designing process and machines.  ARCHITECTURE Alexander: “I think the Fab Lab concept can benefit from better interfaces to wield the great power that the technology can give.” He didn’t submit a product for the contest; instead, he submitted a software tool that enables everyone to create their own design easily.

Sharing for Yourself

It’s clear that access to technology offers new possi-bilities, but what possibilities does sharing creative work offer the designer? Goof van Beek won the design contest in 2009; his design received extensive publicity. Goof: “It’s fun when people come up and talk to you because they saw your design somewhere. I’m not sure if it really was the open nature of the design that gave the dress the amount of attention that it got, but it was a good first introduction to the reality outside the environs of my study. Meanwhile, I have been approached to take part in an exposition.”

It could be that the conditions of the contest played a role in this: under the (Un)limited Designs terms, the design could be published and shared without prior approval from the  DESIGNER designer. On the one hand, this made it possible for the designers to establish a name for themselves more quickly, and a company that finds the product interesting knows who to go and talk to. However, it also means that designers have given their permission for others to adapt the design and publish their derivative design. “It is a bit scary, but it also has its advantages,” says Sylvie. “The bowl is finished as far as I’m concerned, and I think it’s really great that someone else could pick it up and give it their own twist.”

She isn’t afraid this openness will stand in her way as a designer or harm her business interests. Sharing the design also associates her with the product as the original designer – and even if a design hasn’t been explicitly shared, the designer still always runs the risk of ideas being stolen.

Alexander emphasizes that it’s not just a business matter. Alexander: “The major benefit of sharing is the opportunity to get feedback on your thought and design process early on. You are opening yourself up to the knowledge of others, to different perspectives, which you need as a designer to come up with ideas that are relevant to society. The fact that your design is open to improvement ultimately means that it will be better suited to the people who are going to use it in their day-to-day lives.”


But looking at the entries in the design contest, only three products were submitted in the ‘fusion’ category. It’s a category that provides incentives for the re-use and re-interpretation of designs that had already been submitted.  REMIX Sylvie and Goof both expect that this has to do with the importance of the designer’s signature style, especially in a contest. Sylvie: “There is a difference between what you use from other designs as an inspiration for your own design, and basing your design entirely on somebody else’s. Originality is important to a designer, and designers aren’t used to explicitly recognizing others for contributing to their design. This makes us choose the safe way by inventing something new.’ Goof: “It’s strange that we don’t consider improving somebody else’s product a challenge, because I would really like to take a few designs in hand in my surroundings. I do know several designs that I think could be done better.” Sylvie thinks that education has an important role in forming this attitude. Sylvie: “At the academy, we were encouraged to be original by creating work that is unique and distinguished.  DESIGNERS I never saw any–one literally taking an existing design as a starting point for a personal interpretation or addition. Maybe we still consider ourselves too good to do that.”

Alexander has a somewhat more radical view. He believes that open design will essentially change the role of the designer. Alexander: “Designers will have to start listening better in a world where the designer doesn’t make the design decisions, but rather facilitates the process of designing decisions.” The meaning of a signature style is changing, as is the way in which we handle that signature style. Alexander: “We have to move towards a system where a person’s contribution to a design can be measured and that person can be given proper credit for their efforts. This means that the designer has to let go of the feeling that “it was my idea”.

It is not yet possible to draw hard and fast conclusions from the results of the (Un)limited Design Contest, EVENTS but it is clear that the designers will engage in the challenge. The most valuable aspect of this kind of experiment is that it enables us to explore certain aspects of open design. In the first edition of the contest, the question was still whether designers were willing to throw open their own design. The emphasis in the second edition was on compound products; the challenge for the third edition will probably be achieving a design dialogue between the contestants.


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