We Don’t Do Retro: Matt Sinclair Interview Pt. 3

The Final Installment of interview with Industrial Designer Matt Sinclair of We Don’t Do Retro
Do you see the role of the industrial designer fundamentally changing or do you believe it will only be in niche markets where mass customisation processes will need to be incorporated into design practice?

It’s always tempting when imagining the future to think that new technologies will kill off old ways of doing things. But that’s rarely true, and even where it is it takes a long time. There are still a lot of people writing letters, despite e-mail and text messaging. TV didn’t kill radio (and the internet has made it stronger), and industrial farming didn’t kill off organic farming, either in the rich first world or the poor third world. So I would be reluctant to say that all industrial design practice will fundamentally change. But having said that, the job of some designers will be very different to their job today. Some will be niche, designing only for small specialised markets. Some will be designing the platforms that allow consumers to design their own products, deciding which elements of a product can be changed and which are fixed. And some people will practice industrial design even though they may not be trained and it may not be their full time job. Mass production will be around for a long time though, particularly for “low value” items such as packaging, and those objects will likely be designed in a similar way as today.

Do you believe that the future of mass customisation for the consumer market will be primarily to modify/develop product use/function or aesthetics/form?

That’s a really difficult one, and I’m not sure I know the answer. In many ways it’s easier to change the way a physical product looks than the way it functions, because you can visualise a product’s appearance on a computer screen, but you need to use it before you know if the function has improved or deteriorated. Then again there’s a lot of research which suggests consumers place much more value in a product which works exactly as they want, rather than one which looks the way they like. So I could imagine groups or forums or wikis springing up, dedicated to finding the best way to improve a product’s function, posting findings and results and tips for “noobs”, with different solutions solving different needs. But improving function is more likely to be a group undertaking I think, rather than one which individual consumers carry out.

So in the same way that only a minority are actually involved in the coding of Firefox, compared to those who download it (and change its appearance), maybe only a minority actually work on improving the function of a product compared to those who download the CAD file, change the way it looks and print it out. In that sense there might be much more customisation of appearance, but the value that is appeciated the most is in the improved functionality.

Without giving away any IP or compromising your research, what do you see as the future of consumer driven design?

I guess, unhelpfully ;-), I would say there isn’t just one future but a number of different ones. One will be the idea of the corporation or brand encouraging users to design on top of its platform – the NikeID model; another is where consumers run riot doing whatever they can get away with – the MySpace model; and yet another is where consumers collaborate and share skills – the Wikipedia crowd sourcing model. I don’t know which of these will survive or if an entirely new way of working will emerge. I’d say Ponoko is closest to the MySpace approach, and I’d say this is a good thing though others may disagree! Probably my broad statement would be that when you put the means of production in the hands of consumers, they do things which traditional manufacturers cannot even dream of.

matt sinclair

Thanks again to Matt, check out his site We Don’t Do Retro for more in-depth discussion around mass customization

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