BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 11 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176

By Design

Customized design in a time of fluid identities

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 11 DEC 15

Matthew Barney, CREMASTER 3, 2002, production still. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; photograph: Chris Winget

When Aimee Mullins was 16, she was given a new pair of lower legs. Made from woven carbon fibre, they were lighter and stronger than the wood-plastic compound prostheses she had worn until then, as well as being easier to put on, less painful to wear and less likely to fall off. So far so good – except that those legs were designed to be worn by both men and women, and coated in a thick foam that came in just two colours: one named ‘caucasian’; the other ‘not caucasian’.

That was in 1992, and Mullins now has many more legs to choose from. Among them are four pairs of silicon-covered prostheses, each one specially designed to suit her. One pair is fitted with flat feet and the other three with feet shaped to fit shoes with two, three and four-inch heels respectively. Not that she will need them for much longer as her newest legs are equipped with adjustable ankles. For hiking, Mullins wears carbon fibre Vertical Shock Pylon (VSP) limbs fitted with shock absorbers; and for swimming, she dons a pair of old carbon fibre vsps with holes drilled into the sockets to allow water to drain through – and these are just the prostheses she has to choose from at home in New York. Other legs designed especially for Mullins, including the transparent polyurethane ones she wore in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 3 (2002), are conserved in archives.

Having so wide a choice of lower limbs has helped Mullins to build a career as an actor, model, athlete and activist, but most of them only exist because of the time and energy she invested in their design and in convincing the prosthetists, biomechatronic engineers, designers, cosmeticians and artists with whom she has collaborated to do the same. Had Mullins accepted the standardized legs she was offered – which was her only option when presented with ‘caucasian’ or ‘not caucasian’ – her life would have been very different. By immersing herself in design, Mullins has secured her right to wider and better choices, empowering not only herself but the millions of other people whose prostheses have been better designed to meet their own needs and desires.

Choice will be a defining element of design in the future. As our personal identities become subtler and more singular, we will wish to make increasingly complex and nuanced choices about the design of many aspects of our lives, just as Mullins has done. We will also have more of the technological tools required to do so. If design is to respond to our needs and wants, it must find new ways of delivering the choices we crave, even though this will demand radical shifts in design practice. 

The oak Georg stool, designed by Chris Liljenberg Halstrøm for Skagerak, 2012. Courtesy Skagerak, Denmark 

Up until now, many of the most important design innovations have restricted choice, whether in the way they were made or how they were used. Not that choice was deemed undesirable – quite the contrary – but it was often considered dispensable in the interests of other qualities such as efficiency, speed, economy, convenience and inclusivity, which is why standardization has loomed so large in design history.

As long ago as the third century BCE, a decisive factor in the success of Ying Zheng, the teenage king of Qin – an obscure Asian state – in defeating his richer, more powerful neighbours to found the mighty Chinese empire, was the standardized design of his weaponry. At the time, weapons were made by hand to different specifications. Ying insisted that all of his army’s spears, axes, daggers and arrows were designed to identical templates, all devised to be as deadly as possible. Until then, if archers ran out of arrows, they could not fire their comrades’ arrows from their bows. Ensuring that they were interchangeable solved this problem, and Ying’s formidably efficient army won battle after battle. Similar design principles were applied in the workshop of the French gunsmith Honoré Blanc in the late 18th century. When Thomas Jefferson visited it as a young us diplomat, he was so impressed that he submitted a report that urged newly built factories in the us to adopt the same system.

More and more manufacturers did exactly that during the industrial revolution, when standardized design was seen as the most effective means of producing goods in large quantities at consistent quality for affordable prices. By the early 20th century, pioneering management theorists, led by Frederick Winslow Taylor, were advocating the standardization of every aspect of manufacturing, starting with design. Among Taylor’s devotees was the Detroit motor manufacturer Henry Ford. Having discovered that the lengthiest part of Ford’s production process was waiting for the paint to dry, he urged his sales force to push black cars: black being the fastest drying colour. Ford’s ‘pledge’ that ‘any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black’ became a slogan of the rigorously uniform ‘Fordist’ model of mass-manufacturing, which was adopted worldwide during the 20th century and reinforced by ever-stricter health and safety regulations.

Despite Jacques Tati’s cinematic parodies of soulless, indistinguishable modern buildings, standardized design transformed the lives of billions of people by offering them safer, more robust and reliable products and services. It even earned the modern movement’s blessing for delivering ‘the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least’, as the us designer Charles Eames put it. Not everything was standardized. The rich continued to have things designed and made especially for them and the poor had no alternative. But for much of the last century, idiosyncrasy was seen as a throwback to an impoverished, poorly educated pre industrial culture. By the beginning of this century, it was uniformity’s turn to be demonized and associated with blandness at best and, at worst, with labour exploitation and environmental destruction. 

Workbays designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, 2012. Courtesy Studio Bouroullec 

It is not difficult to understand why. Firstly, it is impossible to ignore the ugly truth about the damage wrought by industrialization. Secondly, even basic forms of digital technology have enabled us to exercise more choice: whether by navigating singular paths around the internet to extract information from whichever websites take our fancy; determining the outcome of video games; inventing imaginary societies in virtual worlds; or tszujing our personal identities on social media. Even television talent and makeover shows have contributed, by dangling the tantalizing prospect of transformation before us, as have cosmetic surgery ads.

These changes have encouraged us to expect to exercise greater choice in other aspects of our lives, and will continue to do so as technology advances. At the same time, the politics of personal identity have metamorphosed. Take the media storm in the us last summer over the revelation that a white woman, Rachel Dolezal, had chosen to present herself as black in a country where being biologically black is fraught with peril. Or the explosion of interest in transgenderism and genderqueer identities. In 2014, there was such an outcry when Facebook introduced 58 ‘gender options’ for its us users to choose from that they were replaced with a free-form field which people can fill in as they wish. Given that our perceptions of ourselves seem set to become even more mercurial in future, design must adapt to help us to express them.

Some areas of design have enabled people to convey the changing nuances of their personalities for centuries, specifically those such as fashion and graphics that can be customized easily and cheaply to articulate anything from personal preferences to political concerns. Introducing greater choice is more problematic in other spheres, such as the design of objects and digital devices, both of which have depended on uniformity to achieve the economies of scale required to render them affordable.

Consider how these constraints can be overcome in what is currently one of the most important and contentious aspects of personal identity: gender. One way of avoiding traditional stereotypes, such as ‘male’ products being designed for bigger people than ‘female’ ones, is to devise objects as kits of parts that can be combined in different ways to suit their users. The French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec have devised ingenious examples in their modular seating, screens, offices and kitchens. The Bouroullecs do not design with gender politics in mind, but the flexibility of their mass-manufactured products addresses that agenda tangentially.

Other designers are tackling gender issues directly, including the Danish-Swedish furniture designer Chris Liljenberg Halstrøm, who produces objects with a neutral aesthetic that is open to individual interpretation. The design process begins by visualizing how the product will be used, regardless of gender. Striking colours, shapes, symbols and other visual cues are avoided as they are often loaded with cliché. Instead, Halstrøm uses texture to lend character to objects in the belief that our sense of touch is less likely to be gendered. The Georg stool, designed by Halstrøm for the Danish furniture maker Skagerak, consists of a pillow covered in richly textured fabric strapped onto a wooden base. Each sitter can adjust the pillow to suit themselves and, in doing so, discover the pleasure of touching the fabric. 

Anna Anthropy, Dys4ia, 2015, video-game still. Courtesy Anna Anthropy 

Not that everyone will read the Georg in that way. Halstrøm’s stool has won several mainstream design awards based on its conventional merits as a robust, comfortable and elegant piece of furniture, rather than for subverting gender stereotypes. Nor is neutrality the only way of designing products that permit more fluid and eclectic interpretations of gender. An alternative approach is to reflect the multiplicity of possible identities. The Australian designer Gabriel Maher has applied this approach in experimenting with new typologies of clothing and seating that allow each person to choose how to interpret them, as well as challenging gender clichés.

Future leaps in technology will enable us to exercise greater choice in design by customizing objects and interiors ourselves. The chief catalyst will be the development of increasingly sophisticated digital manufacturing systems, such as 3D printing. These technologies will fabricate entire objects, or parts of them, so rapidly and accurately that they can be produced individually and personalized in terms of their colours, finishes and shapes. In doing so, they will fulfil the vision of ‘mass-customization’ championed by radical late-20th-century design theorists, such as the German activist Jochen Gros. Currently, affordable 3d-printing systems are limited in terms of the size of objects and type of materials they can process, but these limitations will ease over time, making it possible to personalize the design of anything from tables and cutlery to car doors and prosthetic limbs. People can then choose how the details of those objects will reflect the dynamics of their gender identities, or any other attributes, as easily as with clothing.

But do we want to exercise this level of choice? It is easy to understand why Mullins should wish to design bespoke 3D-printed prostheses, or why someone with arthritic hands might relish a steering wheel that’s easier to grip, 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 own clothes. But the popularity of ‘teach yourself to code’ devices, such as the tiny US$25 (GB£17) Raspberry Pi programmable computer, and low-tech video game-publishing programmes such as Twine, suggests that others will. Twine is already enabling designers to explore personal issues, including gender identity, which is a defining theme of Porpentine’s All I Want Is for All of my Friends To Become Insanely Powerful and Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia.

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 design decisions, rather than doing so on our behalf. Critically, they must also learn how to act as guides to the design process. As the controversy over the online posting of a 3d-printed gun illustrated so deftly, in an age of seemingly limitless design choices, picking the right ones will be more important than ever.

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.