When Aimee Mullins turned 16, she was given a new pair of lower legs. Made from woven carbon fiber, they were lighter and stronger than the wood-plastic compound prostheses she had worn until then, as well as easier to put on, less painful to wear, and less likely to fall off. But they were also designed to be worn by all genders, and coated in thick foam that came in just two colours: “Caucasian” and “Not Caucasian”.
That was in 1992, and Mullins now has dozens of different legs to choose from, and they have helped her to forge a career as an actor, model, athlete, and activist. But most of her prostheses only exist because of the time and energy she invested in their design, and in convincing prosthetists, biomechatronic engineers and cosmeticians to do the same. By doing so, Mullins has secured her right to exercise greater choice, thereby empowering herself and millions of others whose artificial limbs have been better designed to meet their needs and desires, thanks to her experiments.
Choice will be a defining element of design in future. As our personal identities become subtler and more singular, we will wish to make increasingly nuanced choices about the design of many aspects of our lives. We will also have more of the technological tools required to do so. Yet design practise will need to change radically to deliver those choices.
Until now, many of the most important design innovations have restricted choice. Not that choice was deemed undesirable, but it was often considered dispensable in the interests of other qualities like efficiency, speed, economy and convenience, which is why standardisation has loomed so large throughout design history.
As long ago as the 3rd century BC, Ying Zheng, the young ruler of an obscure Asian country, defeated his richer, more powerful neighbours to found the mighty Chinese empire by ensuring that his army’s weapons were made to identical design specifications, rendering them deadlier in battle. By the early 20th century, management theorists, led by Frederick Winslow Taylor, were advocating the standardization of every aspect of manufacturing, starting with design: a practise which was reinforced by ever stricter health and safety regulations.
Despite Jacques Tati’s cinematic parodies of soulless, indistinguishable towns and cities, standardized design earned the modern movement’s blessing by delivering “the best to the greatest number of people for the least”, as Charles Eames put it. For much of the last century, idiosyncrasy was seen as a throwback to an impoverished, poorly educated, pre-industrial culture, but now it is uniformity’s turn to be demonized.
One reason is that it is impossible to ignore the ugly truth about the damage wrought by industrialisation. Secondly, even basic technologies have enabled us to exercise more choices: whether by navigating singular paths around the Internet to extract information from whichever websites take our fancy; determining the outcome of video games, inventing virtual worlds; or tszujing our social media profiles. TV talent and makeover shows have also played a part, by tempting us with the prospect of transformation, as have cosmetic surgery ads.
These changes have encouraged us to expect to exercise greater control over our lives at the same time as the politics of personal identity have metamorphosed. Take the media storm in in the US last summer over the revelation that Rachel Dolezal had chosen to present herself as black in a country where being biologically black is fraught with peril. Or the outcry when Facebook introduced 58 “gender options” for its U.S. users to choose from. Eventually they were replaced with a free-form field where people can write what they wish. Given that our perceptions of ourselves seem set to become even more mercurial in future, design needs to help us to express them.
Some areas of design have done so successfully for centuries, specifically those like fashion and graphics that can be customised easily and cheaply to articulate personal preferences or political concerns. Introducing greater choice is more problematic in other spheres, such as the design of digital devices and other objects, which depend on uniformity to achieve the economies of scale required to make them affordable.
This will change with the development of increasingly sophisticated and accessible digital manufacturing systems, like 3D printing. These technologies will fabricate entire objects, or parts of them, so rapidly and accurately that they can be produced individually, and personalised in terms of colours, finishes and shapes. By doing so, they will fulfil the vision of “mass-customisation” championed by late 20th century design activists, like Jochen Gros in Germany.
Currently, affordable 3D printing systems are limited in terms of the size of objects and type of materials they can process, but these constraints will ease over time, making it possible to personalise the design of anything from cutlery and car doors to artificial limbs. We can then choose how those objects will reflect the dynamics of our identities, or any other attributes, as easily as we can with clothes.
Will we want to exercise this level of choice? It is easy to understand why Aimee Mullins should wish to design bespoke 3D-printed prostheses, but will other people be willing to invest as much effort in design? Some won’t, just as not everyone wants to cook their own food or sew their clothes. But the popularity of “teach yourself to code” devices, like the $25 Raspberry Pi programmable computer, and low-tech video game publishing programs such as Twine, suggests that others will. Twine is already enabling designers, like Porpentine and Anna Anthropy, to explore deeply personal issues in their games, including their gender identities.
If more and more of us engage with design, where will this leave designers? Some will continue to work in the traditional way, but others will redefine their roles to help us to make intelligent design decisions, rather than doing so on our behalf. As the controversy over the online posting of the design template for a 3D-printed gun illustrated so starkly, in an age of seemingly limitless design choices, picking the right ones is more important than ever.
Alice Rawsthorn writes about design in the International New York Times and frieze. Her latest book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life explores design’s impact on our lives: past, present and future. She speaks on design at global events including TED and the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings at Davos, Switzerland. Based in London, Alice is chair of trustees of the Chisenhale Gallery and the contemporary dance group Michael Clark Company, and a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to design and the arts.