(inside) Australian Design: Review of Product Customisations, by Naomi Stead and Maital Dar

Oh my, how times have changed since Henry Ford offered the Model T in ‘any colour, so long as it’s black.’ Now it is more a case of any colour, full stop, and that’s not just for cars – it is now possible to have the original manufacturer customise your shoes, your t-shirt, your computer or your washing machine. And that’s before you get your own individualising hands on it to ‘modify’ or ‘pimp it up’ even further. The practice of personalising consumer products, whether during the mass production process or afterwards, has become a cultural phenomenon.

In fact, as soon as you scratch the surface, you begin to see it everywhere. The built-to-order manufacture of real cars seems to be connected, in a fascinating way, to motor racing computer games, and the way they let you select the exact aesthetic and mechanical specifications of your vehicle, along with the type of track and scenery. This kind of wish-fulfilling entertainment is also provided by the American cable TV program ‘pimp my ride’, where a team of panel beaters and car detailers modify dodgy old vehicles into impossibly glamorous and accessorised one-off pimp-mobiles. There were are stories of ‘modders’, strange obsessive groups whose members are completely absorbed with the modification of iBook computers, or palm pilots, or particular kinds of motorbike. More locally, there are whole Australian suburbs where the most common pastime is spending evenings and weekends ‘hotting up’ your car, which is then shown off to gatherings of admiring onlookers. To an extent this appears to be gadget-fiend boys playing with their toys. But it is also much more widespread, and with much larger implications, than that.

There has always been a level of customisation in things like clothing – as soon as you decide to wear that scarf with that jacket then you are ‘individualising’ your appearance through the combination of separate mass produced parts. Houses, too, have long been individualised – not just through the construction of a three bedroom instead of a two bedroom house, but also through the addition of furnishings, gardens, alterations and additions, and so on. The practice of architecture is predicated on the design of highly individualised ‘bespoke’ buildings, so there is nothing new there. But what is new in this phenomenon is the customisation of discreet consumer objects, things that would not or could not have been modified before. There is clearly a difference between a ‘backyard’, hand-crafted modification, and customisation as a high-end branding and manufacturing exercise. But curiously, there are also overlaps and similarities.

Cut to present day New York, and a hip young urbanite walks through the city in her own, unique, self-modified pair of trainers. People frequently come up to her, to say the shoes are cool and ask where she bought them. Naturally she falls back on the old joke that she could tell them but then she would have to kill them. There is something illuminating here: not only that there is a phenomenon of people modifying their own shoes, or that this is widely regarded as uber-cool, or even that it would be necessary to protect the source of your unique item with mock-threats. What is most interesting about this story is the fact that everyone assumes that the shoes were bought somewhere – that they are unique, but also attainable. The question ‘did you do those yourself?’ (note that this is not ‘make those yourself’ – the modifier does not make, they adapt) would have quite a different air – of curiosity, of envy, but perhaps also disappointment, and even a little dismissiveness. Shoes that looked hand-made would have the cachet of the one-off, but would also carry the mildly embarrassing association of something you knocked together in your shed. You want your shoes to be idiosyncratic, but with the sleekness and sheen and production values of objects in mass production. It should look as though they are generally available, but only in an infinitely more cool parallel universe, from which they have been retrieved as singular, odd souvenirs.

So here is the curiosity – the hand-made, the custom-made, the tailor-made, the home-made: each has very different implications, and different levels of status within different spheres. That macramé owl you hand-made in primary school might still be good for a laugh from your friends, but it’s unlikely to be taking pride of place on the living room wall. On the other hand, your tailor-made jacket, your upgraded, fully featured, made-to-order dishwasher, and the carefully individualised mini-cooper in the driveway, are quite possibly points of pride, even regarded as extensions or expressions of your own individuality and personality. Why is custom-made sometimes so prestigious and desirable, and sometimes so gauche? It seems that it matters less whether it is hand-made, and more who hand-made it. It also seems that this has everything to do with the labelling of the item, the role and authority of the designer, and the complex hierarchy of craft/art/design.

To understand this, it is possible to come back to Henry Ford, and the history of industrial production. Before industrialisation, everything was handmade. The available technology did not allow for mass production.  The advent of mechanized assembly lines brought the ability to cheaply produce identical products. More things became available to more people. Products that were once carefully hand assembled by craftsmen, and were the exclusive preserve of the fabulously wealthy – motorcars, for example – came to be widely owned. But in this world of mass production, there was still a need and a desire for individualisation, for differentiation, for the personal. Ford was forced to introduce colours (other than black) in 1925, and this increasing level of choice continued. Today the contemporary consumer becomes ever more picky, knowledgeable, and discerning. At the same time, new industrial production techniques mean it is now not much more expensive to make varied products as it is to make identical ones. The economies of scale that come with mass production are retained, and a ‘heterogenous market’ of ‘fragmented demand’, one that seeks ever more differentiated and diverse products, is satisfied. Everyone is happy. But where does all this leave the designer?

The role of the designer is expanded, not only to designing form and function, but also devising and presenting the consumer with a set of decisionschoices.  The designer is responsible for providing a menu of colours, textures, patterns, text, and so on, from which the consumer – here reinvented as an active agent in the design process – selects their personalised and individualised choice. More than this, the role of the consumer-designer is made possible by an active interface, which can most effectively take place via the internet. In the process of researching this story, we ‘designed’ a mini-cooper, ‘pimped’ another car with spoilers and flame paintjob, ‘cooked up’ a pair of trainers at the Puma ‘Mongolian Shoe BBQ’, ‘created’ a customised pair of Vans slip-ons – all of it virtual, and all of it online.

This kind of industrial customisation shows the incredibly fine distinctions that can be drawn between, say, the colour of the sidestripe and the tongue binding on your new sneakers. While this may previously have been a subject of burning interest to shoe designers, now anyone can be an expert. Everyone can become a shoe connoisseur, a shoe semiotician, poring over the possible permutations and combinations. All of the marketing encourages the consumer to feel like an agent, a co-designer, a shoe guru. The rhetoric is all about freeing your creativity, fitting your personality, making it yours. Choice means autonomy, and autonomy means power, or at least the illusion of it, and the illusion of power makes you want to buy.

You want your eggs flipped exactly so, you want your coffee roasted and your toast toasted to your detailed specification, you know what you want and you still want it if it’s not on the menu. Once this would have been described as being ‘picky’, ‘particular’, or ‘fussy’. Later it might have been associated with an apparently American fetishisation of choice for its own sake. But these days, such fussiness is being thoroughly encouraged by the manufacturers and marketers of all manner of things. More than this, there is an unspoken idea that your particular order, the very specific way that your breakfast is to be cooked, is a reflection of your unique and infinitely fascinating personality.

There is a small voice of dissent here, which says that sometimes it’s good to order the dish as it actually appears on the menu, that the chef (read designer) has put those ingredients together for a reason, that he or she is the expert and should be trusted as such. But the counter argument to this is that, when it comes to food, we are all experts. We know what we want, and if that’s bacon and icecream then dammit, that’s what we will have. As levels of consumer expectation and discernment rise ever higher, then we all become experts on all manner of things – not just what we want to eat for breakfast, but what we want to wear, listen to, drive, wash our clothes in, sleep on, and so on. This has major implications for design: in a world where everyone knows exactly what they want and won’t stand for anything else, what is left for the designer? Does he or she become more of a facilitator, laying out a smorgasboard of possibilities but not pre-empting any particular one of them? Or does the designer retain authority over form and function, whilst allowing the consumer a certain amount of play in decoration? If large numbers of people are ordering bacon and icecream, then dammit, the chef/designer would do well to take note.

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