Democratizing Industrial Design

In the early 2000s, keeping a Web diary was a fairly challenging task that involved coding Web pages and manually archiving and indexing old posts. The development of open source and hosted blogging platforms made it much easier for a neophyte to design and manage a “Web log” of their daily insights. These tools deskilled the process by taking the need for Web design and system administration out of the loop, leaving creative direction as the blogger’s sole task.

A similar trend is at work in open fabrication. While it’s not yet as simple as writing a blog post, advances in design software are automating many of the more technical aspects of object design and pre-print preparation. This democratization of industrial design will certainly lead to as many poor designs as there are unread blogs but will also expand the cadre of designers far beyond its current bounds.

New collaborative design processes that apply crowdsourcing principles will bring some of the rapid, lightweight innovation potential of open source and wikis to industrial design. New objects will be able to break free of long lead time design cycles, as widespread availability of object design files will allow actual users to modify and adapt goods to suit particular needs, or to address unforeseen problems in the object’s implementation.

This future is largely contingent on two things: (1) the development of communities such as Thingiverse, which are aimed at fostering an open exchange of design files and ideas about how objects are to be made, and (2) improved accessibility of ever more powerful design software to individuals with limited or no design experience. Design concerns that software will have to take into account include the aesthetics of objects, specific limitations of materials used in building (for example, the need for plastic layers to solidify partially before a new layer is added), and the load-bearing capacities of the materials that are used to create objects.

The next generation of CAD software will take into account the physical and molecular capabilities of objects used in printing. Users will be able to indicate the stresses that will be placed on objects and will benefit from computational processes built into the software that will help the user create designs that are durable and representative of the desired final aesthetic. Software like Within Technology’s Within Enhance is leading the charge to create software that internalizes real-world physics and material capabilities into the designs it creates. You can find examples of design created at

This will also be driven by a larger cultural trend that increasingly values design. Paul Godlberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, sums up the new emphasis on design nicely:

I think the truly transformative development in the world of design over the last generation has been its evolution into the mainstream. We are a much more visual culture than we once were; people care more about design and architecture, and it has become more accessible to them. That doesn’t mean everything is suddenly great, and that we’re in some kind of design nirvana. A lot of what we do now is lousy, as it always has been. But if you look at the difference between, say, an iPhone and a Princess phone, or a flat-screen television and the faux-French Provincial TV cabinets we grew up seeing, or the difference between IKEA and the furniture stores our parents shopped in, you see how much more sophisticated as works of design the objects people live with today are.

(Source: “A Conversation with Paul Goldberger,” The Atlantic)

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