What if a 3D printed world were ugly?

Companies such as i.materialise want to democratize manufacturing and design. We want to let people design their own things so that the products that surround them feel, fit and look better for them. Every person is unique with their own quirks, personality and feelings about beauty. Every body part is unique and everyone uses products differently. The current manner of making millions of copies of things and then convincing millions of people to buy them is flawed. Most of the money is spent on branding, on trying to convince people to buy something rather than making that product better. This is due to the limitations of mass production and because it’s simply easier to convince someone to like an inferior product than to make the best product for them. 3D printing is changing this, people can now make the perfect thing for themselves. You can make your world look exactly as you would like it to. Everything you touch could be as you dream it to be. A new artisan age is dawning and everyone’s esthetic can now be translated directly to their surroundings.

But, powerful tools that let people design and make their own things also carry risks with them. The risk is that “everything will be ugly.” My apologies, this is a terribly elitarian thing to say. But, a lowering of barriers to entry and an abundance of any content item broadens the base of that item and distributes quality over a wider ever more diverse set. Think of the painstaking illustration by medieval monks of their rare books destined to be seen by few and read by even less and compare that with the split second global publishing we can all do anywhere. The set has increased and somewhere, in the maelstrom, there are gems. Perhaps sum total quality has increased but there is just so much detritus that it is hard to tell. Systems that identify gems create value. This is what eBay, Google and Twitter do. Most successful internet companies are really systems for identifying diamonds in the rough.

At first glance the 200 books of 1000 years ago seem to be much more beautiful than the ALL CAPS tweets and self help selling of the famous content creators of today. This is of course an illusion brought on by the fact that limited resources concentrated more quality in fewer items. The lack of choice brought on constraints and meant that every brush stroke had to be perfect. In a world of copy/paste, delete and instant publishing nothing has to be perfect at all.

With words, WebPages and auction listings we can use filters to only see what we enjoy. In the real world this will be problematic. With design and manufacturing freedom a lot of people are going to get to make a lot of choices, many of them unhappy ones. If you remember this website called MySpace, it also illustrated this issue well. By giving people tools to customize their pages, MySpace let its community create and edit their own presence on the web. This was a powerful opportunity and millions enthusiastically leapt in, going on to create the most abominably ugly flashy user created mess this world has ever seen. It seems that enthusiasm does not automatically lead to ability, at least not in the short term. So what if all the products we saw in people’s homes, all the clothes everyone wore  and most of the things that surround us become as unedited and garish as MySpace? Where in the world could we run towards the clean lines and confines of a real Facebook?

Above you see an image of a McLaren Mercedes SLR (via Autoblog) a supercar, that was enhanced by its owner. Originally it was designed by experienced designers working many hours to make a beautiful car for a group of rich enthusiasts. One of these enthusiasts promptly said, “I love what you’ve done with the thing, lets make it chrome.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but most of the eyes seeing this thing will probably not find it beautiful. My personalization of a public object creates an externality. My creative expression of what I think is beautiful could reduce the level of beauty in your world. If its just a few outlandish cars there won’t be a problem. But, if we extend this cavalier customization to many products our world will slowly but surely become uglier.

Or am I wrong? Will people learn design? Will we contain ourselves? Or indeed will we not customize much?

Images Beinecke Library, Creative Commons Attribution and Autoblog