Recapturing The Soul of Design
Making Things — How it made us who we are
For millions of years, we humans have been making things — and this rare ability has played a critical role in our own development, and the creation of the modern world.
This ability to make things is also the driving force behind the wealth and standard of living we’ve generated as a result of our creations; in fact, as the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson put it:
Wealth has its source in applications of the mind to nature,
from the rudest strokes of spade and axe,
up to the last secrets of art.
When you think about it, this capacity to make things is, to a large degree, what makes us human.
But while this essential fact of human creation has always been a constant, the ways in which we’ve made things have changed radically, and rapidly — from the earliest prehistoric innovations to the technologically fueled creations we see all around us today.
And at times, adopting radically new ways to make things — from harnessing electricity to automating factories to turning grains of sand into silicon chips — has led to some pretty profound tradeoffs: one of which is the gaining of societal wealth, but also the loss of soul.
At Autodesk — where I work as VP of Corporate Strategy — it’s part of our job to look at the big picture of design, so that we can make the best possible tools for the 17 million architects, engineers, designers, and digital artists who use our products to imagine, design, and create things like bridges and buildings, cars and consumer products, and games and films.
And as part of that pursuit, I’ve noticed something very interesting that happened to design as the industrial revolution kicked into full gear…
Design lost its soul
Mass production…assembly lines…mindless, menial labor jobs…sweatshops…and a parade of generic products, made by no one in particular, and for no one in particular — all of these have helped to form the legacy of harnessing raging technology development to the essential human process of creating things.
A world where we were making things — but both the making, and the things, both lacked a sense of soul.
That’s the bad news…and we’ve had to live with those things for hundreds of years.
But here’s the surprising thing: today, after all this time…we’re starting to recapture the soul of design…
Historical Integration of Designer, Maker, User
Designing, making, and using are deeply connected. After all, the ultimate goal of designing something — be it a product, a building, a game, or a film — is to make it and for people to use it. Until the industrial revolution, designing, making, and using were inextricably linked. The master builders who designed and built the great cathedrals in the middle ages worked on the site and were intimately connected with the materials, methods, and workers who actually built the cathedrals. Further, they lived in the community and were intimately aware of the needs, goals, and lives of the people who would worship at the cathedral. Similarly, those who made things such as shoes knew their customers intimately, designed bespoke things for those customers, and were directly involved in selecting the materials and the craft of making the shoes. Designing, making, and using were even intimately connected in storytelling. Before mass communications technologies such as the printing press and movies, storytelling was local. The creation of the story was done by the person communicating it, and the users were face-to-face with the storytellers. Change to the way things were designed and made was evolutionary. The craftsman who designed and made buildings, things, and stories built on the past, making incremental improvements, and incorporating improvements that worked as standard practice. Such design was called vernacular design — based on local needs and construction methods, and reflecting local traditions. Vernacular designs evolved over time, reflecting the environmental, cultural, technological, and historical context in which they existed.
Vernacular design had soul. It was authentic and true to the needs of its users and the materials and methods used to produce it. There was a tight feedback loop between the designer, maker, methods and materials, the needs of the user, and the physical form of the design. This led to design which was true to the nature of the methods and materials and closely matched the needs and aspirations of the user. The challenge was that it was not scalable. Bespoke design was expensive and only the wealthy could afford it. Vernacular design was based on local craft traditions that could be implemented by people who would actually use the product, occupy the shelter, or tell the story. Their skills were limited to those they picked up from their predecessors. Design evolved very slowly and it took a long time to incorporate new ways of thinking and new ways of making.
Separation of Powers — Designer, Maker, User
The industrial revolution changed all of that. The industrial revolution brought about mass production and mass consumption. Something could be designed once — and replicated many times over. It could be made in using mass-production techniques which had a high level of scale, quality, and economy. This led to the democratization of consumption. Almost everybody in industrialized economies could afford mass-produced products, shelter, and entertainment. Consumers could buy tract houses, appliances, clothing and cars. They could experience mass-produced movies, television, and books. This led to an explosion of wealth. Things once available only to the very rich, were suddenly available to everybody. Things that required sophisticated production technology could be made in volume. It also increased the pace of innovation as it became possible to easily incorporate new ways of designing and making. The average person’s standard of living increased dramatically. But in the process, design lost its soul.
Products became generic and banal. Mass-produced buildings were organized into suburbs of identical homes. Film, television, and games devolved into formulaic entertainment. We had a lot of things, but those things lacked the soul that came from an intimate connection between designing and making things — and an intimate connection between the things we made and the people we made them for. In trying to appeal to a broad set of consumers — and in making using mass-production technologies, the results often were and are sterile and generic.
Design lost its soul because designing things (intellectual production) became separated from making things (physical production). Designers became an intellectual elite who were separated from the making of things and from the users of those things. Think of architects, industrial designers, engineers, and screen writers. They worked in abstractions and made representations of the thing to be made to guide those who actually made the thing — contractors, manufacturers, and directors. Designers doing intellectual production became more distant from the needs of their consumers and from the methods, materials, and people who did physical production. In this era, marketing emerged as a way to determine the needs and preferences of market segments. Industrial design emerged as a way to design products to appeal to these segments. Finally advertising emerged as a way to convince people that they needed mass produced things. Advertising played upon our fears and insecurities — which created demand for mass-produced things — but that demand was inauthentic — the opposite what was embodied in soul. The loop between designing, making, and using became disjointed and fragmented.
Design leaders and educators recognized the gap between designing and making and tried to teach designers an understanding of making — perhaps the most famous and influential attempt was the Bahaus, a German design school which attempted to inculcate an understanding of methods, materials, and craft in designing for the industrial age. Design leaders also tried to develop designs with broad appeal to the masses. While such attempts were laudable, they were insufficient to bring the soul back to design. They did create some connection between the intellectual and physical production of things, but they failed to close the whole design, making, and using loop
Reunification — Designer, Maker, User
So what will bring the soul back to design? Toolsets, mindsets, and skillsets are starting to change. We actually are at a very interesting juncture in which designing and making are coming back together. We are starting to reformulate the intimate loop between designing, making, and using. Autodesk and other software companies democratized design tools and methods such that they are accessible to lots of people. Now the tools to make things are becoming democratized. Technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, computer-controlled subtractive manufacturing, and others are becoming less expensive, more flexible, and easier to operate. Gaps between design tools and making tools are beginning to be addressed and we will soon be able to bring the tools of intellectual production (design) into the same work flow as tools of physical production (making). The toolsets used in design and in making are converging. They also are becoming way more powerful — such that we can make and design things that we could never have imagined before.
Further, they are becoming more flexible, thus enabling smaller production runs and mass-customization. This means that things can be made that are no longer generic but closely match the needs of the users.
Parallel to this convergence of toolsets, there is a convergence of skillsets and mindsets. Design schools are teaching methods, materials, and fabrication — much as the Bauhaus did. Students are encouraged to get physical and actually make the things they are designing. The “maker movement” is creating a social context which brings designing and making back together. Increasingly, venues such as Burning Man celebrate an integrated view of designing and making. Intellectual production used to be exalted and physical production denigrated. That is no longer the case — they are increasingly seen as one and celebrated together.
The New Soul of Design
If this new convergence of designing and making were all there is — we might recapture the soul of design lost in the era of mass production. But there is more happening here. Things are becoming less physical and more digital. This means that things evolve over time. They are moving from a static life to a dynamic life. As an example, my iPhone may be identical in physical form to your iPhone, but I have different apps, different configuration, and different content. My iPhone evolves over time as I use it and my needs evolve. The physical container is the same, but the actual thing conforms to my needs. The iPhone moved from being a static product to one that is mutable — I can change it over time. Further, things are becoming deeply interconnected. Ultimately, this means that things become networked and have a life of their own. They communicate with each other and have a dynamic rather than static life. They change over time in response to their use and context. This will offer new opportunities and new design challenges. The recapturing of soul will be enabled by a tight link between designing, making, and using — but there will be a new soul as things evolve dynamically over time thorough conversation with their users and peers.
Someone once said that the twentieth century was about the democratization of consumption and the twenty first century was about the democratization of production. It is still early days — but some powerful forces seem to be lining up to bring the soul back to design. We will close the loop between designing, making, and using. This will bring back the soul we lost in the industrial revolution. What is even more exciting is that our move from things being static to things that are mutable and evolve over time, we have new dimensions of soul to bring to the things we design, make, and use.