When it comes to creativity and innovation, people like to talk about “the box.” And they like to talk about “thinking outside” of it. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I do know this: A lot of folks who attend the annual Industrial Designers Society of America international conferences not only rip the walls off such boxes but they specialize in trampling all over them.
And therein lies the value of getting out from behind your desk every once in a while and venturing into a somewhat-alien environment. It opens your eyes, forces you to think, and helps you to climb — however temporarily — out of your comfortable manufacturing/management mindset.
On the surface, the theme of “DIY Design” for the Aug. 4-7 IDSA conference that attracted nearly 600 corporate and consultant designers, students and educators to Portland, Ore., didn't really resonate for me. By DIY, the organizers were referring largely to that group of amateur crafters and individuals who design and manufacture products — often out of everyday found or recycled materials. The fundamental question posed was whether this movement represents a threat to or an opportunity for professional designers. Not a lot of resin running through processing machines in this scenario.
The opening keynote speaker was Grace Bonney, a 20-something, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and blogger who in 2004 launched a website called Design*Sponge (www.designspongeonline.com) that is dedicated to home and product design. The New York Times described Design*Sponge as a “Martha Stewart Living for the Millennials.” Another speaker was Dale Dougherty, founding editor and publisher of Make magazine (www.makezine.com), subtitled “Technology on Your Time.” Other presenters joined the DIY design chorus.
The message that came through is that there is a large and growing cadre of people who are devoted to reusing materials, reducing waste, using their hands and minds, and creating highly personalized apparel, functional items and artifacts — either to keep for themselves, give to a friend or perhaps sell or barter, usually via craft fairs or online sites such as eBay or Etsy.com.
At first you, like me, probably think, “Well, that's kind of interesting, but it's got no real relevance to me or my job.” Think again.
For one thing, it was encouraging to see video clips of Dougherty's Maker Faire (www.makerfaire.com), a large, homegrown urban fair (held recently in Detroit, and coming soon to New York City) of outrageously creative crafters, interested kids and involved parents making things together. (This served as a reminder that we haven't completely forgotten how to do that in this country, and that not every child is permanently affixed to a video game.)
But, eventually, another message began to emerge from this cacophony. It provided a glimpse into the minds and preferences of tomorrow's consumers (and employees). Speaker John Hoke, vice president of global footwear design for Nike Inc., shared some amazing tales about how his firm used online tools and a sense of community to energize tens of thousands of people to organize and participate in charity events, as well as to develop new, highly customized shoe designs.
Bill Moggridge, co-founder of renowned design firm IDEO, spoke about “crowdsourcing” and he used videotaped interviews with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and others to show how such collaborative efforts have completely changed some business models. He also announced the launch of a new open-innovation site, www.openIDEO.com, with the tagline “Where people design better, together.”
Jay Rogers is CEO and co-founder of Local Motors Inc. (www.local-motors.com), a 3-year-old American car company that engages a public community in an online co-creation process to design and develop niche vehicles for local markets. Rogers says LM's aim is to “advance the cause of building, selling and servicing cars out of distributed microfactories.”
Customers actually build the cars themselves in these facilities on a just-in-time basis. Think it's crazy? Local Motors is busy and growing and buying a lot of plastic parts and components from somebody.
Why should we care about such things? Because such trends are reflective of broader shifts in human and customer behavior, and that potentially impacts every business.
Forward-thinking manufacturing executives are astute enough to listen, learn and apply — and those lessons sometimes emerge from strange or different places. They may create new types of customers, or offer new ways of operating or communicating, be it via social media, open innovation, design thinking, rapid manufacturing, mass customization, or the like.
You simply can't get a handle on that by sitting behind your desk. You need to get out, interact with creative minds and try new approaches. Call it DIY.