Looking at Platform Design

“The world is not ready for mass customization on a grand scale. Presented with the choice of ‘anything’, most people will be overwhelmed and simple draw a blank. To both educate and react to this reality, platform design give a basic starting point, a first step in moving to a mass customized world.”

These are the words of Ken Oiling of Norwegian design house MELD. We reported on MELD last month as they announced their first product, a chair, launching this September at London Design Week. But as with any addition to the already swollen ranks of design methodologies, it is worth asking what Platform design actually means.

Oiling goes into some detail on the philosophy behind Platform design, billing it as a precursor to mass customisation proper. It will be interesting to see how this is actually translated into reality, but until then MELD give their three step process as follows:

1. Design a product for customization by both designers and users, allowing for maximum flexibility. The system must include manufacturing and logistics specifications, addressing sustainability and performance specifications.

2. Take this design/system and give it to other creatives to play and build with. Allow them to push the boundaries of the system and express themselves to their fullest. We believe this in turn will inspire the general population to use the system for their own visions.

3. Finally and most importantly; allow the final customization (regardless of designer) to be done by the buyer of the product. Allow them to decide the final expression or function of the product.

So it seems, the idea is that the originator does some initial design, passes it on to other designers to remix, using the technical skills and resources that they have on tap, before the product is customised by the end user. Its a good model for the current climate, where design tools are on the way to democratisation, but not pervasive enough to be used by every end user. So why not pass the design around those that you know can do something with it, before opening it up to the world, which might not know quite what to do with it!

A Platform

image from meld.com

Great, As long as these tasty looking chairs don’t just get snapped up by a whole lot of other collector/designers before they get a chance to thrive in the wider community – it also remains to be seen how the end user will be facilitated to “decide the final expression or function of the product” – Choice of paint schemes? Blank canvas? Cutting templates?

For more, Platformdesign.org is a website that Ken also contributes to that covers the Platform design and its practitioners in more detail. They have a well written article relating platform design to service design, which carries this choice nugget from 1960s philosopher, Marshal Mcluhan:

“As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of  ‘do it yourself’.”

The parallels between the Platform method and service design are clear – it can really be seen as a contemporary way of relating industrial design with the values of user-centred service design. This is surely a good thing as for one, it gives new life to the activity of industrial design in service-centred economies, and secondly, it could hopefully help to repair the threatening gap between service design and industrial design.
Via Padraig.

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Very cool. I like their ’10 commandments of platform design” here: http://platformdesign.org/10-commandments-of-platform-design/

Here’s another way to look at it:
1) Designers – create designs to share and sell.
2) Makers – customize and buy these designs from designers, select materials and make goods for personal use, to give as gifts, or to sell.
3) Sellers – customize and sell these goods from makers, with a free storefront and no inventory cost.
4) Buyers – shop for these designer crafted goods from sellers.

In this way, if you want to customize you are not classed as a classical buyer, but rather a designer, maker or seller. Just another view on the blurring of the boundaries between consumers and producers.

I’m interested in your thoughts?

Yes. I think it helps to classify types of users/stakeholders in this way, as its clear that in the case of open hardware, there are more levels to involvement than there tend to be in open software (might be wrong, have never helped develop any software), due to physical modification being more easily accessible I guess. But the last thing one wants to do when trying to build a development community is make it too complicated and potential discourage participants, so I guess the trick is to think in terms of categorisation, but not necessarily make it obvious to the consumer/developer.

So, maybe products should have an onion skin-like support werbsite, where you begin at a buyer level and peel off layers of customisation, all the while getting deeper and deeper into the product source.

Hi Roy,
Thanks for the post on Platform Design. It’s great to see people are in tune with this idea. To a large part it stemmed from experiences I’ve had in the US. Coming to LA with friends from Norway and the Germany and being confronted with the “anything you want” option at restaurants confounded all of them. I was born and raised in LA so this was the norm for me.

Anything does not necessarily mean freedom, it can also mean a daunting and intimidating barrier, so I wanted to develop something that reduces this barrier while still holding mass customization near and dear.

In the end I do believe everyone will be designing their own ?????. But to get there we all need a bit of help, guidance and most importantly inspiration.

Currently the Chair is in the development/production phase but I can tell you that every designer; graphic, product, artist, illustrator. All have been very enthusiastic about making a chair, this is a sign to me that it the right balance of freedom and convenience.

Thanks again.

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