Mind & Matter


Disruptive Processes and the Production of Design

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Production network diagram from Ponoko.


“The problem is that this great form of collaboration between design firms and the social sector is still not affordable and thus, not yet routine. Noted innovation expert Clayton Christensen says that disruptive innovation—the kind that makes the biggest impact and goes on to reshape industries and markets—democratizes scarce expertise. It makes something that was once rare and costly, routine and affordable.”—Design for Social Impact, July 2008
Although designers are typically prepared with the tools to engage in design conceptualization, the production of design remains fraught with challenges and shrouded in mystery. Despite the benefits of mass production imparted by the industrial revolution, design production has followed a scarcity model—requiring large sums of money or influence for the successful realization and distribution of a new product. However, the intersection of nascent digital-fabrication processes with socially-networked distribution channels promises to alter the very way in which design is conceived and produced.

The term “disruptive technology” was coined by Clayton Christensen in 1995, and refers to products that gain a strong foothold against incumbent products because they offer significant performance enhancements at competitive cost. Given the strong influence of new digital fabrication technologies, we might expand upon this notion of disruptive products to refer to methods—let’s call them “disruptive processes.” These practices could similarly leapfrog traditional manufacturing and distribution techniques, as we already see occurring with increasingly popular, low-cost “digifab” tools.

Laser-cutting, 3D printing, CNC routing, and other computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) technologies have been warmly embraced by the design professions, extending the power and accuracy of design software tools into the material domain. Not only have these systems become more affordable over time, but they have also become an accepted part of the designer’s extended toolkit. These processes not only bring complex geometries within reach—they also save time and money compared with hand-tooling techniques.

Perhaps the most interesting “disruption” brought about by these technologies is the way in which they upend the traditional mass production model of product manufacturing and distribution. Rather than invest heavily in expensive setup costs involving dies and jigs (not to mention large-volume material procurement and storage), today’s designer may now produce small quantities of products more independently and at relatively low cost. Modeled after the increasingly popular do-it-yourself and self-publishing services, “Make it yourself” sites have become powerful allies to emerging designers.

One such site is www.ponoko.com, the self-labeled “world’s easiest making system.” Ponoko is a digital portal for designers, digital fabricators, material suppliers, and consumers to share 2D and 3D products made from a variety of materials. Designers can upload their creations in the form of laser-cut templates that are priced, processed, and shipped. Not only can this service facilitate prototyping and testing, but it can also serve as a commercial vehicle for designers who wish to sell their works online.

Another notable site is www.cuusoo.com, a Japanese company (“dream life” in English) founded by industrial designer and businessman Kohei Nishiyama that provides a bridge between budding designers and large manufacturers. Users upload designs that are seen and voted upon by a growing designer and consumer-based community. Designs that receive enough votes move to a second round in which manufacturers begin evaluating the products’ economic viability. The works determined by this online network to be the most promising are ultimately picked up by large retail chains eager to sell popular new products—meanwhile avoiding the hefty investments required by conventional product development and market research methods.

Although it is still early to make a comprehensive assessment of these services, the change is already palpable. A broadening spectrum of creative artists, craftspeople, industrial designers, and consumers are participating in a compelling new form of production that may ultimately transform established methods of product conception and realization.



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.