One of the more important articles written about design and how shifting technology and environmental forces are shaping it. Let’s take another view on this influential piece from 2005, a great read for all designers today.

Mass production, as we know it, will soon be extinct. So say goodbye to heavy metals, huge warehouses, and durable goods. And say hello to the bearable lightness of living networks and code.

springworleg03A new kind of design practice is emerging against the background of our own shifting cultural landscape. Information and code have become the basis for understanding life, and the old, mechanistic models – drawn in part from the Industrial Revolution – have fallen away. Code (genetic and digital) has emerged as the reality common to all things material and immaterial. And what makes code so revolutionary is that it has no essential form. It can be changed at will. Life is a file to be manipulated with Photoshop ease and flexibility.

In this ooze of mutating code, the industrial mode of production is just a carcass, decomposing but still taking up space. Originally, industrial design was built upon a sturdy foundation of manufacturing cycles, networks, planned obsolescence, and seemingly abundant natural resources. These condition are no longer relevant. We operate within a technological, economic, and cultural infrastructure that has moved on from its industrial base. Industrial culture needs to be obsolete not because it is gluttonous, but because it no longer reflects the facts. It can no longer keep up in a world of light speed versioning. For where we used to produce durable goods – which weren’t really that durable after all, except in our landfills – we will now circulate connections.

We live in an information and service economy, not a manufacturing economy. But just acknowledging that we live in a service- and information-based economy doesn’t capture the peculiar characteristics of postindustrial culture. Postindustrial design is a qualitatively different way of designing. Three things are propelling this: distributed intelligence, digital design and manufacture, and ecological realities. Designers will no longer dictate form from the system’s center and then foist their wares upon a passive marketplace. Instead, more and more design will be a code. That code will then be let loose in an digital ecosystem to be manipulated and produced in multiple variations in myriad places.

These new processes are more biological, flexible and self-organizing. The “design” will gain vitality through this distribution and circulation. Code has its own characteristics and needs. It survives through modified loops of input, stimulation, feedback, circulation, and change. Sprawling networks of data that are ubiquitous will amplify and distribute that code. Code becomes dynamic; it is alive to its environment.

Incubating within this new design mode are different dynamics of market research, manufacture, distribution, and ownership. We saw it first in information technologies, but it is now in the product design world. It affects every aspect of every step of the design process. Postindustrial design is as different from industrial design as industrial design was from the artisanal mode of production it supplanted. No longer will companies rely upon imprecise statistical models and historical projections to determine the qualities of the things they make. While economies of scale and task specialization created unimaginable abundance, the industrial manufacturing process is beset with a top-down, top-heavy, centralized distribution system. It is inherently bloated, conservative, and risk-averse.


Two precedents from outside industrial design illustrate this evolution clearly. Google used to be a browser. That made sense, since it developed the technology, wrote the code, and cleared a margin of profit by the end. But the company fast discovered that the best was to stay competitive was to give away the product for free. WordPress emerged because a connected group of interests coalesced into an idea that took form only through the participation of multiple creators. So this is the WordPress story: No one entity created it; no one owns it; there is an infinite variety of possible versions; it is rapidly evolving; it has no final state. Who could have focus-tested WordPress? Compare its birth process to the love-it-or-leave-it, straining and grunting, cloak-and-dagger plays of its competitors, and you begin to see the daring lightness of its promise.

While there is not one single product that embodies this new process completely, we can look to a range of phenomena that, like WordPress, carry the future code within their genetic makeup, The examples that follow all turn conventional development processes inside out, shaking out waste and a lot of rust.


Front Design from Sweden, explores the boundaries between natural and artificial processes of product development, creating strange and wonderful hybrids that erase the designer’s hand in the creation of a final form. Front’s antic Animals project leaves design to the whims of a variety of common animal species: rodents chew/design Rat Wallpaper’s holey pattern; a housefly’s path around a light bulb – digitally traced – forms the structure for a lamp shade. The group simply sets up the process and lets nature take its course. It cedes control to accidental processes and perturbations. At the intersection of biological randomness and technological freakishness, Front subverts design authorship.

wc_moddeptheader5Interface Carpet has taken at face value the  fact that we are a service-based economy and used that to redefine its business. The company no longer sells carpet; it offers the service of floor coverage. The product vanishes. Waste, too, is gone from the system. Interface has closed the loop on its production cycle, meaning that it uses fewer resources, takes back everything it possibly can, traffics in long-term relationships instead of depreciating products, and feeds off the waste it produces. Like an organism, its metabolism is optimized to balance input and output and to produce nothing that cannot by consumed by someone of something else. Interface designs for disassemble and operates by the principle that waste is a waste. In the end, who really wants to own flooring – or a heating system, a fax machine, a refrigerator, an air-conditioner – only to throw it away five to ten years down the road? Interface is watching the commodity model of product development vanish in its rearview mirror. Its product-as-service model assumes you want to have regular, optimal performance and you don’t care much about owning the thing itself. It is closer to leasing than owning. Interface is selling a relationship. Like nature, this living system model relies upon connection, input, feedback, and dynamic response.

Two exciting experiments in product development – Ronen Kadushin‘s Open Design and FutureFactoriesTuber and Tuber9 lights – operate on the premise that the next phase of design will be open. Like good source code, each designer crafts a CAD file, then releases it into an electronic medium for hacking and further evolution. The designer creates a template of platform for design possibilities, but the final form is now in the hands of the consumer. The key to this process is that computer-aided and robotic manufacturing systems are allowing almost infinite variation in any production run. Mass-producing singularities was an oxymoron; no longer. Nor is the designer or manufacturer constrained by costs of idle inventory, retail overhead, seasonal change, and constant retooling. Combine the flexibility of design-on-demand with stereolithography and 3-D printing, and suddenly desktop product design is reality.

image_previewWhich Tuber9 light will magazines profile? Who knows. There is no one archetype that represents. We don’t have the capacity – or the visual language – to create a totalized vision of this kind of product. Designs will shape-shift internally to the point that we can only celebrate the system of creation. The idea of creating brand identity through product family resemblance, with top-down control, is antiquated. The product as an immutable object, will cease.

It is not that the products of postindustrial design will cost nothing, but that they will by let loose on networks to optimize their potential. They are at the pull of the consumer, not the push of industry. The outputs will be right-sized by the very fact that they will not be created as one-size-fits-all. Software, soft tooling, robotic manufacturing, and smart databases will draw participation and variation into the fabrication process. Animated by the intelligence of thriving networks of collaborative possibility, designs will be optimized in the infinitely iterative process of their distributed creation.

The stunning promise of postindustrial design is that it can leave a lighter footprint. Look at the poisonous landscapes of Detroit and you can see the true cost of industrial production. Fatuous and fat, it belched out standardized goods and pollution, producing mass conformity, hyperconsumption, and a disposable society. We can no longer afford that hypocrisy and blindness. We still need stuff, but postindustrial design has the advantage of hindsight, working in the shadow of industrial design’s legacy. Design and production that are sentient, adaptive, and able to live off their own or others’ waste will not only be powerfully efficient, they will be environmentally, culturally, and fiscally sustainable. They will smartly adapt their input and output and thrive within the local – and global – bounds of their ecology.

Imagine the possibility of creating design solutions appropriate to you or your neighborhood. One size doesn’t fit all, and not all design intelligence resides in the center. Distributing the power to create is a plan that nature has used with spectacular success. Staggering flexibility and adaptability comes from distributing capacity out from the center. So new kinds of products, companies, and brands will challenge the hegemony of the global superbrands.

Postindustrial design embodies the potential to create and produce differently, and not to repeat mistakes. The role of business and the designer in this context will be to provide vision. The industrial colossus is not going to collapse right away. It has provided functional, safe, beautiful, and even sublime things. But the model is extinct. Evolutions and mutations are mostly breeding outside industrial design for now – in fashion, architecture, engineering, software, the Web – but their seeds are implanting themselves in the cracks in the industrial foundation. And with that, new species of products will soon emerge.

Originally published in I.D. magazine in 2005. Used with permision.
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