Creation culture has seen some interesting incremental advances this year. DIY remains a powerful buzzword, while "handmade" is no longer a meaningful descriptor. We've Kickstarted many projects and undershot even more. The trend of community (i.e. crowd) support of product development and the growth of collective tech shops is heartening, while the Etsyesque implication that anyone with a hot glue gun can make an earning without skill or hard work remains aggravating. Small scale production is on the rise, and large scale domestic manufacturing is showing flickers of a comeback.
Between the highlights and danklights of this year, you can find hints of where the makin' train is headed next year. Here are some of my favorites with a smattering of points on the good, the bad and what's in store.
Along with exciting developments in ever-ensmallening technology and cheaper options for prototyping and connectivity, the social elements of the DIY world got some boosted signal. This year DIY culture has gotten a little more self-aware—a little more precious and corporate too, but hey, wheat with the chaff.
On the good side, the series The Makers of Things and the movie We Are Makers. While it's easy to fall into self-congratulation and romantic notions about craft and heritage, these largely steer clear of clichés and offer a human perspective. Both documentaries highlight the innate human urge to create, and the current role of "making" as a sort of social currency. Since Doing-It-Yourself is not currently an economic or survival necessity, the choice to make things takes on an unusual air—you're "THAT person" in a group of normal folks, providing an automatic connection point for community building with likeminded "THAT persons." The movie also features higher-ups at companies like Make Magazine and Etsy who cop to the financial gain in capitalizing on the DIY industry. So there's that.
On the badder side... Etsy itself. While continuing to extol its own lucrative role as an individual-empowering vending platform, Etsy also continues to relax the standards for their "handmade marketplace" to the point of meaninglessness by allowing mass produced items to vend side by side with the work of individual craftspeople. While "handmade" is a necessarily complicated designation—where does the act of "making" begin?—this move is understandably considered unfair to the small enterprises that the site supposedly promotes. The owl-loving neckbeards at the top claim that incorporating mass produced products on the site is reinventing the relationship between buyer and producer. Well that sure makes sense, considering the consumer has sofewothersources for factory-produced items. Thriving handmade marketplace indeed.
The future? People will keep making things. I promise.
Community project backing sure blew up this year. From bad Christian young adult novel concepts to futuristic assistive technology, crowdfunding hit the news and widened its arms to our ideas.
The good: Though some predicted the social death of crowdfunding quite awhile ago, we've watched a great many campaigns bring innovative projects to reality. Some reports show that earnings from crowdfunding over 2013 will top $5 billion—not just a gigantic sum but almost double the amount raised in 2012. No shabby trend, and certainly a good one for small well-considered ideas that would otherwise struggle for attention and backing.
The bad: I'm one of the last people you'll hear demanding traditional credentials before calling an idea worthy, however... a low bar for entry brings both boons and gigantic, stupid busts. The perception of easy money lurking in the nets has led to some hilariously bad ideas and bolstered the insidious belief in quick cash without work. Universal exceptionalism doesn't exist, guys, and without consideration of audience or feasibility, most projects genuinely don't deserve support.
The future: As crowdfunding and online marketing platforms become even more saturated, the mad rush to Kickstart (or Indiegogo, or Gofundme, or...) our projects will slack off slightly, while maintaining a steady increase of use. With that will come more savvy, inventive and viral uses of the medium, as slicker and relatively larger-budget projects likely take up more of the spotlight. In my dream for 2014, people will quit treating crowdfunding sites like poorly planned ebay listings and realize that careful strategy, vision, clear communication and reasonably non-crappy editing aren't merely optional for success. Whether or not that happens, the benevolent Internet isn't going to provide magical money that you've automatically earned by having that one great idea in the shower. Sorry, not sorry. Hopefully we'll also see new ways emerge to use the Long Tail of the internet to individual advantage.
For the benefit of tinkerers and prototypers and technological socialites, community workshops are also on the rise. Despite the seemingly unstable nature of Tech Shop style spaces, the "machine gym" idea is still going strong. Good examples include the Makeshift Society expansion, the opening of Makerhaus in Seattle, and the continued plugging away of ADX, Metrix, and many other maker/hacker/doer spaces around the country. Unfortunately, the Bad is a straightforward reminder that it doesn't always stick. Despite solid successes by similar businesses in the very same city, 3rd Ward NYC closed without warning, apparently due to mismanagement and chronic ironic beard issues.
As usual, fledgling projects abounded in 2013, and some successful thinkers had some successful sounding things to say about success.
Good stuff: We culled advice from some fantastic ID entrepreneurs, because who better to inspire and inform your own badass work than a bunch of people you'll probably never meet?
Meanwhile, a young upstart named Jamie Wolfond suggested an alternative to the traditional paths to design stardom. Jamie's design work pushes to understand common methods and requirements of production in order to reduce inefficiency and loss of design finesse in translating a concept to manufacturability. He personally (and creatively) recommends considering existing techniques for production, rather than requiring cutting edge tech. Step back from the laser cutter and give that a ponder.
If you're thinking of getting you own physical start-up going, check out the video of Ken K. explaining his DIY injection molding shop. Regardless of the fabrication type you're interested in, he has many small wisdoms to share on getting started (spoilers: patience; buying equipment divested by companies who have outsourced), and it's also just fun.
Not bad, but eyebrow raising: New York's Community Supported Art+Design (CSA+D). (One of) the first direct-to-community art and design framework working on the CSA farming model, CSA+D uses a subscription system to fund participating creatives who produce works for a quarterly "pickup" by patrons. It is intended to provide a commercial framework and backing to artists without requiring gallery representation, and to make art/design collection more accessible to interested buyers. I'm totally intrigued. In a skeptical kind of way.
The future: According to the NEA, the importance and growth of industrial design are pretty damn clear, and that's good news for the industry we call home. The organization's report on ID and its relationship to patenting, manufacturing, technology and economic growth was a ringing endorsement of the fuzzy creative/technical field as a whole. Thanks, we'll take it.
Situated in a complex rat's nest of issues yet often treated in simple statistics, American manufacturing has been all over the map this year. Outsourcing continues, while small fabrication studios emerge. Previously outsourced manufacturing jobs are being brought back to the U.S., while designers continue to search for affordable options abroad. Even with a wealth of information, it's a sticky subject.
For what it's worth, we've found positive signs in many places, from small incubators like the Portland Made Collective, to new showing/vending/retail spaces like Industry City, to resources like Makers Row that connect small businesses with American manufacturers. Other small traditional producers (like NYC's statue of liberty moldmakers!) report on difficult but interesting times.
Many midscale and large companies have maintained a strong US manufacturing presence, and some are revisiting the possibility. My visit to Leatherman highlighted the efficiency and amazing quality control that localized production allows. Whirlpool shifted some production around between Ohio and Mexico for greater distribution efficiency, creating 80-100 US jobs in the process.
Bad: Corporate gaslighting. It's great that some companies are choosing to move some production back to the states. The complexities of long-term costs aren't always completely realized before the move to outsource, and domestic production can be good for both the company and the workers and economy here. That said, I'm sick of hackneyed heritage branding of lackluster products, and brands using American Made (or the toothless "American Designed") iconography to hide a crappy record of poor manufacturing, labor, and environmental practices. I'm looking at you Ford "Assembled in the U.S." Motors and Shinola. Step up your game guys.
The fuuuuture: Well, what do you know. Projections for domestic manufacturing are actually surprisingly positive. If enthusiastic reports (e.g. Bloomberg, The Economist) are to be believed, American manufacturing is on the gradual upswing and the exodus of production (and jobs!) is at least being offset slightly. Sources like the Reshoring Initiative are unabashedly announcing the upcoming sea change, and y'know? I'm hoping they're right.