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fab8nz Open Design

This article originally appeared in Object magazine issue 63. A list of all articles from fab8nz is available here.

‘Design is undergoing a revolution. Technology is empowering more people to create and disseminate designs, and professionals and enthusiasts are using it to share their work with the world.’ Open Design Now.

Alex Schaub from Amsterdam’s Waag Society Fab Lab places the beginning of the open design movement in Sweden in the 1970s, with the onset of participatory and user-centred design. Various manifestations have cropped up over the ensuring decades, but the huge advances in digital technology and connectivity have allowed for it to expand and be embraced far and wide.

While Droog Design’s fear, and that of many designers the world over, is that the world may be filled with ugly products as a result of opening the process up to ‘unqualified’ members of the public, those ‘ugly’ products will only be commercialised if there is a demand. If people are creating the most relevant outcomes for themselves, then that highly personalised design is purely individual.

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Potentially the larger issue is the economic viability of an open design model. Schaub notes that the people using the Lab in Amsterdam tend to be artists and designers rather than the more technical-minded, and it is for these practitioners, so reliant on the financial outcome of their products for sustainability of their business, that the biggest conflicts present.

Design Jens Dyvik’s Layer Chair, for example, developed initially in Indonesia before being opened up for the individual iterations via the internet, is an interesting case study. The chair and the parametrics around customisation are Dyvik’s design, but by empowering and allowing anyone to manipulate and create their own version, which could then simply be fabricated in a workshop, he is removing any opportunity he might have had to earn an income from it. It may well act as a calling card for his skills, able to be seen and understood by a wider audience that now has access to it, but if it is merely acting as a promotional tool it is perhaps missing the point of open design.

Dyvik, a staunch proponent of open design, is currently touring the world’s Fab Labs to explore how he might be able to create a business model that is based on the open tenets, but as yet he is unsure of the viability—though that doesn’t temper his desire to find a solution. ‘If we’re talking about Fab Labs and their ability to help the community,’ he says. ‘Then where is the open source software?’

Schaub and Deanna Hurst from Fab Lab Rotterdam continue this line when discussing the take-p of open design in the Netherlands. There are many well-documented projects employing the ideology, but almost no iterations—something that must be the ultimate end-goal for participatory and open design. They notice that no one is using open design in the Netherlands, and so are beginning to explore how to design participation and encourage people to use the existing designs that are available.

While there are definitely issues to overcome in the open design movement, particularly as they apply to intellectual property and income generation, there are strong champions in the Fab Lab network, and well-known precedents already circulating (such as Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform allowing the creation of interactive electronic objects.) As the Labs continue to grow, and with more examples o the sustainability of an open design model, models will surely emerge that merge the two at times contradictory forces of economy and collaboration to provide for a functional outcome.

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