Crowdsourcing Furniture Design

Guest Author Thomas Gegenhuber is a doctoral student at the Johannes Kepler University (JKU) in Austria. His current research interests are crowdsourcing, innovation and creativity. He is an Open Government advocate and contributes to such projects in his hometown Linz. Thomas has written chapters for books and published academic articles.

Now you can go toe-to-toe with Swedish furniture giant Ikea, by designing and building your own chair from the comfort of your computer.  At the Open Design Symposium in Linz, Austria, Greg Saul from the Diatom Studio unveiled the project SketchChair, which enables anyone to easily create and build their own furniture.

How it works
The core element of the system is an intuitive and simple online toolkit that allows a individual to design their own chair. To help ensure the chair will be comfortable and functional, the designer can test the chair with virtual and customizable figures, and review the feedback from people using the chairs they had previously designed.

SketchChair embraces an open design philosophy. All designs will be shared online on sketchchair.cc, a gallery of open-source designs. There are two routes to arrive at a customized design: First, users can use the toolkit to design a chair. Second, users pick an existing design of the gallery and customize it slightly by adjusting three characteristics (legs, seat, tilt):

After the user picks a design, it is produced locally by an online fabrication services such as Ponoko or 100kGarages, using a cnc router, laser cutter or paper cutter. After the parts of the chair are delivered, the user can assemble it by hand without glue or sophisticated carpentry skills. Just like Ikea.

Give back to the artist
The project received the initial funding from kickstarter. What is the business model? First, users have to pay for the production of the chairs.
Second, if users use existing designs, they have the option to tip the designers. Greg Saul and his colleagues are experimenting with a tipping-system that is based on the idea that some designs build on others. Therefore SketchChair developed the idea of design family tree. The tips are distributed along the family tree. However, SketchChair is still in its prototyping phase and this feature will not be in the first release of the system.

Conclusion

SketchChair draws from existing elements such as open source, mass customization, rapid prototyping, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Innovation often requires a remix of existing ideas to create something new and valuable. We can draw four lessons from SketchChair:
First, the project involves the crowd in two critical stages of the project. The crowd funded the project and individuals of the crowd are at the same time a potential source of designs.
Second, SketchChair acknowledges that users have different types of activity levels. Users who have time to play around and want to create designs will enjoy the toolkit. Others will find it easier to adapt existing designs to get a slightly modified chair.
Third, the reward system based on the family tree is different from the traditional winner-take-all system. (The SketchChair Team is looking forward for feedback on this idea, so do not hesitate to contact them.)
Fourth, this project contributes to sustainable manufacturing. SketchChair enables to share designs globally but at the same time they can be produced locally.