A short essay on 3D Printing

3d rabbits

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.

3d printed thing

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.

Image sources: ONE  TWO  THREE

The world is not enough

recycled plastic bottle chair

Some of the opinions in this post might not be on trend, I’m happy with this. It is also worth mentioning that I reference ‘design’ as an element of production at scale, as opposed to the practice of an individual maker.

Western design education cares too much. From America to Europe one theme seems to feature highly in design education: sustainability (or more euphemistically: environmental responsibility, renewable energy or ‘green’ projects). This strikes me as odd.

Let’s roll back a bit. I’ve been a professional designer, both in-house and as a consultant for fifteen years. In that time, not once has a client expressed any interest in any environmental or sustainable issues through their brief. In parallel, environmental issues have never formed the backbone of any meaningful discussion in my professional career, either with clients or my team. Why is it then, that student degree shows, curricula and projects seem to be so heavily engaged in the topic? I’ve been fortunate to act as a visiting lecturer and tutor in numerous universities and have witnessed a consistent focus on the sustainable elements of student work, often at the expense of aesthetics, critical rigor or objective integrity.

Design is a multi-faceted discipline. A three year degree course is barely enough time to scratch the surface, particularly with the complex practical skills which need to be developed. I believe too much weight is being placed on creating ‘utopian’ designers as opposed to ‘useful’ designers. This is probably an unpopular opinion.

To clarify: there have been some heinous acts perpetrated against mother nature at the hands of manufacturing. The irresponsible use of resources and materials has caused significant and perhaps irreparable damage to the planet. I understand this and accept that it needs to change, but let’s also remember that design cannot be held solely responsible for such acts. When we see a bottle cap in the carcass of a dead albatross a very short forensic exercise begins. We notice the disconnect between nature and product. We observe the bottle cap objectively. We take note of the shape, the color, the placement of the logo and the material choice. We conclude that the decisions made in those arenas are the root cause of the evident damage. This is an unfair judgement.

In order to bring a product to market individuals from a variety of disciplines need to come together. The marketing, product planning, engineering, finance, retail, distribution, logistics, roadmapping, legal, corporate, sales and strategy teams all have independent agendas which pull at the product throughout it’s creation. Designers often feel very self-important in their role as creators, but it’s my experience that we rarely hold the casting vote when it comes to defining what the product is, what it does, how it is made or how it functions. That’s the truth, like it or not. That bottle cap is bright pink, non-degradable, buoyant and harmful to seabirds not because of the designer, but because of the cumulative effect of a thousand decisions made by a thousand individuals in a thousand departments, including the designer.

As designers our job is to create the best possible outcome from a collection of fairly heavily constrained elements. We can raise concerns and focus our efforts on making the product more sustainable, but if we are working at scale our concerns often go unheeded – worse still we become marginalized. The strength of design’s voice in the vast majority of companies is little more than a squeak when compared to corporate functions. I appreciate i am painting a bleak picture, but I want to be honest.

Western design education could be at risk of creating a generation of utopian dreamers, with little or no understanding of the commercial realities of their craft or how it sits in the wider picture. In parallel, a cursory look at the curricula of the worlds finance, marketing and business schools yields zero focus on environmental or sustainability issues. The voice needs to start somewhere, and things need to change, but if design continues to pitch it’s tent so squarely in this arena we may lose some of the commercial respect which we have gained in recent years. Design should not become a crusade, but it shouldn’t roll over quietly either. Environmental sustainability is not ‘the other guys’ problem, it’s everyones problem. We need a unilateral approach across all disciplines if we are to achieve meaningful change.

May I suggest that we replace focussed sustainability modules with a wider ranging ethical element to our teaching. This would include the responsibility issues related to environmental factors, but also bring our discipline more into line with similar teaching found in other practices. In so doing, we would not only equip our designers with the requisite understanding and focus, but with the lexicon necessary to clearly communicate with our peers.

We should understand the truths of commercialism. That way we can better play with it.

The geometry of possibility

Two major inputs for this post are ‘What Technology Wants‘ by Kevin Kelly and Matt Ward’s blog piece on the fate of things to come. I suggest you read both, as this post is essentially an illustration of my thoughts after reading.

To some extent, every designer is responsible for defining the future, often with lofty ambition. The glorious thing about the future is just how many permutations there are for any given algorithm. Matt has generated an excellent lexicon for the ways in which designers approach this issue, which in turn has helped me crystalise a larger geometric visualization.

The cone of possibility. Stretching ahead of us is the fog of the future. Everything implausable, impossible, mundane and extraordinary. Every tiny change to an existing product, every huge stride in the evolution of mankind. Within this everything-ness sits what I’m calling a ‘cone of possibility’ (I’ll refer to it throughout as the CPo). Undertaking research and articulating it requires days, weeks, months or years. More time allows for space for investigation, the making of mistakes, experimentation and learning. If we look forward a few weeks, what is possible might be quite restricted, if we give ourselves a month, more things may be possible, a couple of years and the realm of possibility widens still. The further we look forward, the more things become possible, hence a cone.

cone 1

Fuzzy boundaries, wobbly edges. Ask a room of 100 engineers what’s possible and you’ll get 100 different answers. At the edge of possibility there is R&D, the aim of which is to clarify the fuzzy boundary between possible and impossible. The fact remains that the edges of the CPo are not crisp. The cone is more akin to a flashlight beam, the edges gradually attenuating into the darkness. Also, the edges of this fuzzy cone are not straight. During any research exercise there are moments of epiphany, moments of discovery and wild, rapid learning. The conic angle at any given point defines our field of opportunity, and it will distort and bulge based on a number of external factors. If we invest heavily in R&D it’s likely that the cone will expand at a quicker rate, inversely if we cut time and funding for R&D it may narrow to a wormhole. It would be very interesting to try and understand what  constrains the CPo, be it investment, global politics, corporate focus, risk or similar. For the sake of simplicity the diagram will remain as drawn.

Out of scope. At any given moment there will be work which falls outside of the cone, in the realm of impossibility (or perhaps implausibility?). Kelly states that a microwave could not have been created in 1650, no matter how strong the volition, but if we extended the CPo forwards for 350 years, then the microwave eventually becomes possible. Paraphrasing Kelly’s argument: technology ‘always exists’ and we simply need to take sequential steps to ‘discover’ it, like the sculptor facing a block of marble. What’s important here is that innovation is apparently chronological, it requires things to be discovered, manufactured and launched in a particular order. Innovation is a parade.

cone 2

(Note: there are things which may be considered perpetually impossible, such as time travel, teleportation or immortality. Perhaps the realm of impossibility should be referred to at the ‘perceptually impossible’, with another ‘physically impossible’ cone surrounding it…)

The cone of probability (CPr). Along the temporal axis lies another, narrower cone. This is the cone of probability (CPr). It defines what is likely to happen, given the current state of things. This is the world of yearly cycles and refreshed models, it’s therefore typically the world of large, slow organizations. Take the car industry: it has a limitless, somewhat sickly supply of concept projects which tug at the periphery of the CPo, but the cars we see in the showroom change slowly and almost predictably, as the weight of risk bears heavily on the organization. Anyone who has spent any time at a large technology or design organisation knows that there is an understood progression to things. The artifacts launched at this year’s CES seem almost natural in their arrival, inevitable even. Things get thinner, faster, lighter, brighter, longer… that’s the way we progress. Large organisations often refer to this as the innovation roadmap, which exhibits gradual evolution by its very nature. A concept which falls outside the CPr needs investment, both of time and money. Such a concept is new, potentially risky and might not be understood or accepted by customers. I hate to think of this as a risk model, but in some cases, we could view it as such.

cone 3

We should remember that there is also risk associated with staying in the CPr. Apple has made a huge success of late by pulling products such as the iPhone and iPad from hazy R&D towards accepted norm with rapid speed, leapfrogging the normal progression of things. This creates a significant destabilising force on the CPr, making yearly planning, portfolio development and growth strategies almost impossible.

As I’ve been visualising this,cone, moving through space, swallowing peripheral innovation and funneling it to the centre, I’ve been seeing a trawlers net. This is a break in proceedings to enjoy a good visual metaphor.


Towards a Vinge singularity. Based on this model, knowledge typically follows a path from the realm of impossibility, through the hazy outskirts of the CPo and into the safe central core of the CPr. Products which we consider simple to the point of banality often contain long forgotten research and development, forming a ‘collective knowledge’ in the minds of designers and makers. This is excellently illustrated by Thomas Thwaites in his attempt to build a toaster, and a core tenet of the Near Future Laboratory ‘convenience’ work. This central core is what forms the backbone of contemporary and future artifacts. The accumulated knowledge of processing, electronics, materials manufacturing, user interaction and engineering are all to be found here, layered upon wood carving, thatching and stonemasonry. As the current moment passes the cone model leaves behind it a trail of artifacts, each of which embody these successive generational learnings. Like the rings of a tree, knowledge accretes around this central axis, bumping up against it’s predecessor and squeezing together into a super-dense core.

Question: if we use the astrophysical model to it’s conclusion, could packets of knowledge be squeezed out through an innovation black hole? Could this act as a metaphor for lost knowledge or techniques?

cone 5

Using the model. This is still very basic and has a few flaws, but in crystalising my thoughts it has proved useful in order to begin mapping some of the projects with which I’m engaged. It’s handy to sketch the model to get agreement on what parts of the project fit where. In advanced design, we’re often tugging at the edges of the CPo and CPr in parallel, and it’s important to understand the distinction. I would argue that Critical Design, as embodied by practitioners such as Dunne and Raby sits as a skin around the CPr, poking holes in the assumed logical future (Affirmitive Design). When we are required to undertake a project which falls into a particular cone, it could be useful to re-situate the project in the other cone. This is a familiar consultancy technique, the ‘long’ and ‘short’ term or the ‘safe’ and ‘risky’ option. I guess this just adds some new language: the ‘possible’ and ‘probable’.

The cones model is also useful in a comparison mode to understand just how the organisation for which we’re working fits with competitors. Is our CPo wider or narrower than our competition? How many of our projects sit within the safe CPr, and how many sit further out? What is our balance of innovation. Pushing the model further, we could understand how future innovations may distort the cones and how this may affect the innovation parade, a classic ‘what if’ exercise. We could also look at our organisation and calculate the proportional balance of the two cones. Are we converting enough ‘possibles’ into ‘probables’? for example.

One interesting aspect of this model it playing with temporality. As the cones move forward through space they leave a trail of knowledge and artifacts behind them. Returning to these artifacts after they pop into existence is tough. A phrase we’re increasingly seeing is ‘it’s hard to ship atoms in beta’. That’s to say: the working methods in software development which allows for redeployment, modifications and development after launch, are very difficult to apply to the realm of mass manufactured 3D objects. This model perhaps most vividly captures the march of progress, and the passing of objects. Let me know if you find it interesting, useful, flawed or in error.

cone 4


Last weekend I spent 36 hours awake in the desert just north of Tucson, Arizona. I was there to document an endurance race: a 24 hour, off-road bicycle endurance race to be precise. As with most of these events, the crowd was broken into groups including four-man teams, pairs, solo, and most impressively: solo single speed. That’s 24 hours of riding through the desert with just one gear. The event was fantastic, a real eye opener into just what people will put themselves through in the name of sport. Broken bones, lost teeth, cactus injuries, blood loss and cramps were all part of it. I’m not sure I have that kind of dedication in me for anything, which saddens me a little. I can barely keep this blog going. Perhaps I’m a quitter, who knows. (vimeo link)

The creative portrayal

fountainheadMost of what I know about the world I know from movies. From Vietnam to corn syrup, the majority of the factual composition of my brain comes from celluloid, for better or worse. As an Industrial Designer, I’m constantly trying to find simple ways to explain to people exactly what it is that I do, often to blank faces. This got me thinking: how are designers portrayed in the movies? Wider still, how are all creative people portrayed in Hollywood? I think there are a few archetypes, which I’ve outlined below. (I’ve been rooting deep within my cinematic memories for examples, but please get in touch if you know of any more.)

The Writer: Hollywood loves a writer. I would argue there are more movies about writers than any other creative character, perhaps because film is a narrative art. It’s easy for writers to write about writers. Perhaps the best movie about writers is Barton Fink, excellently portrayed by John Turturro, though it also displays many of the tropes of the writer protagonist. The writer is quiet, introverted, often old fashioned – for the longest time, writers used typewriters in movies, long after most had moved to a PC. The writer likes solitude, silence. The writer is tortured: by his publisher, by the deadline, by the characters in his story. The writer is an outsider. The writer is interesting, smart, insightful. There are some excellent movies about writers, from the wild ride of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the structure breaking American Splendor or Adaptation, but most tend to abide by the well understood rules in the portrayal of a creative writer.

The Inventor: from Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids to Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the inventor is almost always portrayed as a wacky, white-coated character with wild hair, spectacles and chaotic living conditions. A character who is wildly secretive and socially awkward, the inventor is a classic Hollywood anti-hero. I suspect there aren’t many such characters in real life. Most lab physicians, chemical or mechanical engineers I’ve met are calm quiet types, but the social awkwardness is a truism, as is the predominantly male makeup of such characters. (A subset of Inventor is the Mad Professor, from Dr. Frankenstein, to countless Superhero movies)

The Architect: this one’s a doozy. Architecture is a go-to employment for any character who is lovable, creative, yet feels trapped in an urban environment, or in a big corporation. The architect has big ideas, but no-one will listen. The architect carries rolls and rolls of blueprints. The architect visits building sites wearing a hard had, he meets with builders and points at things. The architect is a bland job which is non-polarising for any character who needs to appear employed, without his job becoming an important narrative element. Tom Selleck played an architect in Three Men and a Baby. Do you remember? No of course you don’t, it’s not important, but you did remember that he was lovable, educated, smart and maybe a little creative. Woody Harrelson was an architect in Indecent Proposal, but again, just to make him into the nice guy. Liam Neeson in Love Actually, Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy, Matt Dillon in You, Me and Dupree… you get the picture. There are movies where architecture and architects play a central role, such as the Fountainhead or Towering Inferno, where the role is expanded, but typically ‘The Architect’ remains a proxy for ‘nice guy’.

The Fashion designer: Want a totally wacky character? Want to add some zing, some spice, some drag queen sass? Then your character is a fashion designer. From the characters in Sex and the City and the Devil Wears Prada, to Will Ferrell’s excellent Jacobim Mugatu in Zoolander, fashion designers are perpetually portrayed as vapid, bitchy prima-donnas. I’ve met a fair few fashion designers and there are definitely some who fit that mold (as excellently lampooned by Sacha Baron-Cohen in Brüno, and the documentary The September Issue perhaps illustrates just how real the stereotype can be), but increasingly fashion designers are smart, sensible business people. Perhaps slightly breaking that mold is Audrey Tautou Coco Before Chanel, which is a little more calm about the fashion industry, but it’s a period piece which focusses more on the love story than the design work.

The Painter: See The Writer, but dial up the internal torture and money worries.

The Graphic Designer: This is a little more rare, perhaps because it’s less widely understood as a profession. There are characters who work at magazines, and there are characters who work at Newspapers, but actually designing type and layout? Not so much. Halle Berry played a graphic designer in Catwoman, falling asleep at her drawing board. Jessica Lange played a graphic designer in Scorsese’s Cape Fear, at one point discussing how to draw a logo with Juliette Lewis. Generally speaking, the Graphic Designer is simply another ‘Architect’ character: likable, creative and trapped by a corporate life.

The Advertising Creative: An associated go-to character, although displaying quite different traits to the Graphic Designer. The Advertising Creative is a brash, hard working, hard living urbanite. The Advertising Creative is some parts writer (struggling with copy and straplines), some part architect (struggling to remain creative in a corporate world) but crucially is far more business savvy and less likable than most creative characters. Dudley Moore’s Emory Leeson in Crazy People is a wonderful example, as is Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement, and Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back, but the clearest example of the character is Richard E Grant in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. In TV land, the character has been immortalized by Don Draper et al in Mad Men, firmly sealing the traits of the role.

The Industrial Designer: This is very rare, and often strays into Inventor territory. In a movie, if you need a character to create a new product it typically happens in a boardroom, on a whim (see Tom Hanks ‘I don’t get it’ scene in Big). In Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom plays an Industrial designer who gets fired from Mercury Worldwide Shoes, and Ewan McGregor played a vehicle designer in The Island, but the roles are fairly inert, a typical ‘Architect’ persona, designed to make the character employed without any polarising characteristics.

The UX designer: see ‘Inventor’ but lots more computers (Tron, The Lawnmower Man and Brainstorm are good examples)

So what have we learned? Across the board, characters who have ‘creative’ jobs are considered interesting, from the flamboyance of the fashion world to the intellectual introspection of the writer, Hollywood loves creative characters. Creative characters are well educated, and with the exception of the Mad Professor or the Advertising Creative, they are likable.

What is interesting is which part of the creative process is used for each of the character stereotypes. Writers and Painters are tortured by the pre-creation ideas phase, Inventors tend to focus on the experimenting phase, Architects and Designers are often portrayed tackling the implementation phase, and Fashion tends to focus on the presentation or post creation phase. I’ve called this the Hollywood Design Index.HOLLYWOOD DESIGN INDEXPerhaps that goes some way to explaining public perceptions of each segment of the design industry, and without getting too overblown, it could have a longer term effect on how each industry is understood. Typically the portrayal of designers in Hollywood is a very pale reflection of reality, but then again, the portrayal of soldiers, politicians, lawyers or doctors is no doubt just as clichéd.

Power all around

ipad mini

Weighing in at over a ton, and filling a whole room at Bletchley Park, Colossus was the world’s first programmable computer, used to decrypt the Lorenz Cipher. Since it’s creation over 65 years ago a significant improvement in performance and reduction in size has occurred in computing, Moore’s Law extending well beyond what most considered possible. Take a look at the iPad mini above. The immense computing power of the iPad now exists within that little L-shaped board running along two sides of the diminutive tablet. What’s hard to miss, however is the proportionally huge battery, which occupies around 60% of the entire volume of the product.

There have been huge strides made in the field of power storage (tripling in energy density in the last 15 years, mostly due to Li-ion), but this hasn’t been able to match the pressures exerted by hardware. As a result, cell phones now expire significantly quicker than those of ten years ago. The ongoing power struggle is now a key focus in many mobile tech industries, and there are some very interesting developments afoot.

Whilst batteries will continue to improve in some respects, much time is now being focussed on micro-harvesting, aiming to top up the battery at every opportunity. I once read a ‘statistic’ which claimed that if the impact of every footfall on every sidewalk in New York could be captured, the city would generate enough energy to power itself. Whilst this is perhaps apocryphal, it’s true that the vibrations created by human movement generate significant energy. We’re are perhaps familiar with large scale movement harvesting technologies, kinetic bicycle lights for example, but engineers have recently been able to create micro-harvesters. These work in the same way as any generator, moving a magnet through a coil, but at tiny scales. An array of these tiny top-up engines could easily be fitted into most mobile electronic devices, generating 12µW from a 1cm square device.


But it’s not just movement vibrations from the user jogging, or the rocking of a car, these devices can charge due to external vibrations such as noise. We can attach them to the back of screens or run speakers ‘in reverse’ to vibrate in a noisy bar or restaurant and trickle charge the batteries. Clever stuff.


So how else can we harvest little bits of energy? Well there’s obviously solar, and lots of work is underway here, but what about the heat from the sun, as opposed to the photons? Where there is a difference in temperature between two materials, we can grab power due to the Seebeck effect. If you’ve ever left your phone on a sunny table you know just how much heat is available in your devices, so this is a potentially exciting area, energy-wise. Not only that, but one side of the thermopile (see above) could be placed next to your skin (your cheek whilst talking, or in your headphones) in colder or darker environments.

faraday chair

Dunne and Raby made the Faraday Chair shown above in order for people to escape ‘leaking’ radio waves from digital products in their excellent book Hertzian Tales. Whilst this may conjure up images of paranoid, tinfoil wearing hippies, the truth is closer than you might think. Whilst the numbers are small, ambient RF (radio frequencies) are a viable energy source. Energy leaking from GSM or WLAN communication services can be captured and converted into little bits of power. The main issue here is distance and power, you’ll know this from your RFID enabled travel card or cordless toothbrush, that said it’s still considered viable.

Power is all around us, and if we want our devices to do more and last longer we’ll need to find ways to grab it and keep it. Whilst none of these technologies generates enough energy to power a screen based device alone, they will add precious seconds to the life of the battery. That said, outside of the pixel based realm, sensors and micro-devices are also trending toward increased efficiency and smaller volumes. Here may be a case for self sustaining electronics which could be permanently deployed into environments, houses, bodies, anywhere there’s light, vibration, temperature or RF. That’s interesting.

On rectangles

(This post has been rattling around in my draft box for a while and as such is a little overwrought. The topic has developed into a much larger theme, but in the interest of keeping things moving, here is a starter)

The rectangle, that most primitive of Euclidian shapes, dominates the design of digital objects to the exclusion of almost everything else. Industrial designers have long bemoaned the lack of variety in their industry, resigning themselves to a world of frames and bezels. As I write this Apple are launching their latest rectangle: the iPad mini. It seems so natural and logical for digital products to be this shape, which probably means there’s good reason to take another look. Today’s question: why are screen based devices rectangular?

Biology. When discussing the reasons why rectangles dominate vision-centric devices, human field of view is often cited as a primary driver. Our eyes are designed to have cones of vision with a bias towards the peripheral, that’s to say humans can see wider than they can see high. If we’re talking about immersive movie screens such as IMAX that might make some sense, but hand held digital devices occupy such a narrow portion of this cone of vision that this argument becomes almost meaningless. Furthermore, if we were truly reflecting the human field of vision, screens would be laterally stretched, roughly elliptical shapes at a ratio of approximately 200:135, something akin to the Mollweide projection. (side project: IMAX for pigeons, given their field of view as a constraint…)  

Legacy content, manufacturing and cultural norms. “My only working principle, whenever we make something, is rather ruthlessly to concentrate on that rectangular screen on the monitor as I’m filming… because that rectangle is all the viewer cares about too. Whatever device that rectangle is on may keep changing, away from the home and onto the tablet, but it’s still those same four sides enclosing what you’ve made” - Armando Ianucci, Bafta lecture, 2012

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the prevalence of rectangular screens is the format of the content. If you have a series of rectangular pictures it makes sense to project them onto a rectangular screen, but why were those pictures rectangular in the first place? If we arrange a series of optical lenses, physics dictates that the image generated will be circular, yet photography began life as a rectangular, planar endeavor. This was primarily due to the mechanical production of the active substrate, be that a glass plate, treated copper or cellulose. The circular image was projected onto this surface and anything which fell off the edges was eliminated. Producing circular substrates is both tricky and wasteful, so it seems sensible to make efficient use of your material by choosing a tessellating shape such as the rectangle. Prior to photography, painting also faced similar challenges, where simplicity and waste (of canvas) dictated rectilinear shapes.

TV is an interesting chicken and egg story. When the earliest TV screens were produced they were manufactured from blown glass vessels with a cathode gun at the rear. The image appeared by bending the beam of cathode rays onto an active surface inside the glass. It made sense that the very first TV screens were circular, from a glassblowing and beam-bending perspective, but content demanded that screens shift towards the rectangular. Well into the 1990′s TV screens were non-planar with rounded corners and radiused edges. It took considerable time and effort to bend the cathode ray sufficiently to allow it to reach the corners of an increasingly rectangular viewing area. LCD panels changed this approach by directly feeding each pixel from the borders of a glass panel, and the truly flat, rectangular screen was born. When we look at how LCD screens (and OLED etc.) are made, it involves cutting large glass sheets into smaller ones. The same rules of tessellation and waste faced by photographic pioneers exist in the flat panel factories of today.

Throughout all of these pragmatic reasonings lies a deeper truth. Rectangular content is rectangular because it always has been. It has become the cultural norm. It is entirely logical and natural that this cultural norm continued from papyrus to painting, into photography, through film and into TV. When the computer emerged as a successor to the typewriter, there was no logical reason to stray from the many hundreds of years of columnar text and printing. When books transitioned into e-readers the trend continued once more.

Cultural norms and standards also make their way into the production tools of today. Whilst the world of film constantly argues about exactly which rectangle to use (and subsequently the smartphone, tablet, TV and laptop industries) there are some established standards in the development of content. Every production tool for film or pixel-based work uses a standard XY rule to position each element, either relative to the centre or one corner. These standards have emerged over time and are widely understood. Non-rectangular screens would require a whole new approach to the development of not only the content, but the tools used to create it.

Legacy content, cultural norms, manufacturing and production standards continue to be the main drivers behind rectangular screens. It’s unlikely that we will see a huge shift any time soon, but that shouldn’t make it an open-and-shut case. I think a few things are on the horizon which might herald a change.

It’s hip to be square. Whilst, strictly speaking, a square is a very special sort of rectangle, it’s clear that in the world of photography the square is back. Medium format cameras have long held cachet for their square format negatives, and polaroid has been a consistent favourite amongst the world’s hipper communities. Instagram has also become a huge force in the world of photography with their strictly square format. This cropping of images will push it’s way deep into the collective psyche, and we could see the end of landscape and portrait in some point and shoot devices. Lytro could mark the start of this.

The emergence of the non-planar. As mentioned, liquid crystal screens are typically made of glass, not known for it’s flexibility, but the last decade has seen a huge amount of work in the field of flexible displays, which replace glass with flexible polymers. The use of such technology tends to fall into two categories: the first uses the flexing properties literally and proposes products which bend or roll when not in use. Having been close to a few prototypes of such devices I think this is folly, at least in the short term. More interesting is the use of flexible screens to wrap content around hard objects. When the bend radii and durability are improved we’ll be able to manufacture products with a portion of the display which wraps over the side, corner or around to the front. This will have huge implications in the design of content and how we use our screens.

Differentiation. The rectangle is such a pervasive form in digital objects that room for competitive differentiation is running out. As the recent legal debacle between Samsung and Apple illustrated, the world’s largest manufacturers are now squabbling over who owns what. This could ultimately lead to new forms, new display arrangements and new display surfaces, as companies desperately try to stand out from the crowd. Whilst considered a commercial failure, the palm pre was interesting not only for it’s tiny form factor, but the UI which added radiuses at the corners. This was cute, but what if the radiuses touched to form a circle? As I understand it, circular screens are no more difficult to produce (potentially) than rectangular ones, it would just require some careful work to feed each pixel. Aside from differentiation, circular screens are uniquely scalable. A circle is a circle. There are no widescreen circles, no 4:3 circles, there are no content proportion changes whatsoever, from the tiniest device to the largest. Sharp, Toshiba and LG have been squirrelling away on circular displays, but it seems they’re struggling to find an application beyond clocks. If this application can be found, we would see investment in these technologies grow.

Evolving content. We currently live in a world of devices which we expect to mimic artifacts from the past. We expect movies, photographs, documents and books to appear as we remember them, but as more ‘things’ become digital we will move into a world where there are no precursors. Products such as Nest are a good example of this (which actually uses a rectangular screen masked to appear circular). Once we free ourselves from the world of video, browsers and documents and begin to think again about interaction, we can clearly see that the rectangle makes no sense beyond tradition, availability and cost. There is absolutely no reason why your lamp should be controlled from a rectangular screen, or your golf club, or your plant pot . None whatsoever.

Rectangular screens make sense for now, but how was anything ever accomplished by maintaining the status quo? Innovation in screens has focussed on resolution, platform (CRT/LCD/OLED/eINK etc), visual performance (3D, color density, brightness) and touch interaction, but throughout all this there has been one assumption: that the screen will remain rectangular ad infinitum. As Samuel L Jackson said in the Long Kiss Goodnight “when you make an assumption you make and ass out of you and umption”, so perhaps we should keep our minds open to the potential for new geometries in the future. That said, perhaps even the notion of a screen is arcane. A host of research labs around the world are working on polymers which use chlorophyl or synthetic squid inks to allow three dimensional shapes to act as topographic display surfaces. Finally the line between product and screen might actually vanish. That would be fun.


As you may know, I spent much of last week in Detroit for an Near Future Lab event. There’ll be much more coverage here and elsewhere in the coming weeks as we finish up the ‘thing’ we produced, so stay tuned, as they say. Not having been to Detroit before I arrived with preconceptions, namely that it’s an old motor town with serious monetary issues, on the brink of apocalypse. The rational part of my brain overwrote those preconceptions a while back, as news media has a tendency to dwell on the worst aspects of the world, so I guess I was expecting to be pleasantly surprised.

Downtown Detroit is actually rather nice. There are nice bars and restaurants, a futuristic monorail and two fantastic looking stadiums. Theres a nice farmers market area too, with artisan breads and coffee, it’s all rather pleasant. That said, the overwhelming experience of Detroit was not good. Travel a half mile in any direction from the glossy downtown hub and you’ll see a whole new side to the city – the side you were probably expecting from countless ruin porn excursions. The streets are full of people milling about, exhibiting what Julian calls the Detroit Limp. The sidewalks are littered with garbage and graffiti, nature sprouts up through every crack. Long rows of property are boarded up, burned out, falling down or derelict. The famous 16 storey station near the centre of town lies abandoned, surrounded by razor wire. The extent of this apocalyptic landscape is what’s baffling. My home town of Derby in the UK has it’s fair share of boarded up properties, but it’s usually two or three in a row, Detroit’s blight seems to stretch in all directions, for miles.

We had a helpful driver whilst staying in Detroit, who had lived in the city for 27 years. He had some stories to tell, which I captured surreptitiously for the short movie above. I wouldn’t recommend a trip, but if you’re in the neighborhood, you really should see what parts of America look like in the 21st century.

Design Fiction Crest

In a few weeks I’ll be heading to Detroit. I’ve been helping Julian and others prepare a fun little event called ‘To Be Designed’. There’ll be coverage here and at the Near Future Laboratory blog in the coming weeks, but in preparation we’ve been putting together a few bits and bobs to help give the event a little structure. As a part of this, I’ve created the Design Fiction heraldic crest shown above. Why a heraldic crest? Well it represents the activities and tenets of a family, and that seemed appropriate.

Incidentally, this exercise proved Adobe Illustrator to be entirely unsuitable for this sort of work.