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Why design cannot remain exclusive

The recent political struggles between Hollywood and networked culture underscore a profoundly disruptive fact:  exclusive ownership rights are no longer as valuable as they once were.  What really matters is the flow.  Increasingly, knowledge and other intangible things are more valuable when they can circulate -- when they can be freely copied, shared and modified via open platforms.

Finally, we have a big, meaty book that takes on this issue. Open Design Now:  Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive offers lots of specific stories and penetrating analysis by leading practitioners of “open creativity.”  The book will make heads explode in certain executive suites around the world, but it will also inspire talented artists and amateurs to enter the exciting world of co-creation and social design. The stories show that online collaboration is not just for software; it’s a larger, more powerful force that now designs and builds cars, mobile phones, furniture, images, computer hardware, and much, much else.

Open Design Now was produced by three Dutch organizations – Creative Commons Netherlands; Premsela, “the Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion”; and the Waag Society, a foundation that “develops creative technology for social innovation.”  Not surprisingly, the book has a bold, sleek, attractive design for its 18 essays, 21 brief case studies, and a “visual index” showing dozens of innovative trends in design.  

As an American stuck in a ultra-commercial cultural echo chamber dominated by Hollywood, Top 40 music and corporate philistines, reading this book was like falling into a fizzy gin and tonic.  Ahh!  Yet the book is not just a diverting kick -- it’s intensely serious and informative.  It probes the history and philosophy of modern corporate design while providing scores of examples of crowd-sourced design processes. 

For example, several fellows from Amsterdam created an “Instructables Restaurant,” the world’s first open-source restaurant in which everything on the premises – chairs, table, and even the food – is designed and shared by members of the the Instructables website -- a place where DIYers go to “share what you make.”  

Another project describes “intercontinental collaboration on prosthetic design,” a project that is drawing upon collaborative design to produce a $50 below-knee prosthesis because most people in Indonesia could never afford the $4,000 that it would cost in the Western world.  Yet another project, Thingiverse, is dedicated to the free sharing of digital designs for producing physical objects, through 3D printers, for example.

Two of the leading forces in open design these days are the Open Source Hardware and Design Alliance, which applies the “four freedoms” of free software to physical design and manufacturing, and Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform that lets artists, designers and hobbyists build their own custom printed-circuit boards for microprocessing at extremely affordable costs.

Besides profiles of such projects, Open Design Now features a wide range of essays that explore its workings and its political, cultural and economic ramifications. 

If an infrastructure is going to be generative, writes Michel Avital, an Amsterdam professor of information management, then it must address openness in four aspects – “objects, process, practice and infrastructure.”  He proceeds to analyze the “layers of open design” at each of these levels and the implications for people’s ability to collaborate, modify and improve products. Avital continues: 

“Open design infuses ‘Do It Yourself’ with a whole new meaning that goes far beyond cost savings or the joy of crafting.  It allows consumers to be in charge and offers them an opportunity for the full customization of an artifact, including a choice of features, materials and delivery options.  It allows for continuous innovation and localization, which in turn has major implications for consumers in shoestring economies as well as in developed countries.  It provides a fertile ground for the development of new forms of organization, new business models, [and] new supply chain structures….”

Joris Laarman, a Dutch designer, describes open design as "a new economic model that distributes power among creative professionals and local manufacturers, rather than concentrating it in centralized industrial brands.”  Laarman believes that “true modernists wanted open source design one hundred years ago, but back then it wasn’t possible….because there were no networks of skilled artisans.”

“These days, we can distribute knowledge in a way that can potentially bring craftspeople back to the centre stage of design – not in an idealistic, naively romantic way, but in an economically sound way.  All we need are the networks, and cheaper and more accessible digital manufacturing technology.”  Modernist designers wanted to democratize design, he writes, “but somewhere along the line it became nothing more than an aesthetic.”

It goes without saying that Open Design Now is available online, for free, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license 3.0.  Amsterdam-based BIS Publisher (or its editors) came up with an ingenious way to sell the book as a product and yet still make it available for free.  After the book's release on June 2, 2011, one article, one case and one page from the visual index are released every 25 days and posted on the website.  At this pace, the entire book will be freely available on the Web by December 12, 2012. 

So the publisher essentially gave itself an 18-month window to recoup its costs and earn a profit before the contents (but not the hard copies) become free.  Here’s the counterintuitive thing:  sales of the physical copies of the book will probably continue apace, if not with greater speed, because of the free exposure on the Internet. As of today, the book is 44.8 percent open.

Engrossing, provocative, refreshingly novel:  these are the kinds of words that spring to mind when reading Open Design Now.  One of the book’s essayists, John Thackara, the first director of the Netherlands Design Institute, gets it right:  “Openness is more than a commercial and cultural issue. It’s a matter of survival.  Open design is one of the preconditions for the continuous, collaborative, social modes of enquiry and action that are needed.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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