Made for AXOR

Disegno x AXOR: Product Design and Individualisation


8 June 2018

In celebration of AXOR’s 25th birthday and the launch of its customisable MyEdition faucet series, Disegno hosted a panel discussion centred around the themes of customisation and individualisation in design.

Held at the Water Studio, Hansgrohe's inspiration hub in the heart of Clerkenwell, the conversation between the V&A’s Corinna Gardner, Pearson Lloyd’s Tom Lloyd, and Silo Studio’s Attua Aparicio Torinos covered a lot of ground – below are some of the highlights.


Tom Lloyd When I was thinking about this subject, I came to the word “personality”. In effect, we are all trying to project personality onto everything we do. Whether it’s our own style, look, feeling or whether it’s for a project. To flip it, we’re also tribal in our instincts. We want to associate ourselves with like-minded people. You can see groupings in the way people express themselves that discourage the individual: designers all look the same, bankers all look the same. There is a strange mix of needing to feel like you belong to a particular group and the sense that you can find something that is very personal.

Corinna Gardner I think that the idea of the self and the expression of identity through things is an increasing trend across the 20th century. If you look beyond product design and into our society today, you can see that on a governmental level there is a shift towards the individual and individual responsibility. The way we navigate our lives is through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – it’s about the individual and how we articulate ourselves within the world in those terms. I think there is perhaps a coherence in how that reflects in our material world. Personality and individualisation are things that are quite different to customisation, because customisation means that you can change within a set of parameters. Whereas individualisation, personality, or indeed, the idea of hacking something to make it your own, is quite a different dynamic. Anyone who went into their own bathroom or kitchen would consider their space to be expressive of them as an individual, so I think it’s about this grouping of objects together, but also the projection of the ideas that you place within the choices you have made.


Attua Aparicio Torinos Customisation and individualisation are very different: all the taps here [in the Hansgrohe Water Studio] – they are not individual. There is a great choice of taps, but they are made as copies that can be customised. Mass-production and individualisation is difficult, but the problem is not only in the manufacturing process because standardisation can allow individualisation through, for example, introducing randomness, which is something we do in our practice sometimes. We’ve tried to make a mould that enables us to create unique pieces instead of copies – this is in an industry that needs to make copies in order to comply with a lot of tests! We’ve worked with flexible moulds that allow the material to morph differently every time. More recently we have worked with injection moulding, which is more mass-production orientated, but what we’ve done is make every piece individual by incorporating different colours in small amounts. The component is a leg, and instead of having a solid black leg by adding 20kg of black and make 100 legs that way, we add the colour by half a kg, so the colour of each leg varies: starting with a bit of yellow, then more green, then from green to blue. This way you can’t make any one leg the same as the other. I think this could be an example of introducing uniqueness into mass-production: having an algorithm that picks colours randomly and adds them one after another in small amounts.


Tom The means of distribution and the consumption of products have become so much more multi-layered and multi-channelled that everyone can access their own particular niche, desires, and choices within the digital world. We have an extraordinary breadth today, which means individual products have to work much harder on a communication and branding level in order to attract attention, gain loyalty, and differentiate themselves. In the middle market of any one industry, you need get the maximum audience for the minimal investment. You end up reducing the individual because you’re trying to make a product that will appeal to the largest number of people. Customisation where you can have a thousand choices and everyone can be different is a highly sophisticated industrial marketing and brand idea, which is quite rare at a mass level. If you click all the options on ordering a Golf car, there are 800,000 different options in terms of colour, brand, engine, etc. But no one really cares about that! The idea that a car company needs that amount of choice is an extreme version of what customisation might be.


Corinna If you look at the collectors’ market for trainers, it is the limited edition trainer that fetches the high prices. The very singular is not where the interest lies, it is in the exclusive. Again, in the conversation here about customisation and individualisation, the idea of exclusivity is one that we can’t shy away from. This is both about the cost of products, but also the access to those products and the numbers on the market. The middle-market is an interesting field: how is industry seeking to meet this need for the unique, or more sophisticated consumer, who has a much greater ability to scan the field?


Tom3D printing is of course one of the great trends of our time. It’s still at a kind of prototypical stage of mass-production, but I think there will come a time very soon when £D printing will be part of industrial production and mass-consumption. Along with the ability to draw and make complex objects with digital tools, mass production is being democratised. That doesn't mean that the value or the quality have increased, but it’s much more available to more people. The ability to produce one at a time, and the ability to design quickly will surely change the way in which products are created and consumed. There’s lots of testing of ideas going on for now, but [3D printing] hasn’t quite found its natural point yet: you can print houses, as well as organs and pizza. The digital means of production will certainly change the ability to customise.

Attua At the moment 3D printing is still very limited. Most of the time you can choose the colour or the finish, but that’s about it. It provides a very limited choice, like asking a kid: “Do you want a banana or a strawberry?" It’s not like asking: “What do you want?”

Corinna One of the most significant advances within 3D printing is the opportunity to make something complex in a standardised fashion, as opposed to the individualisation or customisation end of the spectrum. The 3D printed gun is a clear example of that, which is an unregulated firearm at the press of a button. It’s vital that that is not customised in terms of its performance, in terms of individual safety. To see 3D printing as the answer to everything individual or customised is not necessarily the broadest reading of that subject.


Tom As designers, I think we’re guilty of embedding flexibility into systems of design because we think it’s clever, but we actually end up embedding price and complexity. You might design a table that allows you to have a series of accessories, and so you end up adding 30 little inserts into it, which means it becomes unaffordable. You can make really bad choices very quickly with the ambition to give more to your customer – you can end up screwing it all up.

Attua I don’t know if it’s being clever, or if it’s about not being able to make up our own minds.

Corinna So it’s the designers’ inability to individualise that enables us to individualise as consumers!