Four years ago, while visiting the Brooklyn studio of Jason Miller, something about his set-up struck me as being peculiar and unique within a design office. He had reels of bubble wrap, an inventory of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes, and stacks of shipping labels from ups and FedEx; it was a full-blown shipping and receiving area.
Packaging materials hold so much potential, in their ability to transport something — anything — in a neatly wrapped parcel to someone else, and Jason was using them to ship his products directly to customers who had contacted him for orders.
Since then shopping baskets have started to appear on industrial designers' websites, and in great numbers. An online shop exists anywhere there is the Internet, electronic currency is the newest and most global coinage, and the infrastructure of couriers founded over the last century, UPS, FedEx and DHL, enables timely, reliable delivery. While some designers like Jasper Morrison and Sam Hecht have opened online shops selling products that were designed for brands, a younger generation of designers is foregoing the typical designer-producer relationship, and manufacturing and selling their own products via the Web.
The industrial design practice that emerged in the 20th century, and is still prominent today, was a business-to-business or designer-to-business service. The designer provided design to a manufacturer who dealt with production and sales. The form of design practice that is emerging now is a business-to-consumer or designer-to-consumer (D2C) model. Here, via online sales or relationships with traditional distributors, designers have become their own manufacturers, or created something analogous to the independent record label in the music industry. A look into the studios of some of the designers taking this approach — Very Good & Proper (VG&P, Rich Brilliant Willing (RBW), Object Design League Company (ODLCO) and Field — reveals that this model demands a whole new set of skills from the designer and largely reshapes the organisation of the design studio itself.
The D2C studios, more than the large manufacturers, tend to celebrate the production of their goods
The D2C design studio also shares aspects of pre-industrial production, where the designer and maker were often the same person, and the consumer (though they weren't called that back then) bought directly from the maker. Though the D2C model sells internationally, it relies on local factories, small and medium-sized outfits that are in many instances family owned. Lana Swartz, a researcher at the University of Southern California who studies money as a socio-technical practice, has called this "trans-local", where "you buy from someone else's local". This production approach has been welcomed by a wide body of consumers who have grown weary of large manufacturers with veiled factories and practices, and who instead support locally and transparently made products.
While the D2C model is new, and it demands a new set of skills from the designer, the products emerging from it remain somewhat conservative. Though some D2Cers have found inventive ways around constrained development budgets, the D2C products launched thus far assume many typological norms established by existing design brands. We have yet to see if the D2C model will venture into products that are as novel as the distribution model itself. After all, those packaging materials in the D2C studios have enormous potential. They could ship… anything. Jonathan Olivares, designer and writer