Un-Readymades: From Object to Experience. A study of mass customization from the perspective of industrial design

Interview with Martin Konrad Gloeckle, NYC, on consumer co-design and his series of „un-readymade“ designs, a great interpretation of the customization trend

Un-ready mades by Martin Konrad Gloeckle. Pictures courtesy of Mr. Gloeckle.When I saw these pictures, I was fascinated immediately … Martin Konrad Gloeckle, an Industrial Designer currently based in New York City, created some wonderful designs that are one of the best interpretations of the customization trend I ever saw. His designs are part of a study where he discusses the customization trend from the perspective of industrial design.

Born and raised in Germany, Martin relocated to the US in 1996, and recently finished his Master’s Degree in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in New York. Martin has additional degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration, and before returning to school had a successful career working for leading web and interactive advertising agencies both in Germany and the US. Martin’s design work has been featured in exhibitions, design blogs and magazines including New York Magazine, his award-winning Bendino lamp is currently produced and distributed in Europe.

Martin is the author of „Un-Readymades: From object to experience“ – a study of mass customization from the perspective of industrial design. In this work, Martin has analyzed how consumers are moving away from being passive consumers to actively influencing and shaping their world. Parallel to this, consumers are increasingly looking for improved experiences, involvement, and personal expression. In return, user-generated content or the Do-It-Yourself movement are booming.

But how should product design react on this? Martin finds that up to today, most designers have not reacted on this trend and still are just focusing on providing ready-made, fixed and stable products. He also finds that conventional mass customization systems still do not provide a full user experience or often require advanced knowledge or tools.

In his study, he explores the next levels in this field. Based on research and design explorations, it proposes a framework for product design that engages the user and allows for deeper experience and involvement. It provokes a rethinking of the products we use and interact with on a daily basis, and presents several designs based on this.

Martin Konrad GloeckleIn a recent interview, we spoke about his work and how he developed his design.

Martin, what is the key element of the design framework you propose to engage consumers deeper into experiences?

Well, the proposed framework actually has six major principles. However, these are based on two key points: A) Create design opportunities for the user, and B) Use a low-tech approach.

Let me start with the first point: What we can observe today in the online or two-dimensional world are increasingly active, involved, and creative consumers. This includes things like the so-called ‘user generated content’ of blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia and so on, as well as the whole field of desktop publishing, desktop video, desktop music etc. However, when it comes to the world of three-dimensional products, there is very little happening at this point. There are simply very limited opportunities available to the consumer.
The series of products I created tries to address this. Called ‘Un-readymades’ to express the involvement of the end-users, they provide consumers with opportunities to design, create, and express themselves.

Of course, there are other developments related to this trend. Things like the many online customization tools, the fabber and prototyping tools, and the increasingly available D.I.Y. services like Ponoko or Buglags to name a few. These however generally are very technology driven. And this is where the second point comes in. Technology has opened many areas to the average consumer. But at the same time there still often is the need for certain knowledge and tools, be it of hard- or software. Therefore, this is not accessible to everyone. In addition, the user is physically removed from these products during the design process. Rarely is there any direct interaction between the product and consumer. By using a rather low-tech approach, I am trying to address some of these issues.

Browsing over your web site, I was fascinated by the originality of your designs that incorporate your ideas. Can you illustrate your framework with one of your own designs?

Drawn vase by MK Gloeckle. Pictures courtesy of Mr. Gloeckle.One of my goals was to create a multitude of designs, to explore different areas and address different users as well as to show the flexibility of the framework. To pick one piece out, the ‘drawn’ vase is probably a good example. It is essentially a combination of a dry-erase board with an opening for a flower and a water container mounted behind it. You can use it on the wall or on the table. What the dry-erase board does is to allow the user to redesign its surface and thereby the vase.

So lets go through the six framework principles:

Enable user involvement:
The vase is somewhere between an off-the-shelf product and a D.I.Y. project. While it provides the users with a starting point in form of the vase functionality, it allows them add to this.

Make it interactive: By drawing on the dry-erase board, the user directly and physically interacts with the vase, and thereby develops a closer relationship with it.

Provide room for play: While the vase offers a starting point in terms of functionaly, it otherwise literally provides an empty canvas. Not everything is predetermined, but is left open for playful exploration. Watching people creating all different kinds of designs with this was definitely one of the highlights of this project for me.

Keep it simple: I wanted these pieces to be approachable for everyone, meaning not requiring any extensive tools or knowledge. Everyone knows how to hold a pencil, so everyone can use this product. Of course, people‘s drawing skills differ, but that is were the erasable and forgiving nature of the dry-erase board comes in.

Make it personal: As the vase provides for more than just pick&choose within a predetermined selection, it really allows people to create very personal and unique pieces. No vase will ever look the same as any other.

Small Steps: The piece doesn’t require anybody to suddenly draw like an artist. Rather, the user can start with a very simple drawing. But as his confidence and capabilities grow, so can his created product.

What is the role of companies in your concept? What would you recommend a manager that wants to place your ideas into practice?

In terms of manufacturing, the beauty of these designs is that they do not require any major changes in the manufacturing infrastructure as is usually associated with mass customization. As the customization happens at the end user and not in the factory, the company still only needs to create one fixed product.

In terms of management, it probably more comes down to being open-minded and believing in the creativity of end-users. Basically giving the consumer more credit than most companies currently do.

At the same time, we of course need to realize that while customization is a major trend, it is still to be seen how much of the mainstream it will become. While especially Generations X and Y are increasingly interested in self-expression and involvement, the majority of consumers still prefers buying non-customizable products and maybe express themselves solely through selected purchases.

What did originally motivate your research? How did you choose this topic?

As I was researching potential thesis topics, certain personal interests of mine came up repeatedly. These are areas that I have always been fascinated by, like peoples desire to express themselves, peoples urge to create, the growing D.I.Y. movement, and finally new and evolving production methods. At one point, I realized that there might be a way to bring these different areas together, and to use this combination to enable and encourage creativity and self-expression for the consumer. And to simply provide for more joy and fun as part of a product experience.

Why do most industrial designers neglect the customization and self-impression trend? Do design schools educate your designers in these new topics?

First off, there are of course certain products where customization is not applicable, for example for safety reasons. Besides that, a couple of things come to mind.

For one, designing a product that is customizable means giving away some control of the final product. As a designer, you put a lot of time and thought into determining a very particular look, feel, and functionality to create something that addresses a specific need. While most products usually stay as intended when they leave your hands, with customizable pieces you control them only up to a certain degree. This is something not everyone is comfortable with, especially with more visually driven pieces.

In addition, there is also a school of thought with some designers that only they should be the ones ‘designing’. After all, that is what they went to school for and spent a lot of time on, learning how to do it right. According to them, the general consumer does not know about designing, and should not be allowed to do so.

This whole issue of ‘professional’ versus ‘amateur’ designer, across all areas from web over graphic to industrial design, is something we could easily talk about for hours. I personally do not subscribe to this rather elitist thinking, and believe that there is and always will be a place for both. However, and as in every other profession, we designers need to rethink our roles periodically, and adjust to a changing environment.

In terms of design school education, there is obviously an inherent delay of current trends manifesting themselves in the education curriculum. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe the value of design school, besides teaching basics like form and color, is rather in teaching creative thinking. This together with providing the appropriate environment for exploration is the starting point. The rest is really up to the individual student, to investigate and explore different areas, and push his own limits as well as that of design in general.

What’s next for you now that you have finished this project?

In terms of the ‘Un-readymades’, I am starting to look into potential options of moving some of them out of the prototype stage and into production. Besides that, as I am done with my Industrial Design degree, I am also currently interviewing for a job. Things are still open though, so I guess I should use this opportunity to invite anybody looking for an Industrial Designer to take a look at my resume and portfolio on my website.

To conclude: What is, in general and beyond your industry, the greatest mass customization offering ever – either one that is already existing or that you would like to get in the future?

Well, this is a pretty grand and open question. Maybe to answer it in a similar open way, I would pick the human mind? It probably does not get much more mass-customized than that. And thinking of it, it actually fits pretty well in my framework. 🙂

Contact Martin at martin@martin-konrad.com or http://martin-konrad.com
You can view an illustrated abstract of his work at http://martin-konrad.com/unreadymades

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.