When Van Bo Le-Mentzel from Berlin unveiled his do-it-yourself furniture Hartz IV in 2010, it wasn’t the first time a designer had thought to create and distribute such instructions, others before him having gone down the same route, including Enzo Mari (Autoprogettazione) in the 1970s as well as Victor Papanek and James Hennessey (Nomadic Furniture). This time, though, it’s not just designers who are driving the revitalised do-it-yourself culture; the maker movement, too, is playing its part, seeking to question the very basis of the relationship between design, production and use. Whether or not it will succeed in changing that relationship remains to be seen.
Bringing Everyone on Board
Reshaping that relationship, however, means involving all concerned – not just designers and producers but users too, in other words adopting a “do-it-together” rather than a do-it-yourself approach. In his book “Produktsprachen – Design zwischen Unikat und Industrieprodukt” [Product Languages – Design between the Unique and Industrial Culture] (↗ form 258, p. 102), Thilo Schwer argues that the range of products has become dramatically more differentiated over the past four decades, with more and more products distinguished by smaller and smaller differences. This has turned users or rather consumers into “expert choosers”1: to select one item from such a huge range of products, the consumer is forced to engage with them and all their little differences. What’s more, says Schwer, “the adaptation and alteration of mass-made products or indeed the transformation of semi-finished goods into new objects is the most active form of engagement with products.”2 The maker movement is leading the way. It brings people with shared interests together in places that are open to all – be they fab labs or urban gardens, maker fairs or online forums – in order to exchange knowledge and to develop joint projects and products, in other words, to create for themselves things they could simply have bought from a commercial retailer.
Presumably the motivations behind such behaviour are to be found at the top rather than the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: on the one hand, there is among users a growing desire for individuality, which leads them to customise or simply not buy mass-produced articles and to make things themselves. This may also reflect a desire to participate in production processes, something from which ordinary consumers are nowadays completely cut off. On the other hand, given the increasing complexity of our (consumer) society, the motivation could be to re-establish a greater measure of control over one’s everyday surroundings – or simply to experience the pleasure that making things by hand generally brings.
Either way, today’s technical, economic and social possibilities offer consumers and users new ways of pursuing these needs and changing their own patterns of consumption. That being said, this do-it-yourself making is mostly a leisure activity that exists alongside conventional commercial processes – the maker movement thus remains a primarily social phenomenon. The reasons are self-evident: apart from the fact that presumably not everyone regards making things as a worthwhile pursuit, it’s a pursuit that requires time, not to mention skills that may first have to be acquired. People working eight or more hours a day to earn a living just don’t have that time; instead they use their earnings to buy the things they need, things that are the fruits of other people’s labour. This was and is the essence of the division of labour upon which today’s world of differentiated products is predicated. And that brings us full circle – back to a system in which the design and production of things remains concentrated in the hands of a select few.
Is Making the New Consuming?
If we take the maker movement seriously, we nevertheless have to address the question of what potential it offers for developing a new relationship between design, production and use – what we might call a “do-it-together” approach.
Besides fulfilling the aforementioned needs, making things oneself is a hands-on learning experience that gives the participants a better insight into the product development process. It not only helps them to see the consequences of the various decisions that have to be taken during that process, it also means thinking more carefully about what they want their product to do in order for it to meet their requirements. Such insights result in a different kind of consumer, firstly because the user’s newfound knowledge makes for more considered purchase decisions and, secondly, because, armed with a better understanding of what it is they want and need, they are able to play an active part in the development process. In this context, it is worth mentioning Katharina Bredies’ book “Gebrauch als Design” [Usage as Design] (↗ form 259, p. 110), in which she argues that product use should be regarded as part of the design process and that things should be designed to specifically encourage appropriation by the user.
How might such a do-it-together approach work? The aim of this new relationship could be to ensure that every user gets the kind of product they actually want and need by allowing them to contribute to the development process in whatever way they are best able. Before a new product is brought into being, however, it should be ascertained that such a product does not already exist; this would save both material and human resources. That brings us to the first premise of our new relationship: knowledge about products, their development and their availability should be transparent and easily accessible to all. If a new product is deemed necessary, it would be the task of the design – premise number two – to organise its processes in such a way that the user can play a direct part in the design; this would increase the probability of them liking the product and continuing to use it for a long time. A third premise would be for the manufacturer to coordinate resources, skills and information so as to make the production process as resource-efficient and socially responsible as possible. To ensure this is the case, manufacturing would presumably have to decentralise, with production sites being more localised and the role of the manufacturer increasingly resembling that of a service provider. The result would be products that represent an almost exact correlation between supply and demand: instead of one-size-fits-all products and designs, we would get collaboratively developed products and designs to suit each individual consumer. It’s something that could be achieved using existing information, communication and production technologies; the challenge, then, is to develop the appropriate business models.