User Innovation : On (Not) Making it in the Digital Age

Last week, I had the opportunity to share some of my trials and tribulations as a worker in the user innovation economy at a seminar at the MIT Sloan School of Management. I was invited by Eric Von Hippel, an economist who has been at the forefront of studying "specializing in the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation." While we now take open source software for granted as a permanent feature of the Internet, let us remember it wasn't always thus, hampered by restrictive licenses, high cost, and general user unfriendlinessAnd, professor Von Hippel practices what he preaches, releasing his papers and books free online for unrestricted download.

My presentation concerned my experience in the user-driven economy, through the lens of four experiences: selling items on Etsy, posting projects on Instructables, writing Guerilla Furniture Design for Storey Publishing, and putting out designs on Open Desk.  My basic thesis was that while online platforms have lowered the barriers to entry around design-based businesses, they haven't lowered the barriers to success at all. 

Furniture design is still a very traditional business, based on the old atelier model of masters and apprentices. Traditionally, there have been three basic ways to enter into the business: get a job in-house at a big firm; start your own studio and manufacture your own goods; or license your designs to other companies. Getting a job in-house somewhere offers financial security, but denies you any authorship. Starting your own studio, especially when young and unproven, is a difficult and capital-intensive business. Licensing designs, and earning royalties (a la the Eames' or the Bourellec brothers) is a theoretically ideal situation that is very difficult to achieve. Only a handful of designers ever rise to the rockstar level of being able to reliably move millions of mass-produced units. 

In this way, furniture design mirrors a great many other industries that have been disrupted by the Internet -- book, music, movies. Any repeatable, scalable unit, be it media or objects, is perfectly suited the frictionless online world of instant transactions. First, with Etsy, I tried selling objects directly, but this wasn't scalable unless I became my own one-man road sign bowl sweatshop. Second, I tried distributing not the objects, but the information about the objects.  Instructables greatly expanded my audience, but the pay wasn't great. Guerilla Furniture Design and my experiments with OpenDesk are my bet that I can have it both ways -- move the information and make money. 

The problem, however, is that furniture can't just be downloaded -- it has to then be made somehow. My most successful Instructable, the Scrap Table, is a good example. It has seen roughly 375,000 views,, but judging by the (imperfect) metric of the comments, it has only been built 21 times. That's 17,800 views per build. 17,800! If my goal is to get more Scrap Tables into the world, well, then, this is where the frictionless economy runs into the messy morass of human intentions.

The other presentations talked about many of the same conundrums: how to capture grassroots brilliance and still make a living? Game designer Charlie Cleveland examined the online economy of selling character skins inside the game Defense of the Ancients; Birk Knudsen, a corporal in the Danish Army, related his tale of building a company out of the army's failure to equip him adequately; and Alfredo Ortiz and Victor Gomez spoke about creating OpenXC, a platform for open-source vehicle hacking at Ford. There were also a number of post-doc students and economists presenting papers, but most of that was well beyond my rudimentary understanding of economics. 

My takeaway, as applied to design, ended up being pretty simple, obvious even. As these platforms mature and proliferate, opportunities for designers to break out are becoming ever wider -- and ever-shallower. To succeed in this new paradigm, one must be a multi-platform mogul: adept at social media, content creation, design, and the over-arching narrative that builds a committed and profitable audience. There may never be another Eames DSR in terms of absolute ubiquity; but their successor is out there, turning over designs and swarming platforms, iterating, iterating, iterating.