"I want all of my fucking design to be love notes."
When we buy consumer products we buy into the myth that we are getting something deeply personal, because they happen to suit our individual needs, desires, tastes, objectives, fetishes, and lifestyles. Deep down, though, we know that countless others possess the exact same objects. But with variable production methods, the extraordinary can happen. More “designed product” has been delivered in the twentieth century than in any other era in history, at a seemingly lower cost than ever before. But actually, we’ve paid for it exorbitantly: just as individual workers have been subsumed by the relentless tedium of the assembly line, mechanization and its attendant serialization have wiped out the idiosyncrasies expressive of artful individuality. As the century draws to a close, however, manufacturing is on the cusp of a new era. Thanks to sophisticated computer technologies, smart materials, and innovative fabrication techniques, it is now possible to reengineer our approach to mass production, transcend the economics that have bankrupted much of what is designed, and develop goods that can be expressive and individual. Essential to this fundamental retooling is the commitment of designers to “civilize” production, to reconcile mechanization with humanity, and to embrace variance.
As Model T’s rolled off Ford’s assembly line, more than cars were being mass-produced - consumers were being minted at the same pace. And as they drove away in their new vehicles, technology became the engine driving civilization with progress its destination. Everyone - it was hoped - would ultimately arrive at the rewards of speed, comfort, and efficiency.
With salvation seen in terms of commodities, people came to be defined by their membership in markets, and the voracious reciprocity of production and consumption was set in motion. Cued by experts in marketing, we have come to invest the goods we purchase with almost mythic capabilities; we’re convinced that the things we surround ourselves with will not only function and make our lives easier or more satisfying but that they will help define our very identities. Ironically, most manufactured goods are standardized, with legions of replications owned by thousands, sometimes millions of us. Instead of individuality, the confer conformity.
The standardization of mass production precludes subtlety and distinction. Whether it’s the generic imprecision of “one size fits all” or Henry Dreyfuss’s measurements of “human scale” percentiles, what is lacking is responsiveness to the individual. No two of us are alike. And in a democratic society, we are free to indulge our ethos, our pathos, our likes and dislikes. By nature, our evanescent imaginations thirst for constantly changing stimuli. Drawn into the realm of discovery, we seek out alternatives and search for new possibilities. Though we know this intuitively, those who produce the innumerable goods that help establish the context of our lives offer a poverty of options, because what is available to us is dictated by the fashion of the moment and the need for business to make a profit. Fashion, while it changes constantly, encourages conformity and assures continued spending. Business, governed by profit, controls the availability of goods such that only those with mass appeal are marketed. Tooled as they are by the common denominator of maximum profitability at minimum cost and a homogenized vision of appeal, the commodities that comprise our modern material landscape are aesthetically impoverished.
But by developing systems and manufacturing methods that produce nonserialized objects, or by marrying up-to-date technology with requirements specific to each user, a designer can create products that are unique or that change over time, personalized by the individual. This is variance.
When goods were produced only by hand, each piece could be custom fit and bore the impress of human intent, incident, and error. Until recently, because it has been far too expensive to have our goods produced in such a way, consumers have had to be content with what is available at the mall or through the mail order catalogue. But this is changing. A new kind of precision is being made possible by state-of-the-art technologies, promising to empower designers. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the aesthetic concerns of the designer, the particular needs of the user, and the economic dictates of business are converging. This confluence of disparate requirements has the potential to restore industrial design to an empathetic and integral position in relation to the user. It also presents new realms of profitability for business.
Seeking new sources of revenue, business is realizing the untapped potential of niche markets. The old monolithic marketplace is slowly being dissected as marketers identify smaller, rapidly evolving “tribes” with constantly shifting demographics. This fine-tuning of responsiveness is beginning to foster entirely new expectations and desires. While seducing consumers to buy mass-produced goods continues to be the goal of advertising, the business community is increasingly aware of the fact that taking cues from consumers and supplying them with products tailored to their unique needs may be a good (and profitable) thing.