Trajectories of Design for Digital DIY

The current trend of self-production activities is reshaping the role of professional designers in a society where everyone does design. Manzini – one  of the most acknowledged researcher in the design field – investigated this topic in his recent book (2015). At the presentation of the book, the author stressed that designers should improve the capability of people to create their own biographies.

To this end, designers can contribute by designing ‘enabling solutions’, i.e.

“systems of tangible and intangible elements (such as technologies, infrastructures, legal frameworks and modes of governance and policy making) that enable individuals or communities to use their skills and abilities to best advantage and, at the same time, make a proposed solution more effective, more accessible and therefore more likely to spread” (Manzini, in Boeuf et al. 2006, p. 13).

These enabling solutions will imply novel forms of collaboration in which the professional designer could lead, guide, provide scaffolds, or offer a clean slate to DIY practitioners, according to their interests and creativity level (Sanders, 2006). Salvia (2015) mapped the resulting scenarios for collaboration according to two main axes:

  • scale of action;
  • typology of collaboration.

The scale of action considers the geographical parameter spanning from a global to local level still in a globally connected framework. The chance for design to operate either locally or globally (but for local impact) generally determines the typology of the means for operating and communicating, namely by direct or mediated contact respectively.

The second axis considers the contribution of different design research approaches, namely Participatory- or Co-Design to identify the role of the designer as a collaborator with experts or as a facilitator with less experienced practitioners. Accordingly, different skills and tools are required or useful to designers, e.g. communicating at different levels of complexity and accuracy.

The intersection of the two axes generate four different scenarios for the design profession (see Figure 1). These scenarios identified by Salvia (2015) could be applied to the Digital DIY realm and summarised as follow:

  1. creating devices (e.g. 3D printers and smart materials) globally distributed to facilitate digital-DIY tasks, that may compensate the lack of manual skills of the digital DIYer;
  2. setting networks of professional and passionate people for the digital DIY culture to locally foster its potential in a globally connected action plan;
  3. collaborating with local institutions and services, typically to increase the awareness of the practice and the benefits of digital-DIY;
  4. leading Action Research experiences (e.g. workshops) to directly support digital DIY practitioners in places furbished and organised according to their needs.

Figure 1. Scenarios of roles for designers according to a) the scale of action, and b) the typology of collaboration.

The resulting scenarios express some of the possibilities for design contributions and opportunities. Designers can support digital DIYers either as collaborators or facilitators according to the creativity level. As collaborators, designers bring an equal contribution into a project shared with practitioners. As facilitators, designers support the development of the project drafted (or defined) by the practitioners.

The interaction between the design and the practitioner is necessarily influenced by the means of contact, e.g. in person, or web-based platform dialogue. The four cases presented below are grouped according to the scale of action (i.e. geographical level of intervention) and proximity.

Each of these four scenarios is described in more detail below.

Local level: assisting digital DIY designers over the creative process

In the last decade many DIY workshops equipped with user-friendly devices have spread globally, such as FabLabs, Hackerspaces, Men’s ShedsCommunity Garages and TechShop. Generally aiming at providing facilities for self-production, these workshops offer members the opportunity to share skills, knowledge and projects with others passionate about DIY.

In these cases, designers can facilitate the process, bringing knowledge (e.g. about materials and technology) and competences (e.g. design thinking) namely to help minimizing resource consumption and, especially, empower and educate individuals.

Designers could be engaged also in digital oriented workshops and activities where their contribution has not been observed yet. For instance, the Restart Project is a London-based charity and social enterprise which encourages people to use electronic products for longer through a collaborative repair process in which learning and skill-sharing opportunities together with inspirational talks are offered.

Local level: co-designing with municipalities for citizen engagement

Self-production initiatives take place on a wider scale, while still at the local level, through groups of citizens contributing to community projects (e.g. Transition Towns). There is a tradition of designers engaged in collaboration with local communities.

Designers operating at a local level can support digital DIYers in the development of their ideas through direct contact. Operating at a local level provides the designer with the opportunity to receive instant feedback from the digital DIYer.

Local government and other institutions are considering the economic benefits and social impacts of places where (digital) DIY is practised. In Spain, the city council of Barcelona plans to establish a network of FabLabs in every neighbourhood. This suggests a potential trend for the contemporary maker culture to become main stream. The FabLab in London has recently triggered a partnership with designers, through the Royal Society of Arts, in order to address resource efficiency and waste minimization in their project, The Great Recovery.

Global level: designing ‘enabling products’

DIY is being nurtured by accessibility to information through the web, typically through online tutorials and instructions guiding users wishing to repair technological devices. Beyond the more widely known platforms for generic purposes (e.g. YouTube), iFixIt is an on-line platform and community that supports the repair of all sorts of electrical and electronic devices by providing guides and selling parts. iFixIt thus aims at contributing to the extension of product lifespan and empowers people willing to repair faulty products.

Support provided in the form of communicating manual skills through virtual means does, however, face inherent limitations as direct feedback is generally lacking. Moreover, practitioners may be inhibited from undertaking a repair by a perception of lack of skills and competence.

Designers have been creating materials, technologies (e.g. customization kits for consumers) and products (e.g. Project_RE by which practitioners are able to undertake digital DIY tasks but limiting the chance of error and enhancing the confidence of users.

The established Dutch design studio Droog Design delivered a business concept of Downloadable Design. Presented in 2011 at the Salone del Mobile di Milano, with the mantra ‘everything is makeable, anytime, anywhere, by anyone’, the project collected professional blueprints that users are able to customize through a configurator[1].

Therefore, they almost set a proper toolkit to sustain people to define e eventually build their own cupboard, paying attention to the clearness of the tasks to accomplish. People need to visualize for real and tangibly experience what they co-designed before buying, and they may be too scared to add their contribution to something relatively expensive (Klassen, and Troxler, Do it with Droog. In van Abel et al. 2011). As a consequence, in this quadrant main research efforts are auspicated to address people confidence in creative experience providing support for a major design-thinking quality.

Global level: networking between activists, researchers, professionals and DIY designers

The establishment of the Internet, web 2.0 and social media has contributed to the spreading of groups who collaborate on a wide scale, often at a global level, for shared purposes. This is an example of commons-based peer production, whereby

“large groups of individuals…co-operate effectively to provide information, knowledge or cultural goods without relying on either market pricing or managerial hierarchies to co-ordinate their common enterprise” (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006, 394).

It has led to several phenomena, initiatives and communities (e.g. open source, peer-to-peer, etc.) emerging with the aim of contributing to a more community-oriented society.

Abilities in communication and compromise are likely to prove crucial for a successful output. Participants from different backgrounds need to establish a common terminology and understanding of each other’s experiences.

Open Source Ecology (OSE) for instance, is a wiki platform connecting farmers, engineers and volunteers in order to develop the main parts for high-performance machinery, the Global Village Construction Set, collaboratively.

The design studio Infrastructures developed Open Structures, an experimental construction system based on modules that can be designed collaboratively. The size and dimensional features of parts, components and products are based on a grid that allows for the creation, modification and integration of modular and compatible elements of a shared ‘library’. The Open Structures approach is based on a few defined principles[2] aimed at supporting personal growth, product longevity and resource conservation.

The project seeks to initiate “a new standard for sustainable and democratic design that, based on the principles of open-source software, facilitates the re-use of objects, parts and components and allows us to build things together”[3]. An open, modular system of this kind has the potential to stimulate re-use cycles of various parts and components over time on a global level, thereby challenging product obsolescence and allowing for updating through the introduction of variety within modularity.

Members of design communities are also collaborating on the development of products that the user can buy online; in some cases, the file rather than the object is purchased and the user sources manufacture locally (e.g. Shapeways and Ponoko, Make Me platform). Kazzata has been recently established to design and print spare parts on demand, thus avoiding the disposal of a whole product in the event of lost or faulty components. The company intends to build the world’s most comprehensive online repository of CAD files, bringing consumers, manufacturers and designers into a virtual marketplace of spare parts. If the file required is not available, it will be possible to send in the broken item and the company will produce a virtual replica.


PoliMi team

Giuseppe Salvia, Carmen Bruno, Marita Canina, Laura Anselmi, Valentina Rognoli.



van Abel Bas, Lucas Evers, Roel Klaassen, and Peter Troxler (eds). 2011. Open Design Now: Why Design cannot remain exclusive. Bis Publishers.

Benkler, Y., Nissenbaum, H., 2006. Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue. J. Polit. Philos. 14, 394–419.

Boeuf, J. Le, Amatullo, M., Breitenberg, M., Maffei, S., Villari, B., Menzi, R., Loetscher, M., Fleming, D. and Lynch G. (2006) Cumulus Working Papers, Nantes, 16/06. Publication Series G, University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Droog Design. 2011. Press-kit for Fuori Salone del Mobile di Milano.

Manzini, Ezio. 2015. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. MIT Press.

Salvia, G. (2015) ‘Design in the new Do-It-Yourself age: trialling workshops for repairing’. In Proceedings of  Cumulus Milan 2015 “The virtuous circle” conference, 3-7 June 2015, Milan (IT). McGrew Hill (pp. 1-16).

Sanders, E.B.N. (2006) ‘Design Serving People’. In Salmi, E. and Anusionwu, L. (Eds.) Cumulus Working Papers, Copenhagen, University of Art and Design, Helsinki, Finland (pp. 28–33).


[2] ‘Standardize dimensions’, ‘Allow disassembly’, ‘Exchange skills’, ‘Allow hacking’, ‘Stimulate growth’, ‘Transform waste’.

[3] Further information in Lommee, Thomas (edited by). 2010. Yes! weʼre open. Open design for sustainable innovation. Exhibition catalogue. Kortrijk, Belgium