A Brief History of Making Things for Humans: On Customization, Empty Innovation & Flexible Hardware

Right now, there’s a popular notion in product design that millennials (“those self-centered whiners”) love customization more than other segments of the population (“probably because they are self-centered whiners”).

In reality, customization has been the norm for most of human history. The last 200 years have been the exception: an invention of markets and mass production rather than a natural inevitability.

In distant days we made things to our own liking, to fit our own needs and desires, however eccentric they may have been.

Some needs to be met were clearly utilitarian — sharp points to pierce flesh and hunt game or grinding stones to mash vegetation into something more digestible.

Ancient hand axes

Other objects we will never fully understand, their context long forgotten: artifacts that could be ritual objects, decorative embellishments, status symbols or something else entirely.

All of these forms were one-offs. Each object embodied the quirks of its maker and bore witness to their skill or lack thereof. Handmade products were inferior in their consistency object to object, but this way of making also enabled a fluid process of changes and improvements.

Cow on wheels ~3900 BC

An object’s type and form were fixed only once, at the time of making — each tool could be made to perfectly fit the hand of whoever wielded it, each vase made more elegant to the eye of its ideal beholder. Hypothetically, every object was an improvement on the last, becoming more pleasing in proportion, better balanced, higher performing.

But as more complex technologies were developed, the need for twinned parts grew acute.

Wheels needed to be closely matched to work properly, archers could be more accurate if the shape and mass of their arrows were carefully controlled. Military-sponsored efforts to standardize weapons and ammunition played out over hundreds of years, only arriving as the status quo in the 1700s. From there, the technological and theoretical leaps required to get to cheaper, faster, more identical products piled on quickly.

Scientific breakthroughs in physics, material science, and chemistry enabled new categories of product-objects. Perfect duplication expanded from goods that required it as a functional property to those that offered a potential for business efficiency. The object as a tangible cultural artifact became the object as product — certainly still a tangible cultural artifact but in a new way.

Early mass market products were often genuinely innovative, transforming the quality and texture of life for the better.

Devices like electric skillets and toasters gave the ability to cook food without having to deal open flames and dirty smoke, washing machines could clean clothes without grinding manual labor.

Patent drawings for an early electric stove

These objects were function first: social status was conferred in possessing them rather than their particular styling. You had upward mobility because you had a toaster, not because your toaster was shiny. But that functional signaling was short lived as the price of goods at scale fell.

True innovation was expensive and time consuming, with a return on that investment far from guaranteed. To simply restyle a product was cheap, fast, and effective. “Innovation” grew more and more shallow, approaching skin depth just as product design became a recognized field for study, awareness and critique.

Designers conceived of enough gadgets and tchotckes to fill countless SkyMall catalogs while critical medical devices, objects for improving accessibility, and tools for secure communication lagged behind, the domain of university research departments or frustrated end-users-turned-inventors.

The potential size of the market became a primary factor in whether some item or device would make it into the world. The large capital commitments of setting up an assembly line or fabricating tooling meant that if a certain scale could not be achieved, or if demand was uncertain, those needs were simply ignored.

Making high-quality goods cost-effectively in the physical world means facing a world of complexity. The deep capital and domain knowledge required to tool up heavily favors incumbents, not plucky inventors or small businesses. Pure duplication at a massive scale remains the route that can net the greatest profit, and so it persists for physical goods, even in instances where we would be better served by bespoke solutions.

Software on the other hand, free of factory production schedules, minimum order quantities, and expensive tooling, had a near-miraculous pliability: capable of changing its form on an entirely different timescale, sometimes implemented by the end user themselves.

Products could be now be intangible but valuable, cultural but not as artifacts frozen in a particular state.

Hunting with digital arrowheads

The experience of a device can change dramatically just by loading up a different piece of software. Machines that can produce different outcomes through code creates an opening for a more continuous way of building — like those early vases and arrowheads that became better with each build, but with the added power to supplant or overlay prior incarnations without repeated labor and associated waste. The “form” can be reworked endlessly, without starting from scratch every time.

Once again products were being built that closely matched the desires of the people using them, rather than dictated by taste-makers from afar.

Suddenly a few college kids could build the product that they wanted in short order and distribute it as quickly — from their dorm room to the world in a handful of weekends, launching something that could threaten the walled gardens that entrenched industries had built up over decades of consolidation.

Connections enabled by the internet made the old command-and-control strategies of large organizations all but impossible to maintain.

While all these shifts of access to markets and product development power were happening in software, hardware development wasn’t on the same trajectory.

It took decades for the tools and systems to arrive at the right time and place. Some pieces of the puzzle were conceptual: crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, others were tangible: easy to use microcontrollers like Arduino and low cost 3D printers like the offerings of Makerbot or Formlabs. These tools enabled a flexible development environment for even complex electromechanical products at a price that was affordable enough for the bootstrapped startup.

Amateur hardware enthusiasts could easily build (at least a rough version) of what they wanted without the blessing of a big corporation. At the same time the rise of the smartphone left in its wake a bunch of small, powerful components with small prices: sensors, tiny cameras, rechargeable batteries — a LEGO-like toolkit that could be configured in myriad ways to develop not just proof of concept, but devices in production. Equally important was the growing ubiquity of wireless connectivity that allowed much of the computing to happen offsite, combining the continuous flexibility of software with the tangible objects we use to interact with the physical world.

Speed to go from an idea to a product at scale became faster than ever, cost greatly reduced

smartphone supply chain components as prototype materials

Prototyping of physical products is now substantially faster and cheaper but many of the difficult realities in going from prototype to scale are unchanged: high up front tooling costs, a patchwork of regulations, and the challenge of designing objects that are efficient for manufacturability and assembly.

To even approach a similar re-figuring of the odds that software has enjoyed for hardware will require rethinking of business models that are focused on capturing additional value from continuous change or close-to-perfect fit with human needs and wants.

We need something like our ancient ancestor’s one-off intent matched with the superpowers of automated fabrication, digital design tools, and networks that connect geographically scattered users efficiently.

Hardware in the 21st century should move away from the cultural vacuity and environmental toxicity of massive scale towards a more localized, democratized product development process that serves people from beginning to end. It goes beyond customization, which is often dismissed as a form of vanity, to objects and devices to address problems at the root. We can reject the goods that have been force fed into markets, loaded with extraneous features that offer little value while impinging on individual privacy or security.

Devices that we can hack, repair, and upgrade for ourselves, products that are humane in their simplicity: not bombarding us with ads and push notifications that demand our attention at all hours or that lock us into wasteful proprietary consumables.

It is easier to paint a picture of an alternative system of design, manufacturing and use than to create that reality, but there are many companies innovating business models that draw on aspects of what this article has discussed.

I see glimmers of hope and indications of future methods in these trends:

Supply Chain Surfing

Making a few hundred or a few thousand of a product typically falls into the “valley of death” for companies — you don’t have economies of scale working in your favor, but you still have some big expenses relating to tooling or setting up assembly. One way to reduce this pain is to leverage existing supply chains by incorporating components that already exist, and that take advantage of those economies of scale. GRIT makes off road wheelchairs and does just that: they combine their own highly engineered, custom components with existing bike parts to create a product that is easy to repair but also cost effective to produce in smaller quantities.

GRIT Freedom Chair, courtesy of GRIT

Responsible Production & Repairable Products

The designed/engineered obsolescence of products has been a pain for customer’s since The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy. It’s fair to say that these practices benefit the producer, but go against the needs and wants of the end user. Most businesses see this as a necessary part of their model, but their are ways of capturing value beyond just selling version 2, 3, 4, and so on.

Fairphone is working towards a future when resource-intensive electronics are not seen as disposable goods. They have designed a smartphone broken out into easily upgraded modules to upend 1–2 year total device replacement cycle typical of the smartphone industry. Fairphone goes above and beyond in terms of supply chain vetting and sourcing transparency while working to improve labor conditions and reduce negative environmental impacts, accounting for the kind of externalities that industry almost always ignores.

Fairphone, courtesy of Fairphone

On Demand Manufacturing / Mass Customization
On the issue of size and cost-effective medical devices, market economics haven’t done a great job of serving the depth and breadth of human needs. Mass customization has been a dream for a long time, and is finally being enabled by things like low-cost imaging and 3D printing. Things that are fitted to us as individuals work best, whether it’s clothes or orthotics; this is particularly true for prosthetics like bionic hands. The devices are essential to the people that need them, but previously available fabrication methods would have made them costly and beyond the means of many. As an alternative Lyman Connor has designed a low-cost bionic hand and uses 3D printing to produce prosthetics that are sized to fit each person.

One of Lyman’s bionic hands with 3D printed components, courtesy of Formlabs

Agile Manufacturing / Continuous Product Development

Another big risk for companies developing a new concept is putting all their eggs in one basket in terms of product development. They spend a lot of time and money refining a product, determining feature sets and bill-of-materials costs, establishing manufacturing, and then throw money at advertising and marketing to get the word out.

Rapid-prototyping tools and short run production techniques has allowed some companies to de-risk this process by pathfinding through actual products shipped. A company can now produce micro-batches (say from 5–100 units) and if the value proposition is good, sell those units to early adopter customers. Those early customers provide feedback on problems or features important for their application. That feedback can then be rolled into the next micro-batch. Right Hand Robotics makes robotic hands for the industrial/commercial market but also for research labs. By making continual, small adjustments to components as they are produced, they can improve their products bit by bit and avoid committing to large capital costs like tooling until they are sure the devices tightly match customer needs.

Detail view of a RightHand Robotics gripper via CLEAR design lab

With luck, determination, and a more conscientious approach to creation and consumption (which more often than not will mean abstaining from creating or consuming the unnecessary), we can move toward methodologies of creation that are unique to our era not just in technology but in their cultural roots and societal intent.

To create fewer, better things that are custom-made or modified for our esoteric human needs is not the vapid demand of millennials, but in many ways a return to modes of being that have possessed people for many thousands of years.


If you want to read more of my thoughts on design, technology, and behavior I write a weekly newsletter for CLEAR design lab: http://www.cleardesignlab.co/newsletter


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