Softer Wares

Today, the functionality of many of the objects we use most is determined through symbiotic relationships of hardware and software. In many ways, the hardware/software dichotamy of the electronic object is not all that dissimilar to the relationship of machinery and tooling; the machine provides core functions which are then adapted to task-specific needs through tooling or jigs. For the most part, hardware is fixed, unchanging, and as such, the outward-facing physical design of electronic products, for the most part has been reduced to an act of housing screens and hiding internal workings. Software on the other hand is far more fluid, able to be continuously revised and updated, shaped by both makers and users. Following in this line of thinking, it can be said that current approaches to the designed forms of electronic objects are still very much rooted in Modernist, post-industrial ideals of singular, rigid and universally “correct” solutions. It’s about time we begin to develop new, more fluid approaches to the design of these objects.

Perhaps, as Anthony Dunne writes in Hertzian Tales, “the ‘object’ can locate the electronic in the social and cultural context of everyday life. It could link the richness of material culture with the new functional and expressive qualities of electronic technologies”(19). But there is a richness inherent in electronic culture too, stemming largely from its networked nature, and we’re reaching a point at which it is not only possible but necessary to consider applications of this to the design of material objects. In recent years there’s been a drastic increase in the accessibility and affordabibility of additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, making it possible to look at these techniques not just as tools for rapid prototyping but as distributed systems for on-demand manufacturing. These technologies enable not only greater flexibility in the geometries that can be produced but an increased fluidity with which revisions can be made and distributed. Two of the most promising ideologies to be borrowed from the culture of software and applied to the design of physical objects are Opensource development and Beta testing.

OPEN SOURCE APPROACHES

“Open source design,” claims Gabrielle Kennedy, “has the capacity to conserve culture and decoration as well as traditional skills by utilizing new technology. Digital production makes mass customization possible. Open source makes information and knowledge public; in addition it has low entry costs, quality control takes place in the form of peer review by the public, and revenues are divided between craft and creativity. Also, because the products of open source design can be produced locally, distribution costs are drastically reduced. What open source design does is redistribute knowledge and the means of production. It has the potential to change everything we know about design, from manufacturing to education” (“Joris Laarman’s Experiments with Open Source Design” Open Design Now 2011).

This all sounds exceptionally promising, but where the problems may lie in applying open source principals to product design is defining what it is that constitutes “source data” when the discussion moves from digital to physical artefacts. Looking to the GNU Public Use License, one of the first free licenses to be established under the Debian Free Software Guidelines in 1989 and still the license used in more than half of free software projects, source data is defined as “the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it”. Unfortunately what tends to be referred to as the source data in open source product design projects, is .stl and vector files that while containing the information necessary to reproduce objects locally provide very limited options for modifying the work. Unlike source code, these files don’t define the underlying logic and dependencies of a design, that might facilitate making context-specific modifications to an object in a meaningful way. They’re still just drawings, representations or schematics of a final form, rather than definitions of the thing itself.

Parametric tool sets such as Grasshopper offer a means to design in ways which can take variables into account (creating a set of logic by which form can be generated rather than describing a fixed and finite form) and offering a documentation format with increased capacity for meaningful modification. There’s been a significant embrace of parametric and generative methodologies within the field of architecture over the last few years, but unfortunately far fewer examples of applications within the field of product design exist. While a fairly specific aesthetic has emerged within the landscape of parametric design, it should be noted that the tools themselves do not necessitate that this aesthetic be employed.

THE BETA OBJECT

The term “Beta Testing” has long since crossed the boundary from technical jargon to a part of common vernacular. It’s defined as “a trial of machinery, software, or other products, in the final stages of its development, carried out by a party unconnected with its development.” The quality of being carried out by potential users rather than those involved in the development of a given project allows the beta testing process to address the wide array of real-world scenarios a product might encounter which would be nearly impossible to account for within the relatively closed and controlled environment a given project is developed within. While digital artefacts can be readily updated and modified, the realities of traditional mass production make it nearly impossible to address “bugs” that may become noticable once a physical artefact is in production. Digital fabrication offers an opportunity to shift this paradigm, allowing issues which emerge once a product is subjected to daily use to be address before another is made without the significant cost and time necessary to produce new tooling for mass production.

Google data for use of “beta” within the English corpus

In August of 2014, Shapeways introduced a Beta feature to their site, allowing designers to mark a product which might require further iterations as “in beta” and receive statistics on print success rate along with a closed stream of comments and the ability to ask for specific feedback from users. While the appeal to buyers may be somewhat limited, requiring that they cover the costs of printing and placing the onus on them to communicate issues that might arise with the designer(s), it’s certainly the most direct implementation of open beta testing in the design of consumer goods I’ve come across. For beta testing to be appealing, the consumer needs to benefit from the exchange. With software, beta versions can be released for free without incurring direct costs per unit, but for physical products this becomes a bit more complex. The user needs to be able to reap direct benefits from engaging in the iterative process of design and perhaps this begins by putting tools in their hands which allow them to directly modify an item as they see fit.

Sugru, a silicone glue about the consistency of play dough which cures to a heat and waterproof rubber, offers a low-tech example of a means of facilitating the repair and modification of a variety of products by their users. The site showcases a variety of fixes and add-ons to common products made by users of the material. One of these is a modification made to a camera by a father for his son.

By simply applying more material to the casing he shifts the object from grown-up tool to child-friendly toy, increasing its resilience. The context-specific requirements considered by a parent for their child were significantly different that those considered by the camera’s manufacturer, but the modifications needed to recontextualize the object were quite simple.

If this idea were to be applied to an algorithmic definition for a product form it might mean adding a variable for user age and then increasing the bulk and adding additional supports to the product casing if the user was a child within a given age range. This could then be extended to include additional modifications for older users suffering from arthritis in order to produce a form better suited to their own ergonomic needs. However, this solution still doesn’t address the underlying issue: How do we, as designers, capture and implement the ideas a consumer has about the objects they use everyday and better address the issues they might come across?

If we’re to successfully harness the capacity of digital fabrication technologies in developing distributed systems of on-demand production which emulate the fluidity with which revisions are made and distributed within the software landscape, it’s this consideration that must remain a core focus in developing new methodologies and approaches to the design of physical goods.