By Vicki Matranga, IHA Design Programs Coordinator
The design world spun a little faster for four days in August, as professionals creating the future met in Portland, Oregon for DIY Design: Threat or Opportunity, the 2010 IDSA (Industrial Designers of America) conference. Portland, the country’s epicenter of Do-It-Yourself culture, inspired the participants who listened to presentations from the city’s notables in the independent music scene and hot advertising agencies, along with rockstar chefs, cutting-edge designers and entrepreneurial artisans. The program addressed several overlapping themes: Enabling Technologies, DIY as an Innovation Engine, Slow Craft, Consumer Customization, Crowdsourcing and Independent Design and Creation. The concurrent education conference added to the packed schedule, which often held four simultaneous, tantalizing sessions and discussed the challenges universities face as they prepare students for a world that blurs the distinctions among creators, makers, sellers and users of products and experiences.
Converging global trends feed the cultural disruption that is upending traditional ways of doing business. Demographics highlight the change. The global Net Generation, now about four billion people 25 years old and younger, multiplies alongside increasingly aging populations in developed economies. These young uber-connected activists share stories and techniques and self-organize around tools, skill sets and projects. Time and distance have become irrelevant as environmentalism, localism, hacker culture and even reality TV blend influences. Novel internet platforms and entrepreneurial thinking drive greater numbers of independent inventors and small firms to develop products that meet specific needs. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when hobbyists and professionals have access to the same tools and resources. Many consumers are tired of sameness—high-volume, standardized products and indistinguishable Big Box retail landscapes—and want products that have deeper meaning, respect handcraftsmanship and give a user ways to personalize them. “Buy Local” becomes “Make It Yourself” when users demand a hands-on role in creating unique items for themselves.
Companies large and small recognize and invite collaboration from their consumers. Businesses can find workable margins by building more flexible processes to streamline diverse production and facilitate structured customization. NIKE, a pioneer in mass-customization, has reformatted stores as workshops where consumers book an appointment to design and print their own wares onsite. Massachusetts-based Local Motors partners with car enthusiasts who co-create their own cars in two weekends. With an open source platform and a Creative Commons license, customers guide the design development of cars produced in local micro-factories. This just-in-time manufacturing produces less waste and delivers customized cars that also reflect regional preferences. Internet-based marketplaces such as Etsy join global sellers and buyers into communities that share techniques and host local educational events. Ponoko asks “Got a great idea but need help making it? Commission someone from our creative community to make it for you” and its online making system connects buyers with downloadable product designs, materials and production services. Blurb makes it possible for authors and artists to self-publish affordable, high-quality books. MAKE magazine reinvigorates the old school science fair with its Maker Faires and its “Technology on Your Time” approach offers tool kits that anyone can use to build, hack, tweak, share and discover.
Organizations rely on crowdsourcing to ask consumers for suggestions on packaging design to production technologies, inviting the public to contribute toward new broad-scale solutions. At the same time, corporations employ mass customization tools to enable consumers to tailor products to their individual needs.
A word of caution, however: These approaches can result in confusion. Some presenters outlined the challenges of sharing creative power with consumers. Brands are put at risk if a company does not provide structure, loses focus on its core message or lapses in quality control. Questions of authorship and intellectual property ownership may arise. Instant communication demands vigilance and higher levels of transparency from management as more discerning consumers expect to be involved.
As I tried to connect some dots for what this dynamic business of user-generated, locally produced products might mean for innovation in the housewares industry, I heard “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Energetic and optimistic people thrive in this environment, committed to the global engagement that creates meaningful solutions. Whether we realize it not, we are all Do-It-Yourselfers now.