States of Design 03: Thinkering

Some thoughts on the links between DIY and open source: how thinkering makes contemporary design efficient, elegant and environmentally responsible.

This article was published in Domus 948, June 2011

In 2007, John Seely Brown—until August 2002 the chief scientist at Xerox for almost twenty years and until 2000 director of the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC)—introduced the concept of Thinkering in speeches and articles. In a slide in his "Learning 2.0: the Big Picture" presentation , the move from thinking to thinkering is made to coincide with "interacting with a web of knowledge, tools, and distributed communities of practice." It is, of course, brought to life by the act of tinkering productively, experimenting, testing, retesting and adjusting, and all the while enjoying it with many like-minded spirits and engaging with the world in an open, constructive collaboration with colleagues and other specialists. In other words, in open-source mode.

Thinkering is the warm embrace that allows us to connect throughout history momentous examples of singular creativity achieved by means of collective refinements. Unlike contemporary hacking culture, it does not always lead to romantically rough and niche outcomes. Quite the opposite, when it is left to mature for a long time, it can lead to some of the most lyrical and universal amongst human assets. Like pasta, for instance. Cooking is reported in the crowdsourced op-ed in this issue of Domus as being one of the most ancient forms of open-source working models, and the various types of pasta, made perfect by material culture and generations of cooks over centuries, are among the open-source movement's most unlikely and yet most effective testimonies. So fitting, indeed, is the paradigm that it has resisted all individual, stylistic, and arbitrary intervention, as demonstrated by the several unfortunate attempts made by renowned designers/ famous egos like Philippe Starck, Giorgetto Giugiaro and Luigi Colani. They all failed and miserably. Pasta and open-source are the antithesis of griffe. What you make with them, on the other hand, is all up to you and to your personal talent, so long as you give back to the community that helped you get where you are—lest you get exiled to styleland.
Bob Lash in 1975 at
Homebrew Computer Club,
the kingdom of computer
hobbyists.
Bob Lash in 1975 at Homebrew Computer Club, the kingdom of computer hobbyists.
If pasta is a good departure point, the enthusiasm surrounding the idea of open source today requires us to dive into a world of ancient rites and neologisms, and to examine and test some of the connections. Is the link between open source and 3D printing really so direct? Do crowdsourcing, hacking, workshop, DIY, open-source and traditional DIY really go together, or have they been bundled by writers and critics dreaming to be able to portray a world of collective genius and ethical accountability? Is there any difference between Martha Stewart and Bre Pettis?
Martino Gamper,
100 chairs in 100 Days.
Martino Gamper, 100 chairs in 100 Days.
When it comes to the commentary on contemporary open-source culture, articles tend to be very doxological—I will never forget this "big" adjective because I was once accused of this sin by a reader of a piece I had written about, indeed, 3D-printing; it means being laudatory and annoyingly certain without being critical. Is thinkering the opposite of individual expression? Not really. Hackers and engineers can be very vain and even though thinkering and open source have always gone together, they can definitely accommodate solitary pursuit.

The open-source phenomenon, which has its roots in the world of computer software, has now embraced the whole spectrum of human production, from music to movies, scientific papers, robots, cars and the building and occupation of real and virtual worlds at all scales, from architecture and the design objects to visualization and nanodesign. Historically, as a strategy to improve source software by making it legible and available to members of user groups, open source harks back to the 1950s and to IBM's SHARE group. The term "open source" was coined by Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute, at a meeting with Eric Raymond, Larry Augustin and a few others in Silicon Valley in 1998 and canonised a few weeks later at the O'Reilly Freeware Summit, where people proposed names, voted and agreed to abide by the results.
The open-source phenomenon has its roots in the world of computer software, but now embraces the whole spectrum of human production.
Natural Fuse, design by
Haque Design + Research Ltd.
This micro-scale CO2
monitoring & overloadprotection
framework
harnesses the carbon-sinking
capabilities of plants.
Natural Fuse, design by Haque Design + Research Ltd. This micro-scale CO2 monitoring & overloadprotection framework harnesses the carbon-sinking capabilities of plants.
In the production of objects (and more recently, thanks to a parametric approach, also in the production of architecture), the concept of open source has been walking hand in hand with the progress of 3D printing and rapid manufacturing (RM) techniques. By transmitting data directly from a computer file to the manufacturing machine, RM allows for countless modifications of the original design and thus for a good dose of thinkering. When it was introduced in the 1980s, however, 3D printing only produced friable sculpted foam models—not truly manufacturing anything but rather giving volume to ideas, whether life-size or in scale—and was quite expensive. The materials employed got progressively better, more structural and "finished."

At MoMA, we began collecting 3D-printed objects in 2003, right at the time when they could begin being called products, and not just models, and in 2006 we organised a collection exhibition entitled Digitally Mastered . On that occasion, I outlined my multipronged RM dream, which listed a whole menu of positive consequences should mankind decide to invest in RM.
The Guatemalan NGO Maya
Pedal accepts bikes donated
from the USA and Canada,
using the components to build
a vast range of ‘bicimaquinas’,
(pedal powered machines).
The Guatemalan NGO Maya Pedal accepts bikes donated from the USA and Canada, using the components to build a vast range of ‘bicimaquinas’, (pedal powered machines).
"The difference between prototype and mass production will become moot, as every object will be at the same time a prototype and an element of a diversified series. Some designers will choose to retain their traditional role and delete the original file after a few prints or keep control over most of the variables, but others will instead graduate to a new position as design tutors. They will be working not on single objects but instead on whole families of objects and on design systems. Manufacturers will host forums in which they will communicate with and learn from their customers, perhaps even redrawing their business plans based on such exchanges. Some might invest in chains of RM stores where customers' orders are printed on demand, thus eliminating the need for trucking and warehousing. This approach would eliminate the waste of resources and space, but unfortunately also eliminate end-of-season sales." [1]

Founded in 1997, Elephant
Design has adopted the
collaborative design-toorder
framework (DTODesign
to Order). Via the
cuusoo.com website, more
than 1000 supporters voted
for the Japanese submarine
LEGO® Shinkai 6500.
Founded in 1997, Elephant Design has adopted the collaborative design-toorder framework (DTODesign to Order). Via the cuusoo.com website, more than 1000 supporters voted for the Japanese submarine LEGO® Shinkai 6500.
All wonderful ideas, but this type of future needed dedication and investment. Desktop 3D printers already existed, and so did MIT Fab Labs, which since 2001 provided digital manufacturing machines to underserved communities around the world, from northern Norway to Ghana and rural India. The technology, however, did not attract a wide audience and consistent attention until the new hacker culture set in, a time that many bring to coincide with the creation of O'Reilly's Make magazine, the first issue of which was January 2005. Make, its irresistible Maker Faires and hackers adopted 3D printing and brought it into the universe of open source. Compared to the stunning simplicity and influence of the two stars of the open-source revolution—Processing, the universal-donor programming language written by Ben Fry and Casey Reas in 2001, and Arduino, the magical board that sits at the very foundation of the contemporary physical open-source universe brought to us in 2005 by Massimo Banzi and David Cuartielles—the celebrated Thing-O-Matic by Brooklyn-based Makerbot Industries does not seem as revolutionary. It is not a new idea—except for the fact that it is open source and infinitely hackable—and its applications are still immature, almost infantile—the initial model was called Cupcake because it could produce a cute cupcake. However, the passion and interest it has called upon itself, upon 3D printing and upon the open-source movement should not be understated.

In some circles, the word "hacker" still elicits unease and fear of the unknown. Yet, like reverse Gremlins, they have gone from hacking Furbies to producing open-source software and hardware to enable a paralysed graffiti artist—and in the future, hundreds of others in similar conditions—to express himself and even laser-tag buildings using only his eyes. The celebrated EyeWriter Initiative, by Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, TEMPT1, and Theo Watson, is an example of how far hacking has come. Without sacrificing their guerrilla tattoos, hackers' ideas of a better future for mankind seem more aligned with those of the majority, even those of a militant pioneer like Natalie Jeremijenko, whose Feral Robotic Dogs, to name just one of her many projects, stand as a paradigm for all hackers.
MakerBrot CupCake opensource
3D printer kit “your
own little factory!”
MakerBrot CupCake opensource 3D printer kit “your own little factory!”
Not all thinkering and hacking are digital, of course. The most ancient forms of DIY design, and consequent hacking thereof, are in fact connected to the design of the home and to furniture. To stay close to our times, we can think of Enzo Mari's modest yet big and political Autoprogettazione project, his pre-IKEA (at least in Italy) kit-based approach to furniture manufacturing which has recently had a much-deserved resurgence. With equally intense political slant, Jerszy Seymour uses the two magical words "amateur" and "workshop" in a project that he pioneered in Luxembourg at MUDAM in 2009. At the museum, he presented visitors with pieces of wood and a special polycaprolactone wax—kept fluid inside volcano-shaped vessels in a warm bain-marie—that in his mind has symbolic properties of embodying both people's creativity and power. His utopia is about "the fulfillment of production in the hands of the people," the purest expression of crowdsourcing faith. Another type of sourcing is the one practised by Martino Gamper in his 100 chairs in 100 days, a project from 2006 that is an example of deep-thinkering charrette. After picking materials out of the rubbish over the span of two years, Gamper produced a chair a day for 100 days, in compositions whose apparent expediency made the depth of the formal and structural research even sweeter. Three different approaches to thinkering and open source that can stand in for many workshops in studios, museums and schools all over the world willing to teach the most contemporary, empowering, economical, elegant and environmentally responsible DIY way to contemporary design.
EyeWriter is a low-cost,
open-source eye-tracking
system that will allow graffiti
writers and artists with
paralysis to draw using only
their eyes. The development
team consists of members
of Free Art and Technology
(FAT), OpenFrameworks
and the Graffiti Resarch
Lab: Tempt1, Evan Roth,
Chris Sugrue, Zach
Lieberman,Theo Watson
and James Powderly.
EyeWriter is a low-cost, open-source eye-tracking system that will allow graffiti writers and artists with paralysis to draw using only their eyes. The development team consists of members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Resarch Lab: Tempt1, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Zach Lieberman,Theo Watson and James Powderly.
After all, this approach is nothing new in regions that have not known abundance for several decades, like most of Africa rural India, many places in Asia, some parts of Latin America and many others. Hacking comes natural to those who need to recycle, reuse, repurpose and optimise in order to survive, and it has inspired designers like Fernando and Humberto Campana, whose São Paulo Street Smarts have informed not only the high-brow products that they now sell in "furniture jewelry stores" across the globe, but also the generous and exciting workshops that they still offer to students in many parts of the world. This deep wisdom and ancient habit with the crowdsourced material culture is what makes the Guatemalan pedal-powered machine company Maya Pedal so irresistible, and the reason why the one Maker Faire I really wish to attend is the one in Africa. The first one happened in 2009 in Accra, Ghana. I cannot imagine anything that should be more of a required visit for the lovely snobs that populate the ikeahackers.net site (yes, they "hack" IKEA products and brag about it...) than this.
Jerszy Seymour Design
Workshop, Workshop Chair
2009.
Jerszy Seymour Design Workshop, Workshop Chair 2009.
Ever since the first attempts to formalise crowd-sourcing in design and production—chief among all Elephant Design, founded in Tokyo by Kohei Nishiyama in 1997, whose first "consumer-participated product" was a cellular phone cover launched in 1998—open-source design has evolved in a fascinating, non-linear way, toying with different degrees of aesthetic and ethical involvement. On the one hand, companies like Elephant and .MGX , the division of the Belgian company Materialize that first popularised 3D printing as a bona-fide way to achieve high-end design, have marched along the lines of traditional design, treating the new strategies as new tools to produce design that strived to compete with the masterpieces of the past by creating a new formal language. On the other hand, Fab Labs and other engineering- and science-driven experiments have generated a laissez-faire aesthetic which, coupled with a highly publicised ethical stance that at times verges on sanctimony, risks in the long run giving the open source movement a dour name, a trajectory similar to that of the green movement. The instances in which a true open source and thinkering spirit are marked by an attention to personality, function, meaning and formal quality as an enhancement of them all are the ones that make us long for the future of the design profession. There are already many great examples and as design literacy becomes more widespread and considered a necessary ingredient of visual education there will be even more.
Enzo Mari, model
1123XD of his Proposta per
un’autoprogettazione, 1973
(the catalogue is currently
published by Edizioni
Corraini).
Enzo Mari, model 1123XD of his Proposta per un’autoprogettazione, 1973 (the catalogue is currently published by Edizioni Corraini).
We know it will only get better but in the meantime the open source/DIY/hacking wave has already achieved a major success, that of cementing the centrality of the common good. The process begins with a community, a group whose homogeneity is no longer described by historical definers of age, gender, race, class, region or religion but rather by a shared interest or passion and ends in another, only to begin again through the way the product is used, adapted, disposed of and maybe even celebrated in its afterlife. In the past, reaching the "consumer" with a finished product meant reaching the terminus of the design process. But that was the time, to paraphrase Ilse Crawford, who mentioned this idea during the My Way symposium organised by the Design Academy Eindhoven in Milan (3/4/2011), when we, designers, used to design for them, consumers. Those rancid old times have gone. We now design for us, people with people for people.
Paola Antonelli, architect and critic

NOTES
[1] Design and the elastic mind, MoMA—Thames & Hudson, New York—London 2008, (p. 185).

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram