Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why open design is a ruthless ideal

This post is proud to have been syndicated to the Ponoko Blog.

So how can a designer make money in the open source model? If we're giving away our IP for free, what else can we charge for? Firstly, there's no tenet that says one must give away ones designs for no money for it to be free. We're talking 'free' as in 'freedom' here so we can still charge customers to buy our design source - the freedom comes in what license you give to the customer once they have the source. Traditionally, buying a product grants you no freedoms over developing it - you're not blocked from hacking a piece of furniture, say, but you're not facilitated either (in fact many gadgets do bar the user from opening them, sometimes for good reason) - and you'd certainly be in trouble if you tried to manufacture and market your own derived version. So in selling open design source documents you grant the customer the right to make derivative works, and, optionally, to market those works. More about that later.

In the case that a designer gives away their source documents for free, the onus to make money is put squarely on the manufacturing and marketing stages of product development. This makes great sense as a driver of good design as good design is essentially about optimisation for both production and for the user experience (if this is great, the product can almost market itself). And if the design source is free, more developers are likely to contribute, making for a bigger crowd designing the product, which may or may not be a good thing. So for this crowd of designers giving away their IP for free to get any remuneration, they have to be on the payroll of the company making and selling the product, ie. in-house designers. Why would any company pay designers who will happily give away their work for free? The only reason must be that it is the only way to ensure great design, and to ensure that the next great design comes from one of their designers. This is clearly a rather idyllic situation in one sense: being paid to simply design as we please. In another it is hellish, as the criteria for the designer to get paid is not a case of simply putting the hours in, but of being on top of the game, and doing good design constantly. Its a Free as in Beer model and as such, only works if you can hook manufacturers on the quality of your future work. Those who can do this would be in a prime position in the job market. Those who can't are left to design simply for fun. If they can afford to have fun.

Design wins, good designers win, users win, bad designers lose.

As a freelance designer then surely it makes more sense to sell your design source for a fee, as otherwise there is no way to ensure any income. Any company could grab your design source and sell thousands of units with no obligation to give you a penny. Whichever way you look at it, it seems that it does not pay well to be a freelancer in the open design world. Unless you are also manufacturing.

It is when we consider the manufacturing that the position of freelance maker makes a whole lot of sense: In any form, open design will always encourage a competitive market between manufacturers: When we can all make and sell the same product, the competitive edge must come from how well we do it: this means sustainability, economy, locality, appropriateness, inclusivity, accessibility, customer relations. All the criteria by which a manufacturer is judged by we users. When the manufacturer cannot claim a monopoly on manufacturing a product, they have to compete on the stuff that really matters to the customer.

Society wins, good manufacturers win, customers win, bad manufacturers lose.

I have assumed in the last few paragraphs that all design source is distributed under a license that permits commercial use. Of course this does not have to be the case. In fact we do not have to look far for examples of open design which denies commercialisation by anyone other than the originator: Its called co-design, mass customisation, user-led design, beta testing. Its what all the manufacturers are doing now: opening up to a user/developer community while retaining their exclusive claim over a product. Its not really 'free' as in 'freedom' and its only tenable until the day that the fabrication technology needed to convert design source into a personal product is in our homes.

Image by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

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