How things have changed

This was a comment piece I contributed to New Design magazine to balance a feature written about the 3D Printing media hype in their September/October print magazine. My thanks to Alistair Welch for agreeing to publish my opinions!

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We are in the midst of a bona fide revolution. A cataclysmic shift from the days of old to the new, shiny future of instamatic, on the spot, click of a button design. The future is here. The future is now.

Hang on. Wait a minute.

Unless you are privileged enough to have been stranded on a desert island, you won’t have failed to notice the endless torrent of ‘step change’ technology announced daily to both professionals and consumers alike, heralding a new horizon in product development and ‘idea enabling’ tools. From ‘affordable’ desktop 3D printers to 3D scanning apps for your iPhone, the omnipresent Cloud to the crowdfunding populous waiting to help you launch your fag-packet pipe-dream to grand acclaim, the twittersphere is riddled daily – nay hourly – with new launches, press releases and visions of creative immediacy. We are assured of great strides in untouchable markets with these magic technologies, simply waiting for us to embrace them and bring the previously unknown skills of the designer to the masses.

But here’s the rub. Whilst I understand that such technologies take time to settle, to filter down in an affordable way to the everyday professional practitioner, I have been struck by how little things have actually changed. Yes, there have been a glut in smaller design houses buying in affordable 3D printers, but they are there to bolster the design process and bring in-house what would typically have been sub’d out – a cost saving predominantly and a little bit of additional USP to dangle in front of potential clients no doubt. For sure, there has been a natural evolution of modern design practice as software has improved, simplified and become more affordable, but no more so than has been the case in the past. Tools have always evolved, software has always been re-written to be made more user friendly, more powerful and less complex, and designers have inevitably utilised these improvements to either speed up the process or include more iterations to ultimately eliminate risk. I guess you could cite recent moves by Adobe to move their products to the Cloud as a good example of evolution.

If I think about the work we do now, versus the work we did 5 years ago, I can see a demonstrable improvement in visual output, a marginal reduction in the cost of early stage prototyping, and an increased efficiency in the design process due to faster processing and software usability. But it is incremental. The way we design a product or approach a brief is no less rigorous and no more magical than it was. The power of design is in the thinking. The application of creative thought to an unsolved or tricky problem by a human being. We may well be able to ‘print’ more things for less money and make things look ever more realistic, but to coin an oft used phrase, if the idea isn’t worthy, it’s simply ‘turd polishing’.

I think the biggest obstacles we’ve faced in the recent delivery of product design to clients nowadays, are the ‘instant experts’ and their new vocabulary. If I had a penny for every new client or management upstart telling me how I should “get that 3D printed” or “kickstart it” I could feed my children like royalty. The prevalence of these new technologies hasn’t really revolutionised the fundamental delivery of design, but has emboldened the new generation of ‘kiss me quick’ entrepreneurs to cheapen and devalue the design process as something they can do at home. It used to be the case that our first meeting with a client would sometimes be to slowly introduce them to the benefits of design, the process, the expectant output and the cost. Now, we often have to untangle the proverbial lawnmower cable of misunderstanding before we even get the chance to talk about the process at hand. I’ve had many a conversation with clients about the fact that professionally accessible 3D Printing has in fact existed for 20+ years in a variety of forms and no, it can’t be used to print that scrawl you’ve just presented to me on a Powerpoint slide.

So, what of these new fangled (or not quite so new fangled) tools? Do they have a place in the life of a professional designer? Of course they do. The dust will settle and the good stuff will float to the surface. Pragmatism and affordability will reign, and coupled with the brilliance of the human brain in the form of ‘good ideas’, it will empower ever more capable users and practitioners to invent, create and develop ideas to a level where they may be considered commercially relevant. It will allow ever more smaller teams of creative people to compete on the world stage, and for small ideas – if they are brilliant – to be procreated to the masses…as they should be. Accessibility + Brilliance if you will. Accessibility and affordability alone will not revolutionise anything – it will simply cheapen our profession and destroy the hard work done by many design leaders these past decades in educating people about the true value of design thinking. I’m not being protectionist about this. Indeed, I’m a fan of the open source design mentality. We just need to be careful that we simply don’t unleash these tools upon the foolhardy and uninitiated with wanton abandon under the auspices of ‘design at home’ or the rather ominous ‘maker culture’.

Design is still about good old fashioned brain power and the application of creative thought. How we manifest these thoughts may be changing and evolving, but for the time being, we see no reason to heavily invest in many of these technologies (although I may well be made to eat my words) and will continue to concentrate on good ideas and the most effective way to convey that to our clients as we see fit.

2 thoughts on “How things have changed

  1. As usual Russ, your ramblings are both inciteful and entertaining. I must say I agree. The revolution reminds me of what happened in graphic design earlier in my design life. There’s an old saying that ‘every bastard with a computer thinks they’re a designer’ and I fear this now applies to ID, at least in the minds of clients. Still, as you say, the magic occurs in the thinking, not the tools, so hopefully creatives will always have gold to offer to the process. Cheers from Byron. Nathan.

  2. Hey Nathan, good to hear from you, and thanks for the comment.

    I’ve been mulling over a blog post about Kickstarter and the ‘instant success’ culture we are inevitably propagating. That and the feeling that anyone thinks they can simply make a pop video, design some landfill tat and badge themselves an entrepreneur. I’d love to know how much money raised on Kickstarter has effectively been ‘wasted’ i.e. poured into projects that failed or didn’t deliver!

    Regards from wet and windy Blighty. Onwards and upwards!

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