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09 Oct 2014

OpenDesk: democratising the design world

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Nick Ierodiaconou, co-founder and head of product for OpenDesk, talks to onoffice about the online community that could change the way the design world operates

OpenDesk is an online community that connects designers working with digital technologies to makers using CNC machinery and customers around the world. By cutting out 'the middlemen' in the supply chain, the site allows designers to take a bigger share of product royalties. It also provides a platform for open-source designs that are free to download in a bid to democratise the industry and make it more accessible.

The business is part owned by members of its community following crowd funding in June, which raised its £150,000 target within 24 hours. Open Desk's is initially focusing on workplace design for the UK and US markets; however, it plans to extend its remit once better established.

Having only been in full sales mode for the last six months, the platform has generated approximately £160,000 of revenue for local makers in that time.

The OpenDesk community now encompasses around 300 makers, and has had about 380,000 people on the website and 22,000 people downloading designs for making products for themselves or on behalf of others.

Firstly, could you explain how OpenDesk operates?

We're looking at Airbnb and other online platforms that connect people and simply act as facilitators. In a sense, what we're trying to do is bring that business model to independent designers and makers.

If the industry standard is 5% royalties in the bigger distribution channels, we'll aim for around 8-10%. As we move forward, I think the designers will become savvier about distribution and technology, and more efficient in terms of materials and things. For example, if a designer ended up getting 100s of parts on a sheet of wood with very little waste, [then they could take a far greater slice of the revenue].

From a slightly geeky point of view, I've always been interested in how software developers do that stuff because they can have a vast reach when they're just sitting at home or on a beach doing whatever.

I think that's phenomenal. There's a growing financially sustainable economy in software of people who're just doing it their own way and I want to know if that can work in other industries.

As an architect and member of Architecture 00, what led to you co-founding a furniture design platform?

[Architecture 00] was invited to take part in the South Korea design biennale, which had a theme of open-source communities. We decided that rather than putting up a temporary structure for the length of the exhibition we'd create something that could live beyond it.

From the start, the intention was to design a house that could become part of a community exercise and challenge issues relating to housing. We launched [the TED-award winning] WikiHouse in 2011 [as a non profit project] that allows people to download the design from the internet and produce CNC parts that they can assemble themselves. Since then, it's been taken on by people outside our immediate sphere, who've really pushed it forward.

For me, that was the bridge between the architectural world and the technology we're using for Open Desk.

Why did you decide to focus on workplace design?

When we first launched OpenDesk, we were optimistically saying 'wow, you can make anything anywhere' and slightly naively we were talking about open source specifically and designs that can be made all over the world by different makers.

We were inundated with requests from across the world for one-off objects, and realised we couldn't manage this breadth. We re-evaluated and ended up in workplace design because it's a sector where people are buying in bulk so it makes more sense for the designer and maker to get involved on an individual-order basis.

What's interesting, particularly in urban areas, is we're seeing so many young companies getting funding and established companies growing rapidly. [Our designers] often get quotes for a six to eight week turnaround, but because they're dealing with a local maker you can order something and have it within a week or two, at least that seems to be how it's playing.

How does the open-source concept fit in?

Essentially, what we're trying to do is take some of the thinking from the open-source world and apply it to the design industry. It's entirely at the designers' discretion what they share.

We don't force it one way or the other, but we really love it when someone comes along with open-source products, because for us what's really disruptive about this whole making space is the idea that we're making design accessible to more people, and it really does challenge the idea of design as a high-curation and high-cost industry.

Are the other designs bespoke or mass-produced?

By and large what we're seeing now is that people are asking for things like tables and desks in different dimensions to fit a certain space.

Because the [CNC] technology allows products to be made after customers have paid for them, as opposed to big batches from China, we're happy for them to make requests and then we can decide with them what's feasible.

Of course, the easiest thing for everyone involved in the process is to produce standardised items as there's no additional work and they've been fully tested. But if someone asks for something a bit different then there's no reason that these designs shouldn't be used for mass-market products.

What are the chief materials used?

By and large, most of the stuff on the platform is made from plywood because it's such a standard material across the world, but our big intention is to see how many technologies and ways of making we can grow into.

The obvious ones now are laser cutting with sheet metal, plastics and things. Also 3D printing when the technology matures.
Is there a cohesive design aesthetic for the products on the site?

It's very much different designers, different products, but because we've focused on CNC technology there's usually a certain type of product aesthetic. You can usually see the machine in the language of the product.

The CNC machine is basically a rotating drill and therefore right-angled corners are kind of impossible without doing something afterwards because of the radius of the drill bit. What you end up with are products that express the way in which they were assembled.

With more work upfront in design, it can be harder to tell they're CNC milled. We've done some tests ourselves with solid oak stools and it's difficult to tell they haven't been made in a more traditional way.

What about your own designs on the website?

We're [currently] exploring tweaks on the idea of customisation. As well as things like milling company logos and names into things, we're also trying to make little bespoke things such as laptop stands and plant pot holders. We're taking a playful approach [to facilitating modern] technology.

In a sense, what I'm more interested in at the moment is what the other designers are producing around the world and trying to facilitate that.

There's a fine line between accepting everything and trying to keep a degree of curation in the process without being too dictatorial to define. That's something we're still trying to find a balance point on.

How do you think this kind of horizontal business compares to more traditional, hierarchical ones?

There's a very good reason why hierarchical structures emerged in all walks of life, but recently with the financial crisis, the Occupy movement and all the things that are challenging [the status quo], people are thinking more about flat structures and I think that's really fascinating.

In some ways I fall flatly into that bracket, but at the same time I'm interested in the idea of informal networks rather than controlled hierarchies. You can create control and governance in structures that are temporal and aren't meant to live beyond a certain project, because the truth is that there's a huge amount of benefit in having someone making the decisions.

That's not to say we should all succumb to the powers that be, but actually trying to get anything done when there's no authority is incredible costly in time and effort and energy.

I'm not sure we'll ever find the perfect model, but I think we can find somewhere in the middle between structured ways of living and a completely open-source free-for-all.

An Introduction to OpenDesk. from OpenDesk on Vimeo.

OpenDesk Crowdfund Launch from OpenDesk on Vimeo.



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