Victor Margolin



By Victor Margolin



More than ten years ago at a small interdisciplinary conference entitled "Discovering Design", held at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I presented a paper in which I proposed a concept called the "product milieu." In a subsequent essay based on the paper, I characterized this milieu as "the aggregate of objects, activities, services, and environments that fills the lifeworld."(1) My argument in the paper and in the essay that followed was that human beings depend on products in order to live their lives or, as the phenomenologists Alfred Schutz and Thomas Luckmann put it, to transform their consciousness into projects.

At the time, I was attempting to add a new dimension to the sociological and philosophical discussions of action which tend to focus on human intention rather than on the instruments or tools (to use a term favored by Ivan Illich) that people require to act in the social world. My concept of the product milieu was similar to that which many people have of the internet today. I envisioned this milieu as a medium within which people move and which they activate as they find specific products to meet their needs. Humans build their own collections of things that they use repeatedly and they maintain internal and external references to products they might want to use in the future.

Because my original concern was with human action as social scientists and philosophers consider it, the product milieu paper focused more on how people use existing products than on how they create new ones. I did, however, note that designers also utilize products since they depend on existing equipment and materials to accomplish their own projects of making things for use.

Goods in the product milieu are turning over at an accelerating pace because of rapid advances in technology. The major implication of these advances for design is that designers who are so inclined can now produce and distribute finished products, whether these be books, bicycles, or furniture, far more easily than previously. This new situation is due to several factors: the dematerialization and reduced cost of the equipment needed to make products; the dematerialization of many products themselves, i.e. software and websites, but also hard goods that are made with more compact but stronger materials; the possibility to create electronic product prototypes that can be used to solicit financial support and stimulate public discussion; and the opportunity to market products inexpensively through electronic means.(2) The development of faster and less expensive chips has allowed manufacturers to pack more intelligence into compact and cheap computers. These machines enable small businesses to run book-keeping, accounting, and inventory control programs at fairly low costs. Advances in computing mean in the long run that many factories will function with less expensive equipment, making it possible to produce material objects with far less capital outlay.

An emerging global marketing structure is also changing the way that goods are sold. A manufacturer can now build a network of interested consumers who are widely distributed in space rather than located in a specific geographic area. Through the internet, one can reach people scattered around the globe without having to target a particular location with printed material, billboards, and the like. This enhances the opportunity for innovation. Many new products can reach the market in ways they never could before. Production can be based on small batches of goods that are distributed to individuals or selected retailers and in fact, a producer can create a special community for a particular product. A number of years ago the Everett Rogers and other anthropologists devoted considerable attention to the diffusion of cultural and technical innovations in non-industrialized cultures. Today, their work can serve as a good basis for understanding better the dissemination of innovative new products in societies that are technologically advanced.

New technologies enable us to redefine the traditional notion of a cottage industry. No longer associated specifically with the crafts and limited to local distribution, a contemporary cottage industry can use the most advanced technology and reach a worldwide market. We see this now with any number of products such as clothing, food, music, and software. Innovative marketing has, for example, long been a mainstay of the bicycle industry, where high end cycles, produced in small numbers, are marketed through customized channels. Given the new networking approach to the production of goods and services, where resources, both human and material, are brought together for specific projects, small manufacturers can lease production facilities or services for particular projects, just as a small press entrepreneur goes to a printer.

A new practice for designers

Designers today have the opportunity to produce and distribute new things, whether type fonts, software, or material goods of all kinds, to worldwide markets at low costs. In the realm of dematerialized products like digital typography, new typefaces are being produced in hundreds of small font shops similar to the diffuse way bicycles and automobiles were fabricated a century ago. With the development and distribution costs for these typefaces being fairly low, there is nothing to prevent a young typographer from becoming an entrepreneur. We already have numerous examples. The proliferation of fonts has changed the way designers think about typography and there is more experimentation than in the past because the choice of faces is so large and their use so inexpensive.

The plethora of products that has resulted from these new conditions of production and distribution is also evident in the arts and interested designers can learn from artists who have used advanced technologies for both the production and distribution of their work. Writers are starting their own electronic publishing companies and producing books on-line; composers are creating orchestral compositions without orchestras, and filmmakers are presenting new films on the web. Film equipment has also dematerialized. Today, small video cameras can generate broadcast or theater quality footage and independent filmmakers can shoot their films with such cameras and edit them on computers. They are able to control the entire production process with a cash outlay that is only a fraction of what it once cost to make a film. By contrast, I can recall my days as an apprentice film editor many years ago when we depended on heavy expensive moviolas and costly processes of making workprints. Shooting was done either with 16mm cameras or very expensive 35mm apparatuses that required additional equipment to support and move them.

Just as those artists who are using technology to produce and distribute their work constitute only a small percentage of the larger community of writers, painters, filmmakers and so forth, so too designers who choose to become manufacturers as well are unlikely to become more than a small minority of the design profession. Large companies still dominate the market and will continue to be the primary clients for design services. But designers who get involved with the production and distribution of products they conceive themselves have the possibility to change the market, even in small ways, and open up new product sectors that might even become beacons for larger manufacturers to follow.

I don't want to claim any particular moral or socially responsible high ground for designer/entrepreneurs but, in fact, there is a better chance for a small company to innovate in socially responsible ways than there is for a large organization that must work against many constraints ­ shareholder concerns, competing visions of corporate purpose, and aversions to small-scale innovations, for example.

The social potential of design/entrepreneurship

One area where this new decentralized and dematerialized production system can make a mark is in the sector of sustainable products. Since the Industrial Revolution, large companies have had a near monopoly on the production system and because of that the necessary shift to a culture of sustainable production has been slow to materialize. Now, those designers with ideas for sustainable products have a better chance than ever to create prototypes or finished goods and bring them to the market in a new way. With possibilities to reach a receptive consumption community that is not bounded by material geography, a sustainable product culture may begin to emerge.

A number of sustainable products have already been created by designer/entrepreneurs such as Ross Evans, Wendy Brawer, Dean Kamen, and Vogt + Weizenegger. Evans, for example, has developed new kinds of cargo-carrying bicycles. His Xtracycle Access Foundation makes cheap reliable bikes for developing countries, while his Xtracycle manufacturing company markets a higher tech cargo bike as an alternative to motorized transport. In addition, he organizes workshops to help poor communities design and build bikes themselves. Wendy Brawer has used the internet to create a Green Map System, a global network of green maps which indicate a city's cultural and sustainable resources, while Dean Kamen, through his company DEKA Research and Development Corp., designed and markets a revised version of a wheelchair that can do far more than the original version such as climb stairs and maneuver in tight spaces. Oliver Vogt and Hermann Weizenegger, worked with Berlin's Institute for the Blind to manufacturer well-designed brushes and household accessories that were sold from a catalogue. They also developed a line of furniture called Blaupause which was offered only as 1:1 blueprints from which buyers assembled the pieces themselves.(3) While such products do not have an affect on the world comparable to the launch of a mass-produced object , they do begin to change the product milieu in an incremental fashion.

Authors such as Paul Hawken have written extensively about working with corporations to develop a kind of "green capitalism."(4) While many large companies do make contributions to a culture of sustainability, significant breakthroughs in sustainable product development are beginning to come from smaller designer/entrepreneurs such as those described above. Ross Evans and Dean Kamen have established their own foundations to fund the research, design and production of innovative products on a modest scale and to promote their adoption. This, I want to argue, is a new model for the designer, one that holds great promise for changing the global product culture. I am not presenting this model as a universal one; rather it is one that responds to a particular set of circumstances.

The historical context

In the past, we have had few examples of designers who were also manufacturers and distributors. In fact, the very notion of a product designer, as the profession was conceived historically, is of a Christopher Dresser, a Peter Behrens, or a Raymond Loewy, all of whom created drawings and models for others to turn into finished goods. Historically, the expense of tooling up to manufacture and distribute products discouraged most designers from becoming producers. But, as indicated, conditions now enable a graphic designer or product designer to think seriously about becoming a product developer and manufacturer as well.

There are actually precedents in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century for the establishment of design firms that produce products for the market according to a new paradigm. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the firm in which William Morris was a principal, sought to challenge the prevailing British taste in home furnishings as well as the harsh division of labor in British factories. The firm was able to create a range of products from furniture and tiles to wallpaper and tapestries that were highly innovative in a formal sense and were produced to some extent according to a workshop model. Other Arts and Crafts firms such as the Century Guild and the Guild of Handicraft were created to achieve similar ends. While they all faced the contradiction of using craft-based practices to produce for a new enlarged market, they nonetheless became examples of design firms that sought to challenge the dominant production paradigm.

Today, designer/entrepreneurs can do more than challenge the system of industrial production; they can establish their own niches in it. The market is ready for a resurgence of small designer/entrepreneurs who work outside mainstream manufacturing just as the Arts and Crafts designers sought to do. But today, the focus of such a practice is based neither on the handicraft production of the nineteenth century nor on the concepts of intermediate technology of the 1960s and 1970s. On the contrary, designer/entrepreneurs are likely to make use of the most advanced technology for modeling, prototyping, manufacturing and distributing new products. Desktop manufacturing systems for producing cheap prototypes have been around for a decade. Other trends suggest that reductions in technological costs will enable small manufacturers to follow the examples of large automobile companies who transmit design files from one part of the world to another and send messages to prototyping machines thousands of miles away. This is already done easily and cheaply by designer/manufacturers of dematerialized products such as type fonts and software but eventually the cost of doing it for hard goods as well should come down. Eventually, it may be possible to make products on demand and distribute them globally by downloading them to local manufacturing facilities.

The future of the product milieu

Design schools, which have historically prepared designers to serve manufacturers rather than become entrepreneurs themselves, should pay more attention to these conditions and create new programs for designer/entrepreneurs who have to understand technology, marketing, and management as well as design itself. The possibility exists in many universities to bring this type of knowledge together but the leadership and vision of design educators is required to get such programs off the ground.

Designer/entrepreneurs should be able to create business plans, identify niches for new products within the emerging global marketplace, and seek appropriate venture capital. Such training is already provided in business schools but without the design ability to actually create new products. For this emerging practice, there should be a Master's Degree in Design Entrepreneurship , tailored for designers who want to be both product innovators and manufacturers.

The internet has spawned an active and powerful worldwide citizen's movement that is challenging the ability of governments to manage their political affairs in traditional ways. There is now a configuration of new technologies and dematerialized product forms that can facilitate a similar kind of civil action in the realm of material culture. We badly need new products to address pressing social needs that are not being met by large manufacturers. Highest on the agenda are products that address issues of ecological sustainability but there are other urgent needs in sectors related to health, children, communication, the aged, and those with disabilities.

Until now, users have engaged more flexibly than producers with the product milieu. Now designer/entrepreneurs have the opportunity to create a much more inventive and spontaneous product culture than we have ever had in the past. They can subvert the near monopolies of large companies in many product sectors and create products for needs that have yet to be met. Their impact is already evident in sectors such as digital typography and software design. With vision and initiative, it can spread far more widely.

© 2001 Victor Margolin



(1) Victor Margolin, "The Product Milieu and Social Action," in Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies, eds. Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 122.

(2) On dematerialization, see the special number of Design Issues on "Designing the Immaterial Society," Design Issues 4 nos. 1 & 2 (1988) and Neue Technologien und Design: Das Vershwinden der Dinge, ed. Arnica-Verena Langenmaier (Munich; Design Zentrum München, 1993).

(3) These projects and others are described in a special issue of I.D. magazine, edited by Christopher Mount, entitled "The I.D. Forty: Socially Conscious Design" (February 2001).

(4) See Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce : A Declaration of Sustainability (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).


Victor Margolin. Professor of Design History, University of Illinois, Chicago. As a design historian and theorist, I place great emphasis on the social consequences of designing. Design is heavily dependent on the market and I have sought in previous writings, both historical and theoretical, to raise questions about how designers negotiate between their personal values and the possible conditions of production. In The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946, I considered the attempt of the avant-garde to realize its utopian visions through the social situations in which its members found themselves. The term" struggle" in the book's title is important because it is open-ended. There is no final narrative of either failure or success. Yet, the struggles of the avant-garde left a legacy that continues to animate innovative social practices in the arts and design today. In my forthcoming book The Politics of the Artificial I take up a set of issues related to socially-oriented design that are more germane to contemporary conditions than my earlier study of the avant-garde. I write about the importance of understanding users, of taking on problems of sustainability, of considering the limits of designing in the face of possibilities to redesign ourselves, of creating a more inclusive design history, and of building a design research community. My concern in all these investigations is design's relation to the social world, though I remain open as to how social value can be produced by the designer. I have no ideological foundation to propose but I do work within a broad context of social justice that is codified, for example, in various international documents such as United Nations declarations that address issues of human rights. As a teacher, lecturer, writer, and occasional exhibition curator, I seek to impart my own values about design's social responsibility while accounting as well for the aesthetic, the jocular, and the subtle expressions of personality that are also part of social life.