Setting aside the reasons and motivations for making things yourself, the key change since the 70s has been in technology – be it the means of production and access to them, or the new possibilities of networking and distribution offered by the World Wide Web. The hats themselves may still be crocheted or knitted by hand, but nowadays, their makers can sell them directly to individual consumers via online platforms such as Dawanda and Etsy. Using 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC mills, one-offs can be produced quickly without prior manufacturing of expensive machine tool parts. What these do-it-yourself producers do need is to know their way around the programmes used to create digital data sets for such machines. Fabrication laboratories (fab labs) have sprung up in many of the world’s cities – they aim to equip would-be makers with access to the machines and also the skills to use them. In addition, websites such as Thingiverse, a platform for 3D printing ideas, enable individuals to share knowledge and discuss their projects online. The do-it-yourself trend, moreover, is not limited solely to the making of objects, but has also reached the electronic world. Systems such as Arduino (microcontollers) and Raspberry Pi (singleboard computers), for instance, can help individuals to realise projects with interactive functions. These new possibilities mean a group of ordinary users can now also become producers or at least play a significant part in a production process, a development that threatens the sovereign control over the making process enjoyed by manufacturers and designers since the advent of industrialisation. Although the maker culture has primarily developed separately from conventional design processes – in part because it quite simply prioritises different values – there are aspects of it that the design world has picked up on.
Is Making the New Designing?
Of the ways in which the maker culture has manifested itself in design, we can readily identify at least six (there may, of course, be others). The most obvious one of these is when home-made characteristics are incorporated into a product’s formal aesthetics, that is when the product, despite being mass-produced or using fine materials, tries to ape the homemade look, thus reducing it to a mere marketing trend that does little more than pay lip service to the maker movement.
The second manifestation is where users are invited to play a part in the design process, the emphasis here being less on the resulting product and more on the process itself. This is not simple self-assembly à la Ikea – which, after all, doesn’t allow the user to exercise influence over the product – but projects in which the designer gives the user the means to configure the object himself. To name a couple of examples: over the past few years, designer Jerszy Seymour has been exploring the role of the amateur in production contexts, organising numerous, almost performance-like workshops in which participants use wooden batons and polycaprolactone wax to make whatever comes to mind – the best known result being the Workshop Chair. British start-up, Technology Will Save Us, meanwhile, offers do-it-yourself kits that help people of all ages learn about technology in a fun way: its DIY Gamer Kit invites users to assemble their own console, aided by how-to videos on the company website, and to then programme it with self-authored games. The kit can currently be seen in the exhibition “This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good”, in which New York’s MoMA examines whether technology and design have an inherently democratising effect – in other words are available to and accessible by all – or whether this is an assumption that engenders false hope.
The third manifestation is the kind of plan that the furniture-making instruction developed by Van Bo Le-Mentzel is an example for. In these so-called open design projects, the designer publishes plans on the Internet, mostly with Creative Commons licences, giving permission to use, distribute and build on them. Users thus become producers, without necessarily having to participate in the design process.
In contrast to the previous two manifestations, in which users (can) get involved in design and production, the next three show to what extent designers have incorporated the “maker attitude” into their own design processes.
Firstly, access to hardware such as 3D printers, CNC mills and components such as Arduino shortens the iterative development cycle, allowing prototypes to be created, tested and improved more quickly and ideas to be turned into end products more easily. In addition, some have embraced the act of making – in the sense of conscious experimenting – as a design method in its own right. “The best way to explore possibilities and generate new ideas is to get started. Less talking, more doing,” as Fieldwork’s designers write on their website – a philosophy they outline in more detail in their “Guide to Making Things”.1
Secondly, more and more designers are now organising the production of their own work (in conjunction with specialist businesses) and distributing small series via direct selling or selected outlets, with crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter making it easier to get self-initiated projects and niche products off the ground.
Last but not least, there is a growing trend towards designers making the machines which they need to produce their creations themselves, and thus moving away from industrial production methods towards a more craft-based approach.
A New Model
Those who believe that the possibilities for anyone to make things by themselves revolutionise the relationship between design, production and use are, however, overlooking a couple of salient points: firstly, that not everyone wants to make everything themselves and, secondly, that it requires know-how, skill and experience to design and realise products that are useful to as many people as possible and yet low on environmental impact. Otherwise we risk having ever-increasing numbers of people accessing an ever-greater pool of 3D printers and producing ever-larger quantities of (badly designed) things that no one actually needs (aside, perhaps, from themselves). “Don’t do it yourself” artist Lisa Anne Auerbach thus first wrote back in 2008, explaining in her publication of the same name that we should only “do what we know how to do”2. On the other hand, by combining the values celebrated by the maker culture – an openness towards knowledge, collaborative working, need-based, resource-efficient and decentralised production – with the designer’s ability to create things that benefit others and not just themselves, while ideally involving the user as an equal participant, we can create a model you might call “do-it-together”. The communication and production technology already exists; it’s simply a question of exploiting its potential – in other words, of reshaping that relationship.
You can find part two of this text, on the maker culture from the user’s point of view, at form.de/dossiers
1 A Guide to Making Things: http://volumes.madebyfieldwork.com/making/ (last checked on 23 March 2015).
2 Lisa Anne Auerbach, Don’t do it yourself, Hamburg: Adocs Produktion und Verlag, 2013.