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.


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.


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

What do these gadget marketplaces resemble? More than anything else, they seem to be getting their cues from app stores. Popularized by Apple, app stores have since been adopted by nearly every smart phone manufacturer and desktop operating system. While the web is the ultimate open marketplace, app stores have provided the necessary scaffolding - a built-in audience of users and a centralized market where entry costs are relatively low and exposure is high - to draw users and developers together. Indeed, it gave rise to folks such as Ethan Nicholas, who wrote the best-selling iShoot game in his spare time to pay his mortgage. The app wound up being one of the most popular iPhone games of all time, netting him more than $35,000 in a single day. He is hardly alone; market-research firm iSuppli predicts that the four major mobile-app stores will do $3.8 billion in sales this year.

What does all this mean for the pros? So far, the DIY projects have trended toward the simple, the straightforward and, occasionally, the gimmicky. This is in part due to the limitations of self-manufacturing. There are still many products which are too challenging to tackle with this model. But the passion, dedication and commitment of these designers is undeniable. More interestingly, many of these designers credit their breakthrough insights to the simple fact that, at least at first, they were designing for themselves. It's a reminder of the natural limitations of design research: no matter how hard we may endeavor to understand a target audience, users will understand themselves and their needs far more intimately. When they are empowered with the skills to design and build towards their own solutions, it's not surprising that they will sometimes build it better.

As designers, this realization is humbling, but also something that can improve our own form. When approaching the design process, how often do we attempt to build for ourselves, and consider whether we would want to use the product? How often do we channel our own passions, curiosities and beliefs into the things we build? We have arguably focused on the "other" for far too long, fetishizing what makes us different and unique. This sometimes yields smart insights and better products. But it can also create a problematic sense of distance between our users and us. This can hinder our work and produce generic, lifeless products. By identifying with our target, we are more likely to build products we love to use, and that others love to use as well. It is these products that will have the greatest chance of success whether we sell those products to our clients, our friends - or over the Internet.

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