A short essay on 3D printing

In order to produce anything, you need three elements: an idea, the means to make the idea, and the money to pay all concerned. For these reasons it comes as no surprise that the entrepreneurial explosion of the early 2000's has focussed on software. Once the idea is solidified, the manufacturing and shipping of a software product, whilst not exactly simple is at least attainable by a small number of people with basic equipment and minimal outlay. In the world of object production the idea is the least of your worries. Atoms, as it has been said many times before, are difficult to wrangle, the engineering infrastructure, commitment level and financial outlay is significant. Even for a tiny plastic widget the initial tooling can run into many thousands of dollars. There's a change afoot in the world of atom wrangling however, and it's name is 3D printing.

I saw my first 3D printer whilst working at Dyson in the 90's. I remember it very clearly. The workshop acquired a 3D printing machine which arrived to great fanfare and was duly installed into it's own dedicated room, similar to an early computing system. A modelmaking technician was assigned and he undertook a lengthy programming and maintenance course. The machine was a Fused Deposition Modeller (FDM) which functioned by squeezing a thin bead of plastic around a pathway, then moving up a tiny amount and producing the next layer. By contemporary standards the models took an age to make, and due to the FDM process the models were very wobbly. Dyson still employed a permanent team of modelmakers to fill, sand and paint the parts to make them suitable for use. Fast forward to 2001. I was working at London design consultancy Seymourpowell when I used my first stereolithography (SLA) part. It cost a fortune, we had to contact an outside agent to produce it, and it took two or three days to arrive. We wore gloves to prevent the moisture in our fingers from warping the part, and it was so fragile we moved it around the model shop like a piece of fine china. Fast forward again to today. In our studio we have a couple of 3D printers, one prints out a wax-like substance and the other prints in full color onto a bed of what looks like talcum powder. A standard phone-sized part takes about an hour to make and and hour to dry and treat. We now print things out every few days or so, and (pretty much) don't think about the cost.

Things have changed in the world of 3D printing in a relatively short space of time, thanks in part to a small group of entrepreneurs led by Bre Pettis. His company, Makerbot Industries was founded in Brooklyn NY in January 2009 with the lofty aim of bringing 3D printing into the homes of regular folks. They currently produce the Replicator 2, a fairly primitive version of the FDM machine I first used at Dyson. Small, monochrome objects can be produced via these machines, building layer upon layer of plastic 'toothpaste' to produce a coherent whole. The finished products look a little like this:

To the industrial design community the objects and machines are seen as primitive, but in the public sphere they have captured the collective imagination. Barack Obama even referred to the process in his 2013 State of the Union address:

“A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

This is one of those rare moments where the world of design and manufacturing breaks into popular culture. I have rarely seen such ebullient and effusive journalism, from the highest and most trusted sources. I suggest you read a few of the articles is listed below, in order to get a grip on just how this technology is portrayed.

Harvard Business Review 3D printing will change the world

Forbes Will 3D printing change the world?

New York Times On the fast track to 3D printing

The Guardian 3D printers shape up to lead the next technology gold rush

There's even an entire magazine dedicated to the subject.

In reading these articles we could be forgiven for believing we are in the midst of a genuine revolution, a wholesale change to the way in which products are conceived, created, and consumed. As such, I suggest we take a little time to view this technology objectively, which I aim to do here. The 3D printing revolution seems to hold three tenets to be true.

Tenet 1: items can be produced quickly In the world of Industrial Design, there's a reason why 3D prints are regularly referred to 'rapid prototypes'. Compared to the timescales involved with traditional model making, 3D printers are able to generate a solid approximation of the desired form with amazing pace. Time from CAD to 'thing in the hand' is very quick, comparatively. However, this notion of 'rapid' seems to have caused some confusion in journalists and has been reappropriated to represent not prototyping but manufacturing.

In the world of manufactured objects, heated plastic is pushed, pulled, inflated and squeezed into tools to produce everything from bottles to cellphones. The most popular form of plastic manufacturing is injection molding. When compared to the entire cycle time of injection molding (including tooling, polishing, injection and cooling) the 3D printer is indeed quicker, but once the injection tool is finished, there's just no contest. Cycle times for industrialised injection molding machines can be lower than a second, and if you want to produce anything at scale it's still the only sensible choice. We should also talk about quality, as it's no good just producing an object, it needs to be produced with integrity. In a world populated by iphones and BMW's a 3D printed object just doesn't have the aesthetic oomph required to compete. Structural integrity is also significantly sub par, the lack of an internal homogenous crystal structure means 3D printed parts are brittle and unstable. When comparing speeds, we need to be very careful that we're comparing like with like, and it's unfair to put to both techniques in the same category. 3D printed parts may be produced 'quickly' when compared end-to-end with injection molding, but at commercial scale they fail on almost every level.

Tenet 2: a user can print whatever they want This is perhaps the most potent promise of 3D printing - empowering individuals as makers through the democratization of manufacturing tools. (There is a larger 'maker movement' behind this promise, borne from numerous hacking, artisanal and fixing communities, which we may delve into at a future date). The freedom created by 3D printing is not limitless though, and whilst Obama refers to 'almost everything' we should take time to understand the true parameters of this technology.

Firstly, current 3D printers are bounded by their space envelope. The Replicator 2 can print objects of 28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm. There are larger devices, but typically the print volumes are around that of a microwave oven. Anything larger needs to be made in pieces and connected afterwards by bonding parts or mechanical joints. Secondly, 3D printers typically produce objects from polymers. There are advances in metal 3D printing but these are fairly limited (a quick look at '3D printed metal' as described on the Shapeways site will give you an idea how complicated the process is). Thirdly, products such as the Makerbot can only print one colour at a time, this can be changed but a new colored filament needs to be threaded into the machine for each color break. Other printers can produce a wider variety of colors, but the resolution and vibrancy is pretty poor. Also, every part produced in a 3D printer has a rough, matte surface, which needs sanding and painting if gloss is desired.

So if our definition of 'whatever' fits those material, finish and volumetric constraints, we then need to ask the question about where the 3D data comes from.

In industry, 3D objects are created with software such as Catia, Alias, ProE, or Solidworks. These are very complex and involved software packages which take years to master. Recently we have seen a growth in consumer focussed software such as Rhino or Google Sketchup, whilst these are simpler they still require a level of understanding, and the data they output is fairly primitive. There are improvements in 3D scanning (a natural partner to 3D printing) which uses laser arrays to create a 3D model for replication purposes, but the devices are expensive, complex and produce data which still needs cleaning and modifying in a conventional 3D CAD package.

So if the thing you want to make doesn't need to be aesthetically driven, fits into the printer bed and you have the requisite 3d CAD skills, what are you going to make?  Herein lies the largest question. There are four primary business models which have emerged from the primordial soup of 3D printing:

1. data made at home, printed at home. This is the realm of the tinkerer, the maker, the hobbyist. As a totally non-scientific example of the sorts of things we're talking about, take a look at Brendan Dawes tumblr, which I feel is fairly indicative. This group typically makes two types of object: the art piece or novelty, or the specialised functional addition. As a tool for the individual maker, a 3D printer is very exciting. In this model, the 3D printer sits in the same space as any hand manufacturing technology, from carpentry to welding. I think this is where 3D printing has a significant future. Allowing people to make fun little things for themselves, or fix a little doohickey is perfect. That's the DIY fixer mentality, and I like it.

2. data made at home, printed elsewhere. This is an interesting development which could have only occured in this networked age. If you have the ability to produce 3D data, but do not have the desire or opportunity to buy a 3D printer, then someone else can print it for you. Simply upload your data to a service like Shapeways, or send it to a local model shop, and in a few days you can have the part you need. This is no different to subcontracting to a local modelshop or machinist, but within this model comes a shift. If you make a part and think others will find it useful, you are able to sell the data for others to download and acquire prints for themselves. You shift from being a maker to a manufacturer and move into the third and fourth business models:

3 & 4. data made elsewhere, printed at home / data made elsewhere, printed elsewhere. Services such as Shapeways (there are others) allow people to download data and build their own object, or acquire the object directly just like any other store. The promise of millions of entrepreneurial designers now having an on-demand manufacturing and retail service is enticing indeed, but the shift between these business models is significant and troubling.

The joy of 3D printing is it bypasses homogeneity, you no longer need to ensure a market volume before committing money to tooling. One of the main reasons for homogeneity in mass production is consistency. Consistency is present in mass production for lots of reasons, commercial and capitialist ones come high on the list, but homogeneity  also ensures that every user gets the same object. It's clear that the current regulatory framework around manufactured objects is crippling the industry, and I won't defend it in it's entirety, but we must remember that these systems are in place to protect people. The CE mark, the Kite mark, the double insulation standards and the FCC mark are rigourous and complicated systems of conformity which ensure that manufacturers pay due care and attention to protecting the consumer from harm during use. Correct certification and indemnity also protect makers from litigation, and offers a tried and tested procedure for investigating genuine faults.  These systems are laborious and onerous, but they help. 3D printing is in it's infancy and most products are bought in good faith to support a kickstarter project or maker, but that's not good enough. Shapeways has a paragraph in its T&C which states:


Makerbot's comparable website Thingiverse has a similar clause:


This hands-off approach to culpability cannot last long. If you design something to go into someone's bathroom, it will make it's way into their childs mouth. If someone buys, downloads and prints a case for their OUYA and they suffer an electric shock as a result, who is to blame? If a person replaces their phone case with a 3D printed one, and it doesn't survive a drop to the floor, what then? We need to create a new chain of responsiblity for this emerging, and potentially very profitable business.

When people want to print cases for their Raspberry Pi it's smiles all round, but the questions raised by the heavily publicized ambitions of Cody R Wilson to 3D print gun parts through his DEFCAD site have opened the debate about what type of objects are printed as opposed to the quality thereof. Whilst I understand that 3D gun parts could be cause for concern, I think they are inevitable. We need to understand that if we make the tools available, people will use them. The early days of desktop publishing saw calls from professional graphic design associations for the registration and licensing of desktop printers, in an attempt to curb a rising tide of 'bad design'. This type of regulation was obviously impossible to enforce but we're seeing similar efforts by lobbyists and the makers of 3D printers. In a strange puritanical brand protection exercise, Cody Wilson recently had his personal 3D printer repossessed by Stratasys for printing the lower receiver of an AR15 assault rifle. Gun parts fall right at the end of the bell curve, but if we allow people to make anything, then they will make everything. We will find it impossible to regulate what constitutes an 'acceptable' or 'unacceptable' part sooner than we think, but let me leave this section by asking the following question: is a right wing crypto-anarchist distributing weapons data any more dangerous than unregulated, uncertified printed plastic parts finding their way into our offices, homes, cars and kitchens?

Tenet 3: that by producing products at the market we can reduce environmental damage

The story unfolds thus: if we only print what we need, if we produce objects at the source and cut out the shipping, if we allow people to mend rather than buy new, 3D printing will have a significant positive impact on the environmental footprint of manufacturing. If we feel that allowing individuals to produce their own plastic parts will in any way reduce the impact of manufacturing on the environment we are kidding ourselves. Allow people to print plastic and that's what they will do. A LOT. A quick look at the Shapeways catalog tells you what people want to print. It's not replacements for existing parts, it's just more stuff. Plastic furniture for their dolls house, plastic bottle openers, plastic stands for their ipad, plastic bracelets, even TINY PLASTIC VERSIONS OF THEMSELVES. Implying that individuals will in some way help reduce plastic use by only printing what they need is naive indeed. As they say at Forbes: "Why settle for wearing the same glasses every day when you can print a new pair to suit your mood?". 3D printing may cut out the shipping element which may have a slight environmental plus, but the plastic still needs to be shipped to your house in spools. The waste produced in the manufacture of 3D printed parts can be significant, and often toxic. We also shouldn't forget that designers and mass manufacturers have many years of experience in the most environmentally approriate construction of plastic parts, and are regulated along similar lines.  I believe in the power of 3D printing to fix problems or revive a broken product, and have used it to this effect myself. This is a good promise, but a very small section of society thinks in this way, and have the requisite ability and access to be significant.

Evolving 3D printing

My aim with this piece of writing is to open the counter argument to what is currently a very one-sided debate. The topic is here to stay, so we need to tear off the rose tints and understand it in it's entirety. Let me conclude with some key changes and developments I see in the future of 3D printing:

a) 3D printers will get better. As we have seen there is keen interest in 3D printing, which will drive down cost and make the service more ubiquitous. For reference, there is already a 3D printer available in the Skymall catalog. In parallel, the quality will improve with new materials, better finishes and higher speeds. A clear parallel to this comes in the form of domestic laser printers, a technology which has improved in quality and decreased in cost at a rate which seemed impossible only years before. In parallel, the 3D CAD software will become simpler and cheaper, making the original data easier to create, just as blogging tools have done for coding.

b) We need regulation. Before you get all excited by my use of the word 'regulation' I use it cautiously. Whilst I agree that the very spirit of independent manufacture runs counter to the slow lumbering legal system, there needs to be some thought in this area. Once we move away from buying 3D printed parts to support a friend or Kickstarter project, once we stop seeing the objects as craft, we need to move into the world of true manufacturing and accept the responsibility that comes with it. We are undoubtedly in the Wild West era of 3D printing, but I think it's right and proper that we question a system where an individual can make significant income from the sale of a part and have utterly no responsibility for the safety of the person buying it, or accountability for quality or environmental impact. Current regulatory systems are not suited to this type of manufacture but I feel we need to create a new framework for certification. I welcome any ideas to the debate.

c) Emerging business models. I see 3D printing finding a home where it is currently most popular - as a prototyping tool and a hobbyist device. I'm not hugely swayed by the argument for widespread domestic 3D printing, at least not yet. We haven't found a compelling use for such machines at a mass scale. I'm keen to see how companies such as Shapeways grow, how the balance between data sales, object sales and printing services shifts, that will be most telling. 3D printing will also expand out of the middle class hobbyist environment into low income rural spaces, warzones or developing countries. Perhaps then we will see something more interesting than a scanned bust of someones head.

d) Response of big business. So what about all those huge corporations who currently spend billions on injection molding and shipping in bulk? In big business 3D printing is now referred to as 'additive manufacture' and many millions of dollars are being spent investigating the area. There are a few hindrances to a mass manufactured device which uses additive manufacture, namely time, finish, quality and material choice. 3D printing will most likely find it's first commercial success not as a cosmetic part, but as an internal assembly. The benefit of additive manufacture is that it negates any requirements for complicated cores or tooling, making it more suitable than injection molding for complex assemblies. In parallel we can expect the integration of components into a 3D print rather than post assembly, which would again point at an internal use. Once 3D printing finds it's 'killer app' it will seem entirely natural, but we're still looking.

Outside of a manufacturing shift, 3D printing also has the requisite futuristic cachet to make it attractive to advertisers and promotions. We may see it used as a direct mail or commercial outlet, just as we did with faxes towards the end of their widespread use. Ford could send you a little model of the new F150 for you to fondle and swoon over. Customers could print out approximations of objects to see how they look before we commit to an online purchase. Manufacturers may make more of their data open source to encourage and engage with the 3D printing community (just as Nokia recently did), adding customisation and personalisation options to a mass manufactured item. In parallel to individual regulation we also need to see how big business defends their patents and trademarks in an era where an accurate facsimile of a product can be independently produced. Perhaps we will see 3D watermarks or form recognition algorithms to prevent counterfeiting, just as Xerox machines can recognize and prevent the copying of currency. Big manufacturing doesn't run counter to the 3D printing revolution, it just has it's own uses for it.

e) improved quality of one off and batch production. We should also remember that in the world of made things, there are still very lucrative businesses which produce parts in low quantities. From aerospace, motor racing, and hollywood, to jewelers, architects and the medical sector, we will see increased use of 3D prints as a step in the prototyping process or as functional, usable parts.

It's my firm belief that 3D printing is here to stay, but exactly how it stays and for how long is the bigger question. As designers of the future we have a responsibility to embrace new making, but we should ensure that we aren't swept along with the hype. There are big questions to be asked about this technology and it's our job to ask them. I would love to build on this debate further, and will keep the comments section open.

On Moonlighting

This post was originally published on Core77

In every job there is a line between personal time and employment. In some roles, the line is very clear, announced by a klaxon, punch card or timesheet. In other fields of work, the line is blurred, sometimes to the point of vanishing altogether. Design is one of those fields.

Every designer is a cultural voyeur—a perpetual sponge for inspiration and a running faucet for ideas. When we design, we draw on experiences from our private lives, from our travels and observations. Design is a lifestyle, the method acting of careers. Design doesn't stop at 5pm.

When individuals take jobs with design firms, they sign contracts and begin to serve their clients. With that step comes a disconnect between employment and personal time. Contracts typically draw hard lines around the two with a variety of privacy and commitment clauses. Personal projects are often relegated to second place in the hierarchy of creativity, and referred to euphemistically as moonlighting. This is a thorny issue with some Paleolithic attitudes, but one which would benefit from open discussion.

Genera of Moonlighting

As I see it, all moonlighting work sits upon a sliding scale:

- A blog or other public writing

- Public speaking or conference appearances

- Work for friends, family or self

- External client work

Every case is different, but at some point in the scale, every company draws a line. Some are more flexible, some are more regimented, but every contract has a clause referring to this behavior. Let's take a quick look at the key drivers behind these clauses (followed by a quick debunking of each):

1.) Primary company work will be disrupted - When you take on a contract with a design firm, you are making a commitment to them. There is an understanding that you work for that organization, with the goal of capital growth. This is design as industry. Companies are keen that your focus is the work which brings in revenue, and rightly so. – You owe it to your employer to give 100% of your effort to them. We'll address how exactly how this manifests itself later, but let's just say that as an employer, if an individual is not giving 100%, then you have a problem. If they are not giving 100% because they are doing other design work, you have less of a problem.

2.) Intellectual property and leaks -In any design business, there are secrets to be kept. Particularly in the design of hi-tech products, secrecy is king and companies work very hard to protect their intellectual property. Every contract has with it a promise to keep these secrets in the form of an NDA. By further restricting the design freedoms of employees, the hope is that these secrets will be maintained. – Every NDA implicitly outlines the terms of secrecy for a project, client or company, and the employee is expected to abide by these terms. The fear of leaks is real and present, but here's the rub: most leaks don't come from within large organizations, they come from subcontractors, suppliers or manufacturers. Designers themselves are very aware of the potential damage caused by leaks or conflicts of interest, and most act diligently to prevent them.

3. The name of the company may be brought into disrepute by misrepresentation - Companies aim to protect their brand and associated values at all costs. When an employee appears publicly they represent that brand, which is a risk. – This is an easy fix. As in Hollywood, the distinction between actor and studio is clarified by the small statement 'the opinions expressed are those of the individual and do not represent those of the studio.' If talking at a conference or similar, this should be your first slide.

4. Moonlighting is somehow disloyal, or an exit strategy. - Moonlighting projects may be the start of something bigger. An individual may be working on building their own business after hours. They may be preparing to move elsewhere and using the resources of this company to do so. – This probably pokes at the real fear behind those who attempt to prevent moonlighting. The standard practice of most design firms is to restrict the activity, but if your employees are willingly engaging in external work, perhaps you should look at their motivation rather than question their loyalty.

Why Moonlighting Persists

It would be naïve to believe that all moonlighting projects are undertaken for financial gain. This may be true for some work, but there is often a deeper driver behind extracurricular projects. There may be an itch which needs scratching, a new technique which needs testing or simply that external projects give a mental break. It has long been understood that monotony is a killer to productivity, working on the same thing day after day isn't good for self worth or personal growth, and any decent employer needs to understand this. (This is the part where I insert a telling statistic about work/life balance. Picture it in your head. Got it? Good.)

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt splits employment into three categories: Job, Career and Calling. All too often employers are overly concerned with ensuring the 'Job' category is fulfilled, but in order to retain an employee for an extended period there is a necessity to embrace the other two. Loyalty is earned, not forced. By curtailing a designers Calling, employers may be at risk of losing employees altogether. In many cases external project work offers a release valve, allowing employees to feel liberated and free, ticking some of the boxes in their Career or Calling columns. It allows designers to expand their thinking and experience, to try new things and remain inquisitive. Here's the thing: it's not a one way street. A satisfied employee is fantastic from a loyalty and retention perspective. Not only that, but designers who are exposed to new challenges build new skills and knowledge, all of which they will bring back into their daily work. Everyone's a winner.

Finally, by restricting public appearances, writing or similar engagements we may also be damaging our industry. Design is a community. We thrive in groups and discussions, and have a loose peer review system. By locking your designers away from personal expression, investigation or engagement, you are preventing them from becoming part of the wider debate, and I think Design suffers. Apple are notoriously draconian about the freedom of their team and many talented speakers, writers and thinkers have all but disappeared following their Cupertino contract, which is a shame.

Integrated Moonlighting Strategies

Many companies build in systems and structures to break monotony. 3M famously began their 80/20 program in 1948, where engineers were given 20% of their time to pursue personal projects. This program had notable successes (such as the Post-it note), and has since been mimicked by HP and Google. Even Apple recently introduced a similar system with their Blue Sky initiative for 'selected' employees. Whilst this is a good practice, it's markedly different to moonlighting. It does allow for personal investigation, but with the explicit goal of progressing the aims of the corporation, rather than the aims of the individual.

The sabbatical is an interesting model. Stefan Sagmeister's wonderful TED talk (which I urge you to watch) explains his process. Every seven years he closes his studio for twelve months to escape, experiment and play, returning energized, refreshed and inspired with new viewpoints and approaches. In my career, many of my colleagues have taken sabbaticals with varying rates of success. Whilst I relish the thought of a year of personal reflection, the lump sum approach to moonlighting is slightly uncomfortable. Firstly, seven years is a long time, (do you fancy waiting until 2020 to get that project out of your system?) Secondly, sabbaticals are nearly always unpaid. The only support your company gives you is the guarantee that you have a job to return to, which really isn't much.

There may be a softer approach to sabbaticals: intermittent pauses in corporate productivity to pursue external projects without fully cutting ties with the mothership. Many sabbaticals stall as the infrastructure needed to pursue their goals is withdrawn. A progressive organization could allow individuals to pursue their dreams for a short while, providing a location and resources for them to use. This may seem a one-sided deal, but aside from the personal development benefits of such a practice there may be financial gains. If the organization stipulates a percentage stake in any financial proceeds of the activity then they stand to benefit. This model pitches the design organization as angel investor.

An even more progressive model integrates personal work into the everyday work of the organization so that differentiation becomes impossible. A blooming, engaged and educated employee is a great benefit to any company. Even if project work is sometimes sidelined, it is important for all concerned that designers are encouraged to experiment with new ways of working, to try new things and to learn. This is an odd approach to employment, and has very few examples of use, but I feel that there needs to be continued experimentation with the blurred line, the Venn diagram of work, play and personal time fully overlapping into a cohesive creative structure. Moonlighting at work, as work. It may seem odd and counter-productive to suggest that design organizations encourage their employees to undertake personal projects, but when compared to the many millions of dollars spent annually on formal training, I would argue that the benefits are actually more tangible to the company in the long run.

This model would require a very mature attitude within a team. Within any such system there needs to be a bi-directional budget of trust, which needs to be accrued over time. Mutual tests of character need to be completed before such a deal has a hope of working. Managing the different opportunities within a team is also a complex problem, and one which has the potential to cause instability and resentment, but all of these problems are surmountable.


There are clear opportunities for progressive ways to blend the Calling and Career aspects of an individual in parallel with the demands of the Job. The industry of design revolves around financial gain and focused productivity but also around long term intellectual development of designers. Too often the latter is neglected, to the detriment of the individual and the organization.

Also, I've used it throughout, but we should kill the term 'moonlighting.' It's derogatory and conjurs up images of illicit activity, of sneakery and duplicity. What employers should be doing is embracing, encouraging and promoting creative exploration and self development wherever possible, at any time. That's not moonlighting, that's design.

A New Simple

Note: Throughout this piece, I refer to simplicity in relation to the operation of devices or the experience of use, as opposed to a reductive or minimalist aesthetic.

As with everything involving language, a design brief brings with it a host of cultural nuances which reveal the true meaning of the request, a design direction that is rarely explicit but resides just below the surface, unspoken but evident. One of these unspoken standards is the drive towards simplicity.

In the world of manufacturing, productivity is king. The more one makes, the more one can sell, and the more one sells the more profitable the endeavor. At some point, one faces the limits of human ability, and we engage the services of tools and devices to bridge the gaps of effort and time. A lean system takes the critical path between volition and goal. This, in essence, is the machine ethic, the driving force behind industrial simplification, a force so intoxicating that it has found its way into almost every element of contemporary design.


Without wanting to be too binary, there are two types of activity: those which may be considered 'compressive' (chores, tasks) and those which are 'donative' (fun and hobbies).

Tools have been a part of domestic life for hundreds of years, but it was the proliferation of labor-saving devices in the 20th Century that brought the machine ethic to the fore. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners and electric appliances became commonplace tools to help complete tasks around the home. This expansion was facilitated in part by the spread of domestic electricity (a U.S. growth of 46% between 1917 and 1930), and partly by the convenient nature of simplicity as a marketing tool. 'Simpler' is a useful metric for comparison, it shows a clear progression with the promise of an improved quality of life, and thus the drive towards ease of use became part of our collective conscience.

Every design cycle brought simpler and simpler solutions. Wrinkles were ironed out, generating new devices that promised to get things done in half the time or with half the effort. Over time, traditionally donative activities began to be approached with a compressive mindset. Designers and engineers began to focus on performance and efficiency - adjectives usually reserved for industrial projects. Almost every aspect of life underwent a process of taskification, and success was judged as such.

This notion persists today, with simplicity and ease going hand in hand with progress. By portraying an activity as a task, we can help drive products into use by focusing on their compressive performance. Convergent digital devices are particularly prone to taskification, given their multiple uses. For a device with which you watch movies, play games and converse with friends, 'multi-tasking' 'task switching' and 'taskbar' seem strange terms indeed, yet they pass by without a thought.

"...but, why wouldn't we make something simpler if we could?" seems like a perfectly reasonable question, and one which you may be asking right now, but we could also make that same thing taller, softer or more purple... Can it be that we have spent so long under the spell of the machine ethic, that we have become blinded by it?

The Leisure Illusion

The advertisement shown above neatly illustrates the utopian manifesto of a simplified home: by compressing chores with design and industrialization, we allow for more leisure time. In More work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan illustrates how less work and more free time through mechanization has never been the case. In manufacturing, the machine ethic is adopted in order to compress work with the aim of increased productivity, rather than allowing the employees to leave earlier each day. It's entirely logical that if we adopt the same ethic in domestic spaces, the result remains constant: our expectations just keep pace with the current reality. Simplification does not lead to leisure credit, it allows for more work to be completed in a similar timeframe. Ultimately this exerts a productivity pressure upon humans as they try to keep pace with the machines, a phenomenon that James Gleick characterizes as 'hurry sickness.'

There will never be a fixed quota of work to be done, and compressing the work we need to do today will simply make room for more work tomorrow.

Complexity displacement

At the dawn of the industrial computer age, facing a future of workplace robotics and simplified manufacturing systems many people (most notably Mike Cooley) warned of a future where humans would no longer be required. This technological unemployment dystopia never actually occurred, instead becoming a Luddite fallacy. The employment didn't disappear, it just moved elsewhere—the robots may do the work, but the robots also become work. This acts as a useful parallel when considering simplification:

We cannot truly create simplicity, rather we displace complexity.

When the machine ethic is inserted into an effort chain, it generates ripples as the complexity is displaced elsewhere. A drive towards simplicity needs to be considered in the most encompassing manner: how does it affect not only the goal in hand, but other elements of the system? The new iPhone connector is indeed simpler than it's predecessor. In removing the top and bottom bias the connector may be inserted blind, but in creating this simpler solution Apple has generated significant complexity elsewhere in the ecosystem. The home audio systems, the third party adaptors, the existing chargers dotted throughout the home, car and in multiple kitchen drawers all need to be changed or upgraded. Apple will have debated this change at length, and are probably happy with the compromise in the name of general progress, but the effects of this simplification will have significant impact on other manufacturers and users for years to come.

Outside of a single industry silo, simplicity in one field may have significant effects elsewhere. Years of innovation in simplifying the preparation and delivery of food has created significant complexities in the health and waste industries as we now struggle with the very real problems of obesity, diabetes, landfill and pollution. Simplicity is intoxicating and preys upon the laziest of our genes, but as designers we should begin to approach simplification with the same end-to-end understanding that we currently afford to ecological or sustainable issues.

Effort Entropy

So where does that leave design? What if we continue to simplify every activity, to strip away any elements of complexity, to remove all manuals, all strange procedural elements, to remove all the effort. What does success look like?

Are we able to operate every object perfectly without any learning, to move towards no UI? Are we able to spend the vast majority of our lives engaging in fun, donative activities? Do we feel better? Do products make us happy? The available evidence shows the contrary, or as Louis CK says: "Everything is amazing right now, and nobody's happy."

I've written at length about what I call the Olde Aesthetic, the pervasive mood in contemporary society for a simulacra of heritage: handmade belts, the slow food movement, 'artisanal' clothing and organic farming. One of the drivers behind this movement (there are many) may be an increasing sensitivity to skills which take time to master. There is an admiration for production methods which are slow, difficult and complex, largely in contrast to the simplicity, availability and homogeneity that we have seen for the last 40 years or so. By blindly simplifying systems, we may be at risk of removing all traces of joy, of removing any element of mastery, or triumph over adversity. I believe humans love complexity in the right places. We love to expend energy, to learn and to master complicated systems. We bake cakes from scratch, we climb mountains, we learn the piano. All of these things can be significantly compressed through the application of a machine ethic, yet are they improved? Hardly.

Towards a New Simple

Every designer knows to question their brief, but the notion of 'simpler is better' still prevails. It would be churlish to suggest that designers take steps to deliberately make any product more difficult to use than it's predecessor, or to adopt an Anabaptist outlook on progress and technology. What we should understand is the balance between destination and journey. Be aware of the differences between compressive and donative actions, and apply different thinking to each. Be alert to taskification.

Perhaps replacing 'simpler' with 'more rewarding' might take us some of the way to a new approach, embracing productivity where needed while leaving room for mastery, enjoyment and satisfaction in use.

As a wider subject, we should begin to embrace the notion of complexity displacement. In making a particular product or service simpler, we should be sensitive to the effects elsewhere. Is it right? Is it ethical? Does it have negative effects on someone other than our target user? The beautiful simplicity of many of the products and services we enjoy today may actually make other lives significantly more complex and potentially more miserable. An end-to-end appreciation of simplification is perhaps the boldest new horizon in our collective design conscience.

As designers we have an opportunity to shape the world how we see fit. We should design for the benefit of humans, with all our complexities. We should embrace learning in products, revealing new layers of understanding over time—then, perhaps, we will begin to design products which create a lasting bond with their users.

The Future Mundane

Originally posted on Core77

Broadly speaking, design projects may be split into three categories: now, next and future. Most of our time as designers is concerned with the now or next, but occasionally we are called upon to embrace projects which are overtly future facing in nature. These projects are typically used as a platform to tell a story, be that a business projection, a socio-cultural exploration, or an illustration of new materials or technologies, so it comes as no surprise that one of the more significant inputs for many designers is science fiction cinema.

Science fiction works in the space between people and technology in much the same way as industrial design, and the two have an influential effect upon each other. If you have visited any design tumblr in the last six months you will no doubt have seen countless sketches and production stills from Oblivion, and design's (sometimes literal) impact on science fiction cinema is well documented. In some respects, it's difficult to divorce the two industries, but there is a key difference which often gets missed: For the sake of brevity, I need to be reductive, so if there is a line to be drawn between industrial design futurism and science fiction cinema, then that's the line between narrative, story and plot.

Industrial design futures require a story, a sequence of events that happen. In some cases they require a narrative—a way in which the story is told—but they almost never need a plot. Science fiction cinema, which has an implicit role as entertainment, requires a plot. Plots are difficult, complex and involved. Plots require significant development of character and space, leading to an aesthetic that drives the narrative forward. When creating future visions, industrial designers have a habit of grabbing at cinematic aesthetics without a plot, leading to images, products and movies such as this:

Videos and presentations of this sort are plentiful indeed, and in some respects they have a place, yet they invariably seem banal, twee and idealistic to the point of fantasy. For this reason, it's often easy to scoff at such work and dismiss it out of hand. In 2002, at the Clarion writing workshop, science fiction novelist Geoff Ryman expressed similar concerns about the prevalence of fantasy elements in his genre. Warp drives, invisibility and interstellar travel were becoming the norm in science fiction writing, distracting readers from critical subjects closer to home. He introduced the concept of 'Mundane Science Fiction,' which aimed to generate literature based on or near earth with a believable use of technology as it exists in the time the story is written.

As a counter to the fantasy-laden future worlds generated by our industry, I'd like to propose a design approach which I call 'The Future Mundane.' The approach consists of three major elements, which I will outline below.

1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent.

Science fiction cinema needs to be entertaining in order to keep the attention of the audience. For a movie to be entertaining, it needs a narrative arc—a story of hope, despair, triumph or love. It needs a protagonist, hero or anti-hero. It typically needs something unusual to happen, an extraordinary event, something which drives the plot forward. As such, Hollywood typically pushes the narrative towards character extremes which provide clear roles: the hero, the villain, the femme fatale etc. The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of people don't come close to these caricatures, and it's fair to expect that they never will. Your customer won't need to save the world, they won't see a real gunfight, they won't win the lottery or fight a bad guy on the roof of a runaway train.

When designing for the future, designers regularly design for the hero, a trickle-down aspirational super-user intended to give us all something to hope for. But perhaps we could, for once, design for those innumerable, un-named characters of Hollywood, the extras or 'background talent.' Perhaps we should look past Bruce Willis and design for the 'man at bus stop', 'girl at bar' or 'taxi driver.' While this approach is less aspirational or sexy, these characters are much closer to the humans to whom you are telling your story. When your goal isn't entertainment, you don't need a hero.

So those are our characters, but what about the design itself? Spaceships, weapons and computers are plentiful in science fiction cinema, but what about corkscrews, soccer cleats, milk packaging or garden hoses? In the world of contemporary design awards (for what they are worth), we celebrate the design of background objects, but when we are asked to decipher and create the future we tend to revert back to whizz-bang items of wonder. When I encounter everyday design in science fiction cinema, I get a chill of excitement. From Korben's cigarettes in the Fifth Element, the parole officer in Elysium, and countless examples in Blade Runner, these pieces of design help us get a much better hold on our future than any holographic interface ever could. The future we design should understand this. The characters in our future will not necessarily need to save the world at every turn—most of them will simply live in it, quietly enjoying each day.

2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space

Take a look around you, it's likely that you're interacting with a contemporary piece of technology, be that a smartphone, tablet or laptop, but take a look further around the room. There may be things which are older, things which come from another time—an LED TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 60's vase, an iPad in a leather bag. If industrial design is in the business of making stuff, then we need to understand that this stuff piles up, favela-like. Humans are covetous, sentimental and resourceful; they cling to things.

When we render the future as a unique visual singularity, we remove from it any contemporary hooks. When designing a new screwdriver, it's important to remember that it will probably sit in a toolbox filled with other tools, perhaps inherited from a previous generation.

In order to communicate our vision, it may be helpful to incorporate the existing designed space in parallel with the new. On a very practical level, we should embrace legacy technologies when conceiving new ones. Ethnographic studies constantly highlight technology accretion: the drawer full of cables, the old interaction behaviors, the dusty hard drives, the mouse mats and inherited hardware. Rather than avoid this complexity, good science fiction embraces accretive spaces, where contemporary design and technology sits side by side with older artifacts. In some cases, this technique can be used to show potential disconnects between the new and established, places where technology sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a useful tool for all designers and using it well can help us depict a more tangible future.

3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space.

As mentioned, the structure of science fiction cinema calls for extremes of character, event and environment. These are often visible through utopian or dystopian tropes in costume, architecture and design. At one end of the spectrum, we have seamless computer interactions, bright spacious architecture and glossy white surfaces. At the other, we have the dustbowl, the hacker slums and the gritty laboratory in the sewer.

These two categories are useful for building entertaining narrative structure, but the future probably won't be either of these things... at least not entirely. It'll be somewhere disappointingly middling: a partly broken space.

We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it. As Frederik Pohl famously said, "a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam."

There are good examples in cinema, notably the cereal box from which John Anderton eats in Minority Report. As he puts it down, the singing cartoon on the front refuses to stop. He tries again but the animation continues, eventually leading him to throw the box across the room in frustration.

In the future, things will fail, but for the vast majority of the world this failure won't be 'the rocket is gonna crash into the planet,' but 'I can't get the audio to work on Skype.' The future will include taxes, illness, weather, transport delays and allergies. Things will break, things will fail to perform as promised, things will need fixing. Rendering the future as a partly broken space gives an audience something to hold onto, something relatable.

In parallel, we should consider how quickly our 'amazing new innovation' will become a normalized. Once technology finds it's way into mass communities it ceases to amaze, ceases to be seen as technology at all, it becomes a regular part of the tapestry of life. In truth, our most common reaction to technology is to focus on its failures, the frustrations, what it can't do or what we'd prefer it to do. Showing people smiling at their device as it reminds them about the arrival of their taxi is disingenuous. By isolating, understanding and portraying a partly broken space we are on the way to creating a more credible future.

Towards The Future Mundane

As part of a workshop I ran with Julian Bleecker at the Emerge conference in Arizona last year, we worked with a group of students to write, cast and shoot a short movie set in a mundane future. For us, the most logical place for this to take place was the liquor store, a place filled to the brim with technology once deemed incredible but now so fully absorbed into society that it becomes almost invisible. The ability to make fire instantly, digital time on your wrist, instant headache remedies, disposable writing tools, chemical power... all for under a dollar. This, to us, says much more about the future of design than any glossy proto-futuristic movie ever could. The movie was fun and challenging to produce (the whole project took just two days), but points at a future which we rarely see embraced in our industry. More recently, Nicolas Nova and his team of students created a series of short films based around curious rituals, those digitally generated behaviors which come hand in hand with emerging technology. The 'Gerardo' segment is particularly pertinent to our discussion.

Let's be clear, this is not necessarily a new concept. There are many science fiction movies, or at least moments within them, which embrace a mundane approach. The British TV miniseries "Black Mirror" contains some excellent moments of The Future Mundane. Whilst the series as a whole is designed as satire, often stepping into cautionary dystopian territory, there are some moments of genuine beauty, particularly in the episodes 'Be Right Back' and 'The Entire History of You.' The new Spike Jonze movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, feels like it could be right on the button, not really feeling like a science fiction movie at all, concentrating more on the relationship between people and technology (literally).

In closing, I'll address a couple of key counter arguments which may have been raised in this piece:

Counter one: What about visionary projects which act as a north star, an unattainable but exciting future?

Everyone has a different approach to their design work, and their process varies accordingly. Certain designers produce concepts and future visions that are deliberately unattainable, but give a strong thematic direction to their work. This is fine, and can be a useful tool as long as the audience is prepared to embrace it as such. If we start to view our dreams as reality, we may be doing little more than feeding the Walter Mitty within. Which is not to say the two approaches are mutually exclusive; one can sit within the other. Elon Musk, the Bay area's very own Tony Stark, recently released his vision for the Hyperloop, a 760mph passenger device which purports to move people from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Whilst most people see the concept as difficult to the point of impossibility, what made it so compelling was not the sexy renders of passenger compartments and vehicle designs but the 57-page PDF that went with it. The document doesn't make it any more achievable, but by embracing of the mundane practicalities of such a project, Musk was able to make it more believable. The Future Mundane doesn't seek to curtail dreams, just to ensure that dreams are rendered as vividly as possible.

Counter two: By assuming that the future will proceed as today, we won't embrace anything out of the ordinary.

Big things happen in the world. There are energy concerns, world wars, population problems, famines, information explosions and many more huge events peppering the history of mankind, but let's not fall into the trap of rendering extremes. Let's remember that against a backdrop of any future world shift, there will still be the common cold, there will still be breakfast, there will still be sport, there will still be work, there will still be almost every aspect of human life visible in some form. It may be strained or broken, but by approaching these mundane facets of life, we may actually be better prepared to tackle the larger issues.

In parallel, and on a more cautionary note, we should be wary of the tendency to assume that the future will be in some way better than today. Whilst many aspects of life are considerably improved from even forty years ago, it could be argued that other areas of life are significantly worse. The design industry has been creating utopian visions for over a hundred years, and it's clearly not working out. Maybe we should give it a rest, or at least come to accept that utopias are unachievable in every respect, a literal 'no place.'

Counter three: Not all design needs to so pragmatic.

I agree. Design tools can be used to develop not just products, but thinking. In this case design can indeed indulge in fantasy and storytelling, but it must be understood as such. Design has a very powerful role in creating stories from the future, not with the intent to produce artifacts but to act as a driver for critical discourse, conversation or thought. Just make sure this is clear beforehand.

The Future Mundane is not a manifesto nor a dogma: It is intended as an approach to help expand our notion of design for the future. As designers, we have a huge opportunity to play with time, technology and people. In designing the future, we are able to play with ideas and dreams in a way that very few people are able. For every fantasy fiction piece of design, I would love to see a counter concept. A concept for the everyman; a concept that knows what might not work and what might break; a concept that delivers amazing future technology whilst comfortably sitting atop a Victorian chest of drawers.

That'd be compelling. I'd watch that.


(First published on Core77)

I spent the first 36 years of my life living in the UK, more than half of which was spent in and around London. As such, I have a deep personal affinity to Gin, that wonderful, complex, delicious spirit made famous by the Dutch and infamous by Hogarth. Gin has recently enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity, gradually extricating itself from the caustic syrups of the 70s and into the most sophisticated concoctions of mixologists worldwide.

There are numerous reasons why I like gin. It's incredibly versatile, and can be drunk in many forms: with a mixer such as tonic or soda, as a base for classic or contemporary cocktails such as negronis, martinis or gimlets, or even neat (try a glass of Old Tom over ice next time the nights draw longer). Primarily though, gin's allure lies in the glorious, deep variety of tastes. From the driest of London gins to the complex, tea-like Golden Moon, there really is nothing like it. I think gin should be regarded by the same sommelier standards as wines and whisky. It's on it's way, but it still has some distance to go.

So by now you should be wondering what this has to do with Industrial Design. It's an analogy that I've been mulling over for some time and it has to do with the ways in which we approach the creation of contemporary objects. Let me explain by way of vodka.

Vodka is made by pot-distilling a fermented grain mash from barley—though the process itself simply needs a starch, so potatoes, beets, etc., can be substituted—which is then filtered through charcoal and bottled. Throughout the process, the distiller aims to create the purest possible alcohol, removing any impurities, coloration or taste. Vodka is simply ethanol, and whilst it has its purpose, it significantly misses the mark in elegance or taste. Gin, however, undergoes another transformative process. Once the pure liquor is extracted, the master distiller adds a finely balanced recipe of extra ingredients. Typically this starts with juniper berries (which are not actually berries), and is followed by seeds, citrus rinds, fragrant barks, spices, wildflower blossoms and other botanicals. These extra ingredients are added to the ethanol and then redistilled a second time. The resulting mixture is a delicate, fragrant, wonderful liquid, with all the elegant balance of a fine perfume: Gin.

So, back to design...

Over the last decade or so, there has been a trend within industrial design to refine and reduce, borne from classic minimalist dogma trodden by Dieter Rams and redelivered by Ive. We have become attuned to reduction as a means of progress in our art. Everything is removed, streamlined and simplified to create an object pure in essence and interaction. We cherish such objects and marvel at their purity, but all too often they lack heart. They seem empty, perfunctory, cold. They are vodka.

By simply following a path of endless reduction we distill out every impurity, we filter every trace of individuality, every element that deviates from the drive towards that (false) grail: a simple singular expression of form and interaction. Whilst the technical prowess needed to achieve such simplicity is significant and admirable, I am often struck by just how dull the results can be.

By designing in a reductive manner, I believe there is often a necessity for a subsequent distillation process. Once the primary design cycle is complete, and prototypes begin arriving, it's vitally important to revisit the entire experience, to zoom out and re-examine what has been achieved. Following this examination we then have an opportunity to add our 'botanicals' to improve the stark proposition before us, then redistill the object for a second time.

I admit this is a strange and counterintuitive twist in the design process. It is preferable to define the entire object and experience at the outset, rather than add time, complexity and headaches later, but in my experience it's only when design work approaches a nadir of completion that the need for these 'botanicals' becomes evident. When presented with a 'nearly complete' object we should allow time for more complex thought patterns to emerge. These can be simple things: little changes or additions to software, hardware or tone, but they are vitally important to create depth in the final offering. In short, we turn vodka into gin, which results in a more rounded, elegant and satisfying experience.

The Perfect Negroni:

- Take one measure of Cocchi Vermouth, one measure of Campari and one measure of Dry Gin (try Leopolds or Sipsmiths).

- Pour over ice in a mixing glass.

- Stir for a moment.

- Take an Old Fashioned glass and strain the cocktail over a single large ice cube.

- Garnish with a slice of orange zest.

- Turn off the TV.


Whenever exploring a city, you’ll hear locals and guides encouraging you to ‘look up’. I’d argue that you learn an equal amount about a city from looking down. You see discarded litter, infrastructural markings on the tarmac, bus tickets and graffiti. You see past the towering monuments of man’s achievement and see the everyday remnants of regular life. I wrote a while ago about the curious multicolored dots beside San Francisco’s drains and I recently completed another short project in a similar vein. All across the Bay Areas are holes in the ground, some permanent, some temporary, each covered by a sheet of metal. Whilst there exists a small cadre of manhole afficionados they become almost invisible by their regularity. A closer look reveals that each of these metal coverings carries data, be it the company who owns the infrastructure below, the type of service, or the owner/manufacturer of the plate itself. Often this information is cast directly into the plate during manufacture, but from time to time this information is handwritten. Upon installation, a piece of text is added to the plate via a welding torch, leaving a permanent metal version of the creator’s handwriting. This tickles me for many reasons, but perhaps mostly as it’s a great example of finding humans. Many of the characters are wonky and malformed, perhaps evidence of a lack of care, or the difficulty I imagine comes with writing with a welding torch. Nearly all of the type is capitalized, but every now and then you will see a piece of cursive handwriting, which is lovely. A few covers around the city also seem to have been signed, although I could be wrong.

I began photographing these frozen characters about two years ago but recently accelerated the project (on account of the vlog). On Saturday I finally completed a full alphabet (I found a ‘B’, thank you Pac Bell) and I’ve gone through the somewhat awkward and painstaking process of creating a font. It’s far from usable, and definitely not pretty, but it’s crowdsourced, and that makes it modern. You can download the font here: WELDTYPE

If anyone has the required skills and inclination, it would be nice to cast around these welded letters in-situ and make printing blocks from them… maybe?