Even before graduation, industrial design students from the National University of Singapore have already successfully sold their designs. They regularly fly between China and Singapore; negotiate with manufacturers and suppliers; handle sales from customers all over the world; and keep up with schoolwork — all at the same time.
These students are the products of Launchpad, a course founded and facilitated by lecturer Donn Koh of the Division of Industrial Design. Over 13 weeks, these design students work in teams of three to conceptualise designs, which they then released on a crowdfunding platform for the world to judge with their wallets.
“Within the confines of a design school, students are seldom confronted with the reality of a product that has to resonate with people and really lead to purchase decisions,” says Donn.
“You can have a thousand and one concepts, and people may applaud you. But will they give you (their) money? That’s the real test.”
Most Singaporeans have sat on one before. Plastic stools support the bums of kopitiam goers around the city as they tuck into their wanton mee, nasi lemak or prata.
They come in all shades and shapes like the customers they serve, and one in particular is the design of Mr Chew Moh-Jin, a Singaporean industrial designer who unexpectedly created what is now an icon of Singapore’s food culture.
Picture a 30-centimetres wide circle bounded tightly by a square. Extend a third of the square to a height of 44-centimetres to create a leg. Repeat for the remaining three corners and you have an outline of the stool Mr Chew designed—a modern solution for a decades-old Singapore plastics manufacturer.
Knockoffs, fakes, and counterfeits are the bane of modern industrial design. They are unauthorized copies of designers’ intellectual property. They are the stolen profits of manufacturers. They are the products of piracy: a phenomenon wrecking an industry’s will to innovate and create “original” and “authentic” design. But to consumers, piracy offers affordable goods, diversity of options, and sometimes, even better design. Piracy isn’t black-and-white like a pirate flag, but a nebulous concept whose edges ebb and flow like the waves of the sea. What’s a copy to some is homage to another, what is original today is tomorrow’s evolution, what is piracy to the industry is competition to society.
How will we recognize piracy and intellectual property in industrial design with the rise of digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing? By democratizing access to the means of production, it will become easier for users to copy, remix, and self-repair objects in ways that traditionally infringe upon a designer’s intellectual property. This calls for a need to redefine what piracy means. In response to the digital revolution, some designers and manufacturers have strengthened protection over their designs via the law and technology, while others are opening up access to them, believing that design is a collaborative process that benefits from a community working on it together. Will the rise of open design see an end to piracy?
This thesis examines more closely the relationships between piracy, intellectual property, and industrial design by studying a variety of case studies and interviews with practitioners. Beyond just a legal and economic issue, piracy is a reflection of society’s assumptions about the design process, who a designer is, and what design is for. Piracy is a ghost that will always haunt the world of design.
A Thesis Submitted to the School of Visual Arts in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Design Criticism.