What Professional Designers Can Learn from the DIY Crowd

A Frog Design strategist considers the positive impact that the flood of Internet-enabled amateur designers could have on the superstars who have long ruled the industry.

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Puma design in progress. Users can design their own shoes. Credit: Alexis Madrigal.

It used to work something like this: when you had a design problem, you called in the pros. Let's say you sought the ultimate ergonomic office chair, or a device that redefined portable audio. You called in the industry elite to create an innovative product for you. For decades, we've approached design as the province of experts. But in recent years, there has been an explosion of user-generated design. Talented people are going it alone and bringing their designs directly to market.

What changed? In short: the Internet. The web has provided budding entrepreneurs with easy access to the materials, manufacturers, and talent that previously required corporate relationships and massive scale to acquire. It also allows entrepreneurs to better understand what they should be building - just by asking around online. It even provides the market, giving vendors access to scores of potential buyers through the web. Without the up-front costs of brick-and-mortar stores, it's easier than ever to reach an audience and make a buck. And, when anyone can set up an Etsy store to sell knitwear, everyone is a designer.

Success stories are everywhere. The Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker, a recent project by John VDN and Vitor Santa Maria, has received raves from Wired.com, Core77 and BoingBoing. Designers by trade, John and Vitor recognized the need for a better portable speaker. The pair spent $50,000 of their own money to develop a prototype , then turned to Kickstarter to help fund their project. The site granted them a huge market of potential buyers and the ability to scale their project nearly risk-free. They've raised $938,771, nearly three times their goal. If they hadn't met their $125,000 threshold, everyone who pledged would have gotten their money back, leaving John and Vitor free to refine the concept. Kickstarter's low-risk, high-reward environment is exactly the type of online phenomenon that's encouraging entrepreneurs to make their own stuff.

There's another, potentially more radical model: fully crowdsourced product design. This online model was used to build Ray, a nifty solar charger for mobile devices that attaches via suction cup to a window (a house, car, airplane, etc.). The concept was driven by the buzz-worthy website Quirky, which has graduated from helping to prototype and manufacture simple plastic gadgets to producing fully formed gadgets purely via member input. In the case of the Ray, everything from the concept to the product's pricing was determined through direct user feedback. Quirky's relationships with manufacturers allow it to produce a huge variety of products, and more each year. And the Darwinian model ensures that only the best products get made, and ensure they have an audience of potential buyers awaiting them. Other competitors, such as Shapeways, are having success with a similar model.

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The Pivot Power Flexible Power Strip, for sale on Quirky. Credit: Quirky.com

Presented by

Adam Silver is a design strategist at frog. A native New Yorker and current Brooklynite, Adam works in frog’s New York studio on projects involving communications, social media, and mobile strategy.

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