Spring 2015 saw the near death of a retailer as much loved as it was maligned by America’s air-going public: the SkyMall inflight magazine. This seat-pocket catalogue had for 25 years offered travellers hours of unintentional entertainment as they browsed its pages of hare-brained, misjudged or simply ludicrous gadgets. From Bathtub Caddies to Pillow Ties, NFL Wine Shoe Holders to Human Slingshots, USB Cufflinks to Weed Whacking Golf Drivers, the magazine was a redoubt for the sort of design atrocities usually only seen on the past-midnight slot of a TV shopping channel. This was Reyner Banham’s ‘gizmology’ – the role portable, highly specified devices played in defining America’s cultural trajectory – taken to its ultimate extreme: ‘whatever you want to do, the precise gadget is in the catalogue.’
SkyMall filed for bankruptcy, citing an increasingly challenging retail environment, though its execution was eventually stayed thanks to a buyout from a travel clothing company. The new owners chose to dispense with the sort of products that made the publication infamous. And that was a shame, because the catalogue was, in a roundabout way, a provocateur of innovative design thinking, endorsing a kind of risk-free creative speculation. This stretched beyond simply distracting frequent fliers from the safety demonstration to impact the way the design process was actually taught and conceptualised. SkyMall was, for instance, the stimulus behind projects such as the TBD Catalogue, a design fiction whose focus on the ‘ordinary everyday’ borrows much of the original’s tacit promotion of the honourable failure, serving to ‘design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, reconsider what we may take for granted’. Stanford university even produces a teaching resource aimed at 12+ children called the SkyMall Challenge, aimed at disinhibiting students in order to create ‘fun, low-stakes’ design projects inspired by the publication’s roster of ‘luxury devices with strange/unnecessary functionalities.’ Many established designers treated the magazine with ironic deference; writing in his obituary for the publication, Ernesto D. Morales, founder of studio Object Solutions, lamented: ‘Where now is the dream of life’s newest solutions only you could provide?’
Morales needn’t have worried. There are several new sources of such oddities already in existence: crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Over the course of the last two years, crowdfunding has truly ‘jumped the shark’ in terms of the sort of products its model is bringing to market. A number of barely credible projects have received massive amounts of funding, multiplying their monetary goals many times over. In fact it appears the more preposterous a concept is, the better it does. What is most notable about this phenomenon is the role social media marketing plays in the success of these ventures. While in the static world of print publishing the peculiarity of these types of invention precluded significant sales, in the fluid arena of social media they become attractive propositions.
In a case of life imitating art, in 2013 American photographer Patrick Strattner produced a series of images of satirical products inspired by SkyMall, novelties such as the back hair trimmer and full-mouth toothbrush. Another of these fantasies was a sweatshirt covered in Velcro dots to which a plethora of similarly Velcroed items could be attached – a bottle of Tabasco, a lighter, some painkillers, a phone, a deodorant. Two years later, a campaign stormed the Kickstarter funding ranks that was only a slightly less farcical realisation of Strattner’s joke. Baubax’s Travel Jacket contained fifteen unique features, such as a built in inflatable pillow, gloves, stylus, eye mask, microfiber cloth, an iPad pocket and insulated drinks-holder. The design adds weight, cost and complexity in order to serve a myriad of purposes poorly. That didn’t prevent the jacket from attracting $9,192,055 of investment, dwarfing its $20,000 target. It achieved this through the aid of Funded Today, a marketing company that specialise in pushing crowdfunded projects through platforms such as Facebook. Sponsored posts with titles like ‘You’ll never guess what this jacket can do…’ or ‘See how these guys created the world’s most advanced jacket…’ adopted the sort of hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative hook that are the chief currency within such content ecosystems, mixing easily with the extent stream of confession, home video, social commentary and gossip.
This approach is described as ‘click-baiting’ – tempting users towards a page using a melodramatic claim. Digital marketing’s lowest common denominator, it is often poor at converting attention into cash. What makes it effective in this instance is the human element – you’re not being exploited by a faceless brand, but highly visible individuals…usually depicted in the all-important pitch video engaging in the standard tropes of designerly endeavour: sketching, brainstorming and contemplatively rotating models. A large attraction of the crowdfunding buying process is sharing in this entrepreneurial success story. And one of the best means for getting people to listen to your story is to create a design that is somehow shareable thanks to an element of absurdity or sensationalism, be that in its form, function or the claims made about its collateral impact on everything from your love life to world hunger.
This presents an interesting design dilemma, as it follows that what might be best for the actualised product may not match what is favourable in terms of making it a viral internet hit. When the route to reach the former now often requires the latter as perquisite, designing for shareablity begins to take precedent. As crowdfunding becomes an ever more popular means of executing product and industrial design ideas, the medium implicitly transforms how those disciplines are perceived by the public.
Revelations in the autumn of 2015 about the struggles of two previous crowdfunding smash hits serve as illustration. The first was British company Torquing Group’s Zano drone, backed to the tune of £2.3m the previous January. This was the ‘the world’s most sophisticated nano drone’, ‘could go anywhere’ and would make aerial photography ‘truly accessible to everyone’. The full incoherence of Zano’s hubris was revealed within the first ten seconds of their promo video, where they vowed that their invention would ‘unlock the true potential of possibility’, all from a device that ‘fits in the palm of your hand.’ From the backers’ perspective, they truly couldn’t believe what Zano could do…which, proving too complex to realise, was to bankrupt the company in less than a year. Zano turned out to be an elaborate hoax. Perhaps getting wise, Kickstarter had the previous month taken pre-emptive action, shutting down the fund for another product – the Skarp laser razor – which had already raised $4m from thousands of customers. Lauded by its inventors as a ‘revolution’, a device that created ‘no shaving irritation’, it was also apparently an antidote to the billions of unrecyclable razors disposed of each year, and would even help alleviate drought through less water wastage. As it turns out, they didn’t have a working prototype, proof of concept, or much else to assure the funding platform that this wasn’t a merely a case of a few well-meaning engineers with over-active imaginations.
While these projects were outliers, it is increasingly possible to see elements of such sensationalism creeping into the mainstream design arena. Crowdfunding is a popular means for young practitioners to wrest back some creative control over (and a lot of the revenue latent in) their ideas, not to mention a more realistic means of bringing a product to market than hoping for a brand to commission it. But the evangelism the model enforces is problematic. Recent crowdfunded projects that have also gained traction in the design press, such as Whoop.de.doo sex toys or the Nebia Shower, come close in language and approach to their more brazen counterparts. Whoop.de.doo swaps ‘vulgarity’ for sterility to overcome what it trumpets as the ‘shame’ surrounding female sex toys – though arguably this taboo has long dissipated with the widespread availability of similarly anatomically ambiguous vibrators – whilst also claiming to improve ‘overall wellbeing and harmony’. The Nebia presents the most meaningful innovation in shower design ‘for over a century’, offering ‘an experience with water so moving that you never want to step out’…a claim somewhat at odds with the appliance’s mission to reduce shower water usage by 70%; the designers end by challenging global leaders of drought-stricken regions to install Nebia in their homes. These are both admirable products in their way, but, even if unconscious, the need to overstate their relevance to larger societal narratives as a promotional tool should be viewed with caution. Inverting SkyMall’s provision of ‘unnecessary functionalities’, these unnecessarily claim externalities that they can’t possibly achieve.
This speaks to a growing section of the design community concerned with how the discipline is now presented as a panacea. Chief amongst this group is educator and commentator Lucas Verweij, who has spent many column inches bemoaning the fact that ‘design can no longer keep up with the promises it makes.’ That statement is increasingly true, and the crowdfunding model is one accelerator, not least because of the close relationship it establishes between public and design team (note how many pitches reward their funders with personalised memorabilia and even dinner with the creators) which make any following failure to deliver that much more traumatic.
But Verweij's deduction is that design should withdraw from its increased sphere of influence, the concept of design as a socially embedded field as it has been established over the best part of a century, and instead return to a more material or craft based emphasis, defining itself as discrete and subtractable.
This is regressive. The danger in design ‘not keeping its promises’ is that the public lose faith in the discipline when it is they who we need most to advocate for its inclusion in many more high level conversations, for it to be embraced holistically by governments and corporations who, as it stands, still have a tendency to hold Verweij's view that it is some form of appliqué that can be used to add piquancy to projects on a case-by-case basis. Crowdfunding powers only a tiny portion of the market, but its visibility is exponentially greater and, via an increased presence on social media, has begun to define the discipline to a much wider audience than read the design press. Sensationalism as a means of accruing capital is damaging to design's ability to convince of its truly sensational potential. Honourable failures are worth far more than dishonourable successes, and design can only progress by being truthful about its fictions.