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Stanford University’s Journal of Design ISSUE TwElVE sAvEr spring 2010 $14.95 USD

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Stanford University’s Journal of Design Issue Twelve, Saver Spring 2010

Cover illustration by Marcello Bastéa-ForteForte



PROFILE Anything But Cheap Larissa Co


POINT OF VIEW Dollar Stores’ Thrills Come at a Price Hsiao-Yun Chu


HIGH CONCEPT The Rise of Store Brands Hugh Musick


You Won’t Miss It Till It’s Gone... Jeremy Alexis & Megan Fath FUNCTIONAL DISSECTION Milk Frothers



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22 24 26

INTERVIEW Paul Polak Eric Ludlum Mister Jalopy


MATERIAL Product Development 2.0 Blaine Bownell

30 33 36 38

THINKING What Technology Says Christopher Le Dantec IKEA Hacking Jonathan Bean & Daniela Rosner The Real Cost of Free Krista Donaldson REVIEW It’s More Than Just the Perfect Price Mark Schar


COMIC Humor-Centered Design Alison Wong


OBJECT OBITUARY My Oyster Card Holder Ahmed Riaz

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Illustration by Amal Dar Aziz

More Than the Sum of the Parts This Cheap-themed issue was first born out of our worry over design’s place in this tighter economic climate. With less money, how do designers and organizations react, if at all? The collection of stories in this issue explore and stretch what “cheap” really means. Some recycle goods and turn them into teaching opportunities (“Anything But Cheap,” p. 8), others make use of their resourcefulness to create new objects out of familiar parts (“IKEA Hacking,” p. 33) while some use design to address concerns about the implications and consequences of free goods (“The Real Cost of Free,” p. 36). Many ultimately discuss that over time, what has changed are our value systems and access to different commodities and tools (“What Technology Says” p. 30) and how that has impacted what “cheap” really means (“The Rise

of Store Brands,” p. 14). Ultimately, when it comes down to it, cheap isn’t really all that cheap (“Dollar Stores’ Thrills Come at a Price,” p. 11). “Cheap” is clearly a topic near and dear to our hearts. Each issue is a collaboration between our amazing, allvolunteer force of writers, photographers and editors. It is always heartwarming to see the end product of our labors be more than just the sum of the parts. (Like Voltron or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, or the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team. Or Love.) We thank you, our devoted readers and subscribers, for playing a vital part in the Ambi community. We’re at Issue #12. Quite a boxed set. (And check out back issues online at: to see if you are missing any.)

Amal Dar Aziz Micah Lande Editors in Chief

Stacie Lande David Goligorsky David Sirkin Greg Schwartz Corwin Crownover Staff

Wendy Ju Corina Yen Lora Oehlberg Björn Hartmann W. Lawrence Neeley Editors At Large

Charlotte Burgess Auburn Managing Editor Steven Dow Ahmed Riaz Alex Tung Nick Briggs Tiffany Tseng Samantha Brunhaver Editorial Staff

James Lin Kyle Bruck Doug Kim Copy Editors Hyung-Suk Kim Michael Pihulic Brian Van Osdol Christopher Li Marcello Bastéa-Forte Photo & Graphics Staff

(ISSN 1554-9526) Saver Spring 2010, Issue 12 © 2010. ambidextrous is published quarterly by Ambidextrous Magazine, Inc. with the blessings of the Stanford, at the Center for Design Research, 424 Panama Mall, Bldg 560, Stanford, CA 94305. ambidextrous

For subscriptions: Please write to For submission guidelines, please refer to our web site, Address all editorial, business, and production correspondence to Ambidextrous Magazine, 424 Panama Mall, Bldg 560, Stanford, CA 94305. No part of this periodical may be reproduced without the consent of Ambidextrous Magazine. Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous



Your Questions, Answered

Our contributors are the real deal!

What is this magazine? is a magazine for the wider design community, which includes engineers, ethnographers, psychologists, and philosophers. ambidextrous

The editors of ambidextrous are students, staff, alumni, and friends of Stanford University’s myriad design programs.

What can I do to help? Lots of things! You should subscribe, first of all, to become a member of the ambidextrous community, and encourage others to do the same.

Hsiao-Yun Chu

Larissa Co

Steve Portigal

Angie Heile

Jacqueline del Castillo

Jonathan Bean

is an Assistant Professor of Product Design and Development at San Francisco State University. She could not get through the day without Peet’s coffee ($1.70/small cup).

balances her time between working at Jump Associates and making gourmet meals for cheap. She doesn’t go anywhere without her lip balm.

You can tell us which bookstores in your area would be good to stock ambidextrous in. You can also write for ambidextrous; we accept contributions of all types and are always looking for great stories. Finally, join our team! We’d love to add story editing enthusiasts, graphical layout gurus, photoshop experts, and marketing , let us know.

is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a boutique firm that helps discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers.

is a graphic designer in Palo Alto. She could not live without joy and pain, sunshine and rain.

Geez, it’s been over a year! How do I renew my subscription?


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facilitates innovation teams, teaches design thinking, and works with organizations to craft and share their stories. She couldn’t live without water.

is a design researcher and Berkeley PhD candidate who is amassing a collection of free IKEA catalogs from around the world. Get in touch at and send him yours!

Hugh Musick

Daniella Rosner

Megan Fath

Christopher Le Dantec

Jeremy Alexis

Alison Wong

Krista Donaldson

Blaine Brownell

can make a can of Barbisol shaving cream ($1.70) last up to six months. His ambition is to only use one can a year. When not shaving on the cheap, he is Associate Dean of the IIT Institute of Design.

is a Ph.D. Candidate at Georgia Tech. His research is focused on understanding how marginalized communities are affected by the adoption of new technologies.

Mark Schar

is a former titan of industry and now the world’s oldest graduate student. He is utterly helpless without his $3 reading glasses.

is a PhD student and design researcher at the School of Information, UC Berkeley and studies the interplay between handcraft and computing. She loves cheap eats such as pan-popped popcorn and Mission-style burritos.

is the Assistant Dean and Assistant Professor at the IIT Institute of Design. He could not live without the combo sandwich (Italian beef and sausage) from Al’s beef.

is CEO of Design Revolution (DRev) and a lecturer at Stanford’s She absolutely and most definitely cannot live without sunglasses.

is Design Director at Conifer Research and an adjunct faculty member at the IIT Institute of Design. She would be at a loss without blue artist’s tape.

Alison is a senior product designer at IDEO and cannot live without her 50 cent earplugs for the BART.

is director of Transstudio and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. He could not function without his ruled MUJI calendar/notebook.

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SPRING exhibits Design for the Other 90% through September 6 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Washington, DC Design for the Other 90% examines the growing movement within the design community to produce products aimed at the “other 90%”—the vast majority of people who do not have access to the conveniences of industrialized economies. The designs showcased are intended to improve access to safe water, healthcare, and education, among other needs. Those with student IDs save $5. SFMOMA 75th Anniversary through January 16, 2011 SFMOMA San Francisco, CA SFMOMA looks back on its history since its founding, showcasing events and exhibitions that highlight the stories of the artists, curators, and visionaries who made the museum what it is today. A special Birthday Bash celebration will be held on May 14th. Visit SFMoMA every Tuesday for free, and pay half price admission Thursday evenings after 6pm.

Retro-Tech July 22 – February 6, 2011 San Jose Museum of Art San Jose, CA The artists represented explore the “craft” of technology, repurposing past and present technologies from ironic to playful to analytical. Children 6 and under are admitted free.

conferences Maker Faire May 22 – 23 / July 31 – August 1 / September 25 – 26 San Mateo, CA / Detroit, MI / New York, NY Maker’s Faire is an enormous gathering of builders, do-it-yourselfers, and professional designers, and is hosted by MAKE Magazine. The event features exhibits of Makers, hands-on workshops, demonstrations, and DIY competitions.

Geometry Playground June 25 – September 6 Exploratorium San Francisco, CA San Francisco’s venerable hands-on science museum welcomes an exhibit on geometry, aiming to change the way you think about the field. The exhibit encourages you to touch and play with what for most has been only a textbook subject. Free admission is on first Wednesday of each month.

Stacey Speyer Polyhedra from Geometry Playground Photo by Amy Snyder


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Subtle Technologies Festival 2010 June 4 – 6 University of Toronto Toronto, Canada Subtle Technologies bills itself as an “international festival of art & science.” The theme of this year’s conference workshop is sustainability. Other events include a media art exhibition and a film night. Create10 Conference: Innovative Interactions June 30 – July 2 Edinburgh Napier University Edinburgh, Scotland This interaction design conference features academic papers and hands-on case studies. There’s also a student design competition. This year’s theme is “transitions”, and presentations will explore this theme as changes in form, place, and time.

Edward Weston Two Shells, 1927 from SFMOMA Albert M. Bender Collection Photo courtesy of Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

International Development Design Conference July 7 – 30 Colorado State University Fort Collins, CO This summit is intended to drive the creation of technologies to help people in less-developed countries. While past iterations have focused on creating prototypes, participants this year are expected to work on making products out of existing prototypes. SIGGRAPH 2010: The People Behind the Pixels July 25 – 29 Los Angeles, CA This well-known computer graphics conference includes presentations on animation, computergenerated art, scientific visualizations, and games. Members of the game, movie, art, and research communities can meet and share ideas. DIS 2010: Designing Interactive Systems August 16 – 20 Aarhus School of Architecture Aarhus, Denmark The DIS conference approaches design as a interdisciplinary field. The conference is meant to bring together practitioners in industry and academics. Both workshops and research papers will be presented.

Nokia Calling All Innovators Contest Deadline June 10 Nokia asks you to submit an application or piece of content for use on a Nokia mobile device. The contest has four categories: Eco/Being Green, Entertainment, Productivity, and Life Improvement. Nokia will also select a submission to invest $1 million in. Red Dot Design Award: Design Concept Deadline July 9 This well-known award encourages designers to submit their concepts and prototypes. Awards are also given for product design and communication design.


free stuff

Design For America: The Better Alternative Challenge Deadline June 1 Bootcamp Bootleg Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (the

Open to all undergraduates and graduates studying in the US. Design For America asks you to create a 2-minute video on an idea that can reduce waste water in some way.

Instructors from the introductory design thinking course at Stanford’ have curated a loose collection of their most useful methods, modes and mindsets. The Bootcamp Bootleg

is a collection leveraging the work of many predecessors, drawing from material developed by teaching teams and folks throughout the design world over the last five years. Human Centered Design Toolkit IDEO IDEO has specially adapted their Human Centered Design process for NGOs and social enterprises that work with impoverished communities around the world. The toolkit helps organizations understand people’s needs in new ways, find innovative solutions to meet these needs, and deliver solutions with financial sustainability in mind. Design with Intent: 101 Patterns for Influencing Behaviour Through Design Dan Lockton The Design with Intent toolkit comes in the form of 101 cards, each illustrating a particular “gambit” for influencing people’s interactions with products, services, environments, and one another, via the design of systems. They are grouped according to different “lenses” bringing different disciplinary perspectives on behaviour change to bear.

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P r ofi l e

Anything But Cheap How RAFT turns surplus goods into teaching activities by Larissa Co


arge, waist-high bins line the floor of the warehouse, each filled to the brim with different materials—from craft staples like cardboard tubes and scraps of cloth to more unique finds, such as colorful urethane potholders and handheld fans with flashing LED displays. Member teachers browse the packed aisles, filling up designated plastic bags with all the items they want for as little as a dollar or two per bag. Most of these materials have been donated by companies who would otherwise discard the surplus goods in exchange for a tax deduction. Instead of ending up in a landfill, they become affordable supplies at Resource Area For Teachers (RAFT), an organization that strives to foster hands-on learning in every classroom. Though the prices at RAFT are extremely low cost, Mary Simon, who founded the organization 15 years ago, says “cheap” isn’t a word they use very often here. The supplies have to be inexpensive because most teachers buy them with their own money. Mary


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emphasizes that “the idea, what kids learn [through these materials], is not cheap”. In fact, it is precisely the organization’s use of simple materials to reinforce learning that inspired Nigel Ball, RAFT’s marketing director, to transition from his corporate career to work full-time at RAFT. Nigel explains the impact of RAFT’s simple activities, which explore concepts like static electricity, while pointing to a kit: “I took home [this activity] last night and [my daughter] was playing with it for hours. It’s such a simple thing—it’s just a piece of plastic and a piece of tinsel, but it absolutely reinforces the principle…the creativity behind these simple ideas is phenomenal.” Indeed, each simple material at RAFT gives rise to a wealth of activities as teachers are inspired to use them in different ways specific to the subject they teach. Grabbing a handful of beads as an example, Mary relates that as a former math teacher, she can imagine using them to teach patterns, whereas a science teacher could create lessons

around planets and molecules with them. An art teacher has even melted the same beads and used them to create stained glass windows during class with her students. The treasure trove of materials that teachers can find at RAFT is only the beginning of the organization’s true impact on learning. Now serving over 8000 member teachers with three locations in the Bay Area and one in Denver, RAFT provides teachers with resources, from lesson activities to teaching workshops, that make it easy for them to incorporate handson learning in their classrooms. Mary explains that besides the expense of finding and providing materials for each student, coming up with great hands-on activities demands a lot of planning ahead of time—a real challenge when teachers need to have their lessons ready five days a week. Moreover, successful activities must be strongly tied to the curriculum that teachers have to teach. Otherwise, they might hesitate, thinking: “[that idea]

Photos by Michael Pihulic

sounds fun, but I really have to get back to my real teaching,” says Mary. One way that RAFT helps teachers prepare hands-on activities that are equally engaging and integral to the curriculum is by creating and selling learning kits. Each kit delivers the essential ingredients for a complete learning activity: it contains an idea sheet with instructions, additional web resources about the concepts, and enough materials for twenty students to have their own set. And true to RAFT’s mission, the kits transform humble, inexpensive materials into valuable learning tools that fit a teacher’s budget—costing only $4 for the most “expensive” one. Not surprisingly, this combination of interesting lessons that require little planning has proven ideal for teachers; RAFT anticipates selling 55,000 kits in the Bay Area this year. One such kit provides instructions for creating a device that is made up of a small plastic sauce container with two flexible straws sticking out from the sides and gauze covering the opening.

Mary proudly identifies this as a “bug pooter,” a vacuum for collecting and studying specimens without hurting them. This activity, like the rest in RAFT’s current collection of 550 idea sheets, was created by the organization’s education team. And many of the

standards in K, 4th and 7th grades. The sheet also suggests that teachers could use this device for lessons on observing and classifying insects or even to explain the physics of a vacuum. Coming up with creative educational uses for the oftentimes random

Coming up with creative educational uses for the oftentimes random selection of materials that are donated is both challenging and rewarding. “We look at this and say, ‘What could a teacher do with that?’” staff members on this team are former teachers. The diverse content backgrounds that these educators draw from enable them to create activities that can be used to teach multiple topics across disciplines and grade levels; one of RAFT’s goals is to design a kit for every standard in California’s K-12 curriculum. For example, the idea sheet accompanying the bug pooter kit mentions that the activity supports

selection of materials that are donated to RAFT is both challenging and rewarding. “We look at this and say, ‘What could a teacher do with that?’” Mary mentions, holding up a ridged plastic tray that was probably used as packaging material for a product before it was donated. Mike Pollock, one of the members of the education team, eventually came up with the idea of using the tray as the base for a self-

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propelled vehicle kit. Taking advantage of the assortment of materials at RAFT, Mike has been able to develop multiple iterations of the concept—a luxury he never had when he was an elementary school teacher. Working at RAFT has allowed him to refine the devices he makes and the pedagogy behind them, making it easy for other teachers to

what they could use some unique find for. “We make it so much fun for them,” Mary remarks over the lively discussion two teachers are having with a volunteer who is showing them some magnetic games. At another station, Mike captures the attention of passing shoppers with a seemingly magical demonstration of soap bubbles that

Though the prices at RAFT are extremely low cost, “cheap” isn’t a word they use very often here. “The idea, what kids learn, is not cheap.” replicate a good learning activity at very little cost. “I’m creating all the stuff that I wish I had when I was a teacher,” he says proudly. Like Mike, the staff members and volunteers at RAFT are all eager to help teachers find ideas that work for their classrooms. The warehouse store in San Jose buzzes with activity as teachers try out different “toys” themselves or hover over material bins and discuss


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bounce off a cotton shirt and vanish with a puff of smoke when they pop. Teachers who stop to talk with him are surprised when they learn that Mike is using nothing fancier than dry ice, soap solution, and rubber tubing to product the effect. They are even more delighted when he explains the science behind the activity. This lively sense of community among teachers is perhaps RAFT’s

most valuable impact as an educational resource; it is a place where teachers old and new can help each other create hands-on activities that get their students excited about learning. And by providing both material and pedagogical resources, the organization lowers barriers to hands-on learning in the classroom. Holding up a bottle rocket kit in her shopping cart, one afterschool program teacher explains that she has been coming to RAFT for over ten years now because the kits always engage her students and the idea sheets make it easy for her to confidently explain the concepts behind the devices. The learning kits and materials at RAFT may come cheap, but the level of support that teachers receive from the organization is priceless. For more information, visit RAFT online at:

Point of Vie w

Dollar Stores’ Cheap Thrills Come at a Price by Hsiao-Yun Chu

Photos by Christopher Li


hile belts have been tightened and budgets slashed during the global economic recession, one type of business has done amazingly well: the humble dollar store. Large chains like Family Dollar and Dollar Tree increased their market shares by more than 28% over the previous year, while shares of other S&P 500 retailers decreased by roughly the same amount. Ironically, neighborhood dollar stores are even cutting into the profits of big box discount stores like Wal-Mart. Dollar stores offer the cheapest shopping thrill. One skinny greenback is all that stands between you and that gold-toned picture frame, plastic rain bonnet, or set of six jumbo corn holders. And impulse purchases—like the toilet bowl lip gloss— are just too cheap to regret.

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I admit having a love-hate relationship with dollar stores. On the one hand, it is a nice ego boost to be able to afford anything in the store, and one can actually find useful stuff there. However, the conscious consumer within me has a nagging feeling that extreme cheapness cannot come without hidden costs. Indeed, while dollar stores are easy on the wallet, their low price tags do not reflect the high environmental costs of discount consumption. A few years ago, I bought a can opener at a discount store for $1.99. When I took it home, it turned out that its cutting wheel was too short and flimsy to actually puncture the lid; it just drove a groove around the top of the can. Here was a can opener that simply didn’t work—$1.99 worth of trash, a stunningly flagrant waste of materials and manufacturing costs. Since I could neither return nor recycle the can opener, I kept it, as a reminder of what not to design. Much of what is purchased at dollar stores was not made to last and heads for the landfill sooner rather than later. This creates a cycle of wasteful consumption: because the products bought at dollar stores are manufactured cheaply, they have a limited product life, forcing the thrifty consumer to all too soon buy a replacement and perpetuate the cycle. Dollar stores not only sell crappy products, they are also implicated in the poor labor practices that

If the retail prices of dollar store goods accurately reflected the social and environmental costs of their manufacture and distribution, they would be far more expensive. enable vast quantities of cheap products to be manufactured at artificially low costs. The social costs that are incurred are difficult to quantify but nonetheless real. The bulk of discount wares are produced in mainland China, where conditions for the average factory worker remain far from ideal, as documented by organizations such as New Yorkbased China Labor Watch and numerous investigative journalists and filmmakers. The documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005) shows that shiny


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Mardi Gras beads, like much dollar store merchandise, are manufactured under dubious conditions. If the retail prices of dollar store goods accurately reflected the social and environmental costs of their manufacture and distribution, they would be far more expensive. Certainly, dollar stores are not the only perpetrators of wasteful consumption. You can find much of the same merchandise—tacky plastic figurines, flimsy toys, and housewares—on the shelves of big-box retail stores. However, the larger retailers at the very least have well-defined supply chains; they can (in principle) exercise quality control and exert some pressure on their suppliers to improve working conditions in their factories. (Whether or not they do this is a subject for another article.) Dollar stores, in contrast, obtain merchandise from thirdparty distributors or little-known factories that may be less well regulated. Because of this lack of regulation and of centralized oversight, dollar store products should be purchased at your own risk. Recently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other consumer groups announced high levels of lead in lunchboxes, toy pails, and children’s Spiderman sunglasses sold at dollar stores. Chocolate gold coins containing melamine and toothpaste contaminated with diethylene glycol have also been recalled. And according to child safety experts, many toys sold at dollar stores, with their small parts and inadequate labeling, pose considerable risks. We can blame globalization, greedy manufacturers, inadequate inspection, and dollar store proprietors for contributing to all these problems to some degree. But in reality, discount stores flourish mostly because we, the consumers, love bargains, especially during this lackluster economy. The upsurge in discount shopping indicates that, whether out of complacency or thrift, consumers all too willfully ignore the greater social and environmental concerns during times of economic stress. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. households now shop at dollar stores, and the average customer spends $12 per trip. That’s a generous donation toward the cycle of wasteful consumption, shoddy products, and poor labor practices that dollar stores have come to represent.

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H i g h Co nc e p t

The Rise OF STORE BRANDS by H u g h M u s i c k


ho would have thought that back in 2001, when Americans were encouraged to do their patriotic duty by going out to shop, that almost nine years later frugality would resurge in popularity and even carry a kind of new moral authority? Walk down the aisle of a supermarket, and the new economic reality and the vogue for saving is on full display, especially in the form of generic and store brands. Yet, as the increased attention given to behavioral economics indicates, saving money alone is often not enough for driving purchasing decisions. As consumers become more educated and exert a greater influence on what ends up on the shelf, store brands are taking on the appearance of national brands in an effort to expand their desirability. Although consumers may think packaging is inconsequential, it actually plays a large role in helping entire societies define themselves and their values. The transformation of generics into store brands during the last decade is to a great extent the story of how design gives


Ambidextrous Wondrous Winter 2010

expression to the economic and, by extension, emotional concerns of a society in a given period of time and reinforces shared values. In 1977, Midwest-based Jewel Food Stores launched a revolution in packaged food with the introduction of the generic grocery products category. The concept behind generics was lower prices for staple food items such as cereal, macaroni and cheese, canned vegetables, and even beer. An entire line of food stood out from the visual clutter of store shelves due to its hyperaustere packaging. Black stencil-style type spelled out the contents within the package against a white background and an almost gratuitous drab olive green stripe. The pared-down design embodied the category’s “no frills” positioning, the absence of photography, color, and appealing typography reinforcing the notion of bottom-line economic value. During the last decade, the introduction of color, photography, and illustration into store-brand foods packaging has taken it far from its “no

frills” origins. If the generic packaging of the late 1970s flaunted frugality, today’s store-brand packaging does the opposite, dressing itself to appear like its national-brand counterparts at a glance. Positioned next to one another on the shelf, the real point of differentiation between a national-brand and store-brand cereal focuses on one thing only: price. In such instances, the store brand is the winner. The rise of store brands is noteworthy in that it represents a shift in influence away from the producer and to the consumer. The proliferation of choices on the store shelf has forced consumers to take note and become more astute readers of packaging, ingredients, and price tags. Being able to make comparisons at the point of purchase empowers the consumer to call upon the available information and make decisions accordingly. Purchasing a store-brand cereal becomes something akin to buying a counterfeit designer handbag or watch: it may not be the real thing, but most people probably will not notice the difference.

A trip down the cereal aisle reveals the persistence of national brands. Perhaps it is because much of the cereal category is aimed at children, a demographic easily influenced by television advertising, which exerts a major influ-

National brands are also strong in cleaning products, which have an intimate relationship with consumers’ daily lives and how they view themselves. As far back as the 1930s, soap advertising zeroed in on creating

Illustration by author

The transformation of generics into store brands this last decade is the story of how design gives expression to the economic and emotional concerns of a society and reinforces shared values. ence on parents’ purchasing behavior. The steady stream of colorful, creative advertising establishes a brand’s place in the child consumer’s mind, which store brands rarely do. When buying a store-brand cereal, parents run the risk of appearing uncool at best, and stingy at worst. Is it any wonder that so many parents cave in and shell out an additional two dollars for the box of nationally advertised cereal, even when they know it is likely to be identical to the store brand? In this case, being thrifty feels a bit like being negligent.

anxiety about how one’s choice of cleaning products was something noticed by friends and neighbors. Cleaning products still engender strong national brand loyalty (e.g., Windex, Tide) in North America and Western Europe, although they have slowly lost ground to store brands. Against this decline, consumer packaged goods companies have found new brand loyalists in emerging markets, driven in large measure by a rising middle class. Still, the strength of store brands versus national brands fluctuate wildly

from product to product. Certain items, whether or not supported by national advertising campaigns, simply fail to elicit strong consumer attachments. When utility is the dominant criteria and there is little risk of perceived social stigma, price becomes the stronger motivator. In such a case, one’s economic self prevails over one’s social self. A specific brand of canned peas is not likely to say much about the buyer nor are buyers likely to be shamed by their choice of canned peas. Thoughtful designs, whether appealing to reason or emotion, serve as signposts directing not just our purchases, but how we perceive ourselves. As such, designers and design have an enormous responsibility to contemporary culture. It is not enough to simply try to direct and influence consumption. Well-conceived packaging should aspire to simplify and give meaning to our lives. And in these uncertain times that is no cheap thing.

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High C o nc e p t

You Won’t Miss It Till It’s Gone... Using deprivation research to understand what consumers value by Jeremy Alexis & Megan Fath


magine taking a beloved product away from someone and then observing how they deal with life without it. While it may sound like a cruel and unusual form of punishment, it is also the basis for deprivation research, a methodology currently being applied in a professional setting at research firm Conifer Research and explored in academic settings such as the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago. Deprivation allows one to uncover emotional attachments to current behaviors, understand deeply embedded practices and beliefs, and identify key barriers and perceived costs to change. When conducting deprivation research, we deprive users of a frequently used


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product or service, observe changes in their behavior, and then conduct in-depth interviews to understand the impact. The method offers, in our opinion, the most insightful and unbiased method for understanding the parts of people’s routines that they most value.

Deprivation research is a valuable tool because it focuses on how people deal with situations that necessitate significant changes to their behavior and habits, which is what many innovative concepts require. It is ultimately about uncovering value, and is part of a

Many innovative concepts may require significant behavioral changes and alterations to the routines that were carefully studied. Instead of merely asking people to generalize what they value, you can observe behavior changes (what is harder? what is missed?), and ask questions based on tangible experiences.

larger toolset of rich, exploratory design research. Changing people’s routine behaviors is tough work; change can be hard. One of our fellow teachers at IIT Institute of Design demonstrates this

by beginning his class each semester by asking students to change the orientation of their sock and underwear drawer for two weeks. This experiment empathetically shows them firsthand the difficulty of disrupting and adapting routines. Our students’ struggles with adapting their behavior exemplifies what often leads to failed products in the real world. When creating something completely new, it is important to know if users will willingly adopt the new offering and potentially change their behavior in order to do so. Some famous new product failures can be traced back to misunderstanding what users valued. For example, in a Harvard Business School case study of Webvan (the online grocery store that went bankrupt in 2001), Webvan leadership noted that one of the primary reasons for its downfall was that they had never understood the value consumers placed on selecting their own items, particularly produce. Because users were unwilling to change their ways to adapt to Webvan’s model, the company failed. Deprivation research helps us understand which elements of a routine are adaptable versus valued (and thus potential stumbling blocks for designers). Asking consumers if they will change their behavior or give something up is unreliable (sure I will diet, quit smoking, and start investing in retirement). A better approach would be to assess users’ values through direct observa-

tion. However, most ethnographic practices appropriated by designers focus on users’ current activities and behaviors. This typically yields insights for immediate product improvement as they are based on observing users’ current, embedded routines. In contrast, deprivation research method can elucidate future behaviors. For example, a study at Conifer Research regarding online television recruited self-proclaimed television addicts with few experiences watching

regress (not watch television) or progress (try watching shows online). We use this example to illustrate the steps of how to conduct deprivation research on the next page. Our general experience has been that most skilled design researchers can implement a deprivation study as part of a larger research design as it complements and builds on other ethnographic research methods. The approach is based on tools we already know and use, such as self-documentary studies,

Deprivation allows one to uncover the emotional attachments to current behaviors, understand deeply embedded practices and beliefs, and identify key barriers and perceived costs to change. content online. At the time of the study, early adopters had begun switching from the television and cable box to online streaming and downloadable content, but the vast majority of television viewers had not yet migrated online as a critical mass. For our deprivation research, we targeted mainstream users, who are far less forgiving than early adopters of perceived hurdles, in order to provide deeper insights about both behavior changes and users’ changing needs. To understand the adoption barriers to watching content online, we took away their access to broadcast television. Coping with the absence, participants were faced with a choice to

observations, and interviews. We have also been pleasantly surprised with the gusto with which the research participants have received the deprivation method. The motivation for participation is viewed as a personal challenge. The data generated (often as video clips) are compelling stories rich with emotion and personal reflection. There is no 100% accurate way to quantify how much value people place on existing products and services; deprivation research can provide a useful proxy for determining what will and will not work.

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Steps of the Deprivation Method


Build a baseline

Embarking on a deprivation study, the research team needs to first establish a baseline set of behaviors and routines related to the topic. This can be established using self-documentary studies and in context observations. Interviews are generally not sufficient to establish a baseline since we want to document actual behaviors for comparison later. Also, participants should be fully briefed on how the method works before the study to address any ethical concerns. For the project conducted by Conifer Research, our team wanted to learn more about the perceived emotional and social benefits of broadcasted television. In the first phase of this study, participants logged their normal television viewing as well as other entertainment related activities.


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010


Take it away

Next, the research team decides what element(s) of the routine to take away. The team can decide to take away the most habitual, beloved element (what the participants are most reliant on) or the element most relevant to the topic. Participants were unable to use their television to view any regular and cable programming as well as DVDs for two weeks. To make it interesting, the team intentionally staged this deprivation to coincide with the season finales of many proclaimed must-see shows. Some families embraced the challenge: one child disconnected the cable box while another taped up the television’s power button.


Watch the experience unfold

Next, the team observes new behaviors and how the users cope without the familiar. This research should mirror the approach used to set the baseline and can include self-documentation as well as in context observations. The research team should be looking for changes in behavior, any new solutions concocted by the participants, pain points or unanticipated delights and catalysts for new behaviors. How are they coping without broadcast television? What are they doing instead? Are they migrating to online television? Going outside more? While some families did confess to watching a bit less television, all of the participants did try watching episodes available on the internet. As they documented these firsthand experiences, we were privy to view some of the environmental compromises. Families, for example, began huddling around their desktop computer and sharing office chairs in the den.

a fun twist to 4 Insert 5 the study Give participants a lifeline. This twist has become one of Conifer Research’s trademarks to the deprivation method. Our teams have found it is interesting to insert a loophole by allowing participants to use the deprived elements for a limited time during the study (as long as they document it). What were the tipping points? Why did they cave? Participants were given the opportunity to watch one hour of television during the two-week deprivation. They used this lifeline at their discretion but were required to document the experience. In the final hours of the Democratic presidential nomination race, one of our participants surrendered her lifeline to watch Obama’s appearance on Larry King with a friend. Moments such as this demonstrated a pattern in the value of broadcast television for live events and social occasions.

Capture the happy reunion

When the deprivation is completed, do not miss the most critical moment— when participants are joyfully reunited with their beloved product or service. Capture the moment by providing them with a documentary tool such as a video camera. This can be very revealing to the deprived product or service’s value—are participants overjoyed or noncommittal to be using the product or service again? One of our participants recorded her daughter tearfully embracing the TV at the end of the study. She had missed the independence of setting up and navigating the experience by herself. During the study, the girl was forced to use the computer in her grandmother’s room. The family also struggled to find favorite shows on the internet. The experience of switching to Channel 8 at 6pm was much different than recalling the specific episode name.


Follow it up

At the conclusion, the team can then conduct a follow up interview, probing for what changed, as well as the participant’s feelings, beliefs, and preferences. A final set of documentation, using the same approach as the baseline, should be used to see if any part of the routine has changed after the deprivation period is over. Few participants switched entirely to the internet at the conclusion of the study. The struggles of conversion highlighted the limits of viewing occasions associated with conventional television, such as social viewing, ambient viewing, and channel surfing. Their experiences captured the new behaviors that required adopting a new user language, replacing channel flips, and emphasizing new tools for social connection. The client teams continue to integrate these learnings in prototyping future products, identifying potential partnerships, and establishing criteria for evaluating technological advances.

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


Func ti o na l D i s sectio n

FROTHED NOT STIRRED... Coffee drinkers average 3.1 mugs of coffee per day. In North America and Europe, the ingestion of coffee is about a third of that of tap water. A majority of coffee drinkers are satisfied if their coffee is warm, can be conveniently accessed, and provides them the necessary caffeine kick to get them through the day. Some enjoy a drive through McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts (thanks Rachael Ray), others walk to a nearby Starbucks or Peets, and the true coffee connoisseurs selectively visit local coffee shops. Is coffee a contained self-indulgence or a personal luxury that has now become a perceived need? Today’s typical coffee drinker is willing to spend more than $3 on a latte without a second thought. And as coffee houses have usurped cafes, coffee is no longer just black and strong but macchiato-frappa-latte-chai-ized. As disposable income becomes more precious, the brown-bag version of coffee is home-brewed or cooked up in the closet kitchenette at the office. Even with these sacrifices some have figured out how to still be hip and enjoy a fancy cup of joe. Taking the steam machine home and frothing milk is one way to go. Our interest was piqued with a claim on WIRED Magazine’s blog that IKEA’s $2 Produkt milk frother is as good as (if not better) than Aerolatte’s $20 version, available at high-end stores like Crate & Barrel. For this functional dissection, we tear apart these two milk frothers to find out what drives the $18 consumer cost difference.

Have ideas for a great future functional dissection? Send them to us at!


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


i nte r v i e w

Paul Polak interview by Jacqueline del Castillo

Paul Polak is the founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE), a Colorado-based non-profit which develops practical solutions that attack poverty at its roots. His most recent project is DRev: Design for the Other 90%, a non-profit dedicated to revolutionizing the way products for the other 90% are designed, marketed and distributed.


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

What are the biggest challenges you’ve discovered while designing products for the world’s dollar-a-day customers? People often come to developing countries with a hammer looking for a nail. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that very often, the solution I start out with is totally thrown out by learning about the context. By far, the biggest design challenge is reaching scale—how to reach rural

Could you give us an example of when giving aid (whether in the form of a product or a service) has failed? There are literally thousands of examples. The most illustrious one is from when I went to the refugee camps in Somalia in 1981. People were starving, but there was absolutely no thought given to what people would value in the food provided. Food baskets provided included powdered milk which had zero value

The obvious thing is that if you’re living on a $1 a day, that dollar has to go for medicine, food, shelter, getting supply for the next crop—you’ve got 100 different uses for it. areas where there may not be mass media and where a significant portion of the customers may be illiterate.

Photo courtesy of IDE

IDE is known for manufacturing the treadle pump (a foot-operated water pump). Tell us the story of how IDE began manufacturing it. Norwegian engineer Gunnar Barnes’ dream was to create a water pump that a small farmer could buy for the equivalent of a sack of rice. In the 1970s, he introduced the treadle pump to Northern Bangladesh. During the 1980s, IDE decided to manufacture the rower pump instead, because it used a fabricated, 2” PVC pipe which was very precise in its measurement, and easier to manufacture in large volumes with high quality. But, the farmers kept telling us that they liked the treadle pump. We found out that the farmers were right. The treadles were cheaper, easier to operate, and produced more water. So, we switched to designing treadle pumps. I set a goal of manufacturing 2,000 treadle pumps a month. In doing that, we ended up designing many different kinds of treadle pumps.

[in Somalia] simply because nobody understood it or liked it. The real milk that’s valued is camel’s milk. On the other hand, the camps also distributed cooking oil. By accident, the plastic bottle that the cooking oil came in became highly desired as a way of carrying water. There was a real market value not only for the cooking oil but also for the container that it came in. The planning for all those give-aways did not include any kind of investigations into what people could really use and what was useless. Powered milk was strongly motivated by the milk lobby who needed to get rid of surplus to keep the prices up. The givers had their own agenda. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in pioneering your design revolution for the other 90%? We need many more examples of radically affordable, mass-marketable technology that can make a big impact. And, we need those examples not just in agriculture, but in many other fields. D-Rev is working on various technologies to address this challenge, including a project called ‘Milk to Market’ supported by the Gates Foundation.

In countries like Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, remote dairy farmers watch their evening milk spoil because there’s no way to get it to market. D-Rev is working on the design of affordable, on-farm pasteurization which will allow farmers time to market the milk and get a much better price for it. If this problem is solved, millions of farmers can generate more income from the milk that their dairy animals are already producing. You often say,”Affordability isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Could you elaborate on what that means in the context of designing products for the developing world? At IDE, we wanted to sell treadle pumps that were of a good quality, and that meant, to anybody in the West, a seven year product life. When we talked to farmers, we learned that a two year treadle pump was about 30-40% cheaper than a seven year treadle pump. We eventually decided to offer two year, four year, and seven year life treadle pumps to give farmers a choice. And, we gave them lots of information so that they knew what they were doing. We found that 55% of all farmers bought a two year treadle pump. If a farmer invested $25 in a two year treadle pump, they would get $100 back in the first year. Just dropping the price 30-40% was well-worth dropping the lifecycle from seven years to two years because at the end of the two years, that farmer had made enough money to buy a seven year pump or a four year pump or spend the money on other things that were more important. The obvious thing is that if you’re living on a $1 a day, that dollar has to go for medicine, food, shelter, getting supply for the next crop—you’ve got 100 different uses for it. Affordability at the entrylevel price to a technology is critical to somebody who is strapped for cash.

Full interview available online at Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


i nte r v i e w

Eric Ludlum interview by Steve Portigal

In 2009,, an industrial designoriented website, took the extraordinary step of launching its own product: the Dutch Master bicycle, made in New York City and selling for $1,560.


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

The effort to launch the limited edition premium Dutch Master bicycle, handbuilt in New York City by independent, small NYC-based manufacturers such as Brooklyn Machine Words and Profile Racing, was marked by a more deliberate consideration for product design over mere cross-branding. We talked with Core77 partner Eric Ludlum about the Dutch Master effort and what it revealed as it was produced. What was the motivation behind Core77’s decision to build the Dutch Master bicycle? The Dutch Master is more of a story than a product. Core77 is a place where design stories get told. Our expertise is in recognizing good stories and promoting them. With the Dutch Master, we got to write and promote the story. The starting point was the disappearance of New York City manufacturing. It was really stunning to find the Worksman [oldest American manufac-

in the business of generating editorial content, if they do have a strong story to them, it could come out of the editorial budget. The product development is the development of a story.

is, it’s going to be a fairly low volume item, meaning that if you were going to have it as a sustainable business, the prices are going to have to have a fairly high margin.

Did you have a sense of the target customer for the Dutch Master?

So the product details must be chosen in a way that supports the price point. The design details send a specific message and create a coherent story.

There’s the market of the consumer of ideas on the Internet. People consume that product by just seeing it. People who end up making projects that aren’t necessarily going to be produced ever, but will go out onto the blogosphere and get a fair amount of publicity, they’re being paid in “ego bucks.” Through the process of developing the bike, the market started to move higher and higher based on this being a craft process where there’s a lot of skilled labor involved with producing it. It tends to push the price point higher. That informs the aesthetics of the products as well, including leather accents on the bike, and an overall

The starting point was the disappearance of New York City manufacturing. The question was, “How do we create a saleable product around the idea of New York City manufacturing?”

Photo courtesy of Eric Ludlum

turer of bicycles] frame still made there, for over 100 years. From that basis, the question was “How do we create a saleable product around the idea of New York City manufacturing?”

aesthetic that matches the “rough luxe” look that you’d see in trendy restaurants or hotels.

Tell us more about this idea of a story as a starting point.

It is surprising to see an everyday product like a bike positioned at such a high-end price. Why create an exclusive bicycle?

It’s the result of who we are. We’re a magazine. Stories are our strength. For some other organization it would have been manufacturing knowledge or design skills. We tried to be aware of our abilities and what we could pull off. Since we’re

The marketplace dictates where the opportunities lie for small run manufacturing. The people who are very expert consumers of chickens or bikes are a tiny fraction of the overall market. They’re the ones who are willing to pay a premium, so whatever your product

The aesthetic becomes one of communicating that added performance, as an exclusivity or surplus of its abilities. I think that’s something that mass manufacturing picks up on and imitates in the mid-market, like in vehicles, for instance. We definitely see it with things like the chocolates or craft brewing. Budweiser or Michelob don’t replicate the taste of craft beers but they’re replicating the packaging and coloration. Core77 is putting out a higher priced bicycle during a recession. What is the relationship between these forces? With us and the Dutch Master, we knew that it wasn’t going to make a bunch of money. We’re doing it for the sake of doing it, and are driven by the impulse to create. The economic climate contributed to that. If you’ve got a lack of options to really be productive economically, it is counter-intuitive, but there’s a little less pressure for us to measure projects economically. If the economic value system is being downplayed during a certain economic time, you look for other value systems that justify what you’re doing. If part of the idea was that a web magazine could produce a bike, why not? In a way, it’s an empowering idea. Creating things isn’t solely the domain of big companies or companies that have a focus on producing things. It’s just the idea that we’re pushing forward to that Internet audience: these things are possible.

Full interview available online at

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


i nte r v i e w

Mister Jalopy interview by Angie Heile

For most people, garage sales mean cheap stuff. For Mister Jalopy, they mean inspiration. Mr. Jalopy runs a Los Angeles store called Coco’s Variety that sells filtered water, latin medicines, used bicycles, and an ever-changing assortment of items from his personal collections. A self-taught tinkerer and frequent MAKE Magazine contributor, he restores cars, bicycles, and appliances, and invents curiosities like the “World’s Biggest iPod,” an LP record-to-MP3 converting station housed in an antique stereo cabinet.


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

What do you look for at a garage sale? If you go to an average garage sale, they might have a thousand items; things that they had bought at some point, that were important to them. Now they’ve decided to get rid of them. During the summer, I visit up to forty garage sales in a day. That means I look at 40,000 items, conservatively. What’s interesting is that I can afford each of the items that I look at. I couldn’t buy them all at the same time, but it’s rare that any one item costs over a hundred dollars. It takes this incredible ability to look at 40,000 items that you could potentially own, and pick out the one or two truly precious objects.

Photo by Angie Heile

What is one of your favorite finds? I’ve acquired better and better stuff over the course of my life. Now, I have such a great pancake flipper, such a great spatula, that to replace it would be an extraordinary event. The flipper has a beautiful red Bakelite handle, and you know the metal part that would go under the pancake, it’s perfectly springy steel, really thin. It’s able to get under stuff and it works really well. You can live an inspired life when the objects around you are well designed and meant to feel right in your hand. Pure form following function can be a little sterile. There are beautifully designed objects that are absolutely minimal and perfect, but also there’s a place for rococo. Not literally rococo, but that idea of ornament for its own sake or ornament for the sake of folly, or grandeur, or romanticism. That’s an expression of an individual. There’s a value to that. Sometimes I buy things for sheer utility. Sometimes I look for objects that tell a story. What kinds of objects at garage sales tell a story? There are some stories that can only be told through the intimate object, just as there are stories that can only be

told in words or in photographs. You could explain the object to somebody, show them a picture, but there’s no way that you’ll ever really experience it until you’re standing there next to it and thinking about how it fits into the context of people’s lives. That’s the sweet spot of when an object can soar. A toolbox that somebody used every day of their working life: that’s an interesting object to me. The story of who you envision owning that toolbox may ultimately be fictitious to a certain

the wear mark of hands, that’s an object that’s come in such close contact with individuals, it picks up sparks in the process. When you hold it in your hand and it fits a little better than a brand new one, it’s a continuation of that soul of the object. Then you take all these different objects and build something new that has meaning in your life—something you’re able to share with your friends and family, just as those objects were shared before. Like the World’s Biggest

It takes this incredible ability to look at 40,000 items that you could potentially own, and pick only one or two truly precious objects. extent, but that’s not the point, it’s what you bring to it. It’s just an appreciation, like an appreciation of art. You’re looking at these objects and seeing what resonates with you. Is there an object you now own that tells a particularly memorable story? I was at a garage sale and there was a Skippy jar in a box. I pulled it out, and in it were all a kid’s treasures from the early 1960s: a little metal army man, caps, a whistle, a skate key, all that kind of stuff. It’s the best item I ever got garage saleing because it tells the most intimate story, the most encapsulated picture of a life, reduced down to this little jar. The family sold it to me for a dollar and didn’t realize that it had the power that it did. How do your garage sale purchases contribute to your projects? A challenge of making and reusing is to look through an object. Instead of seeing what it is, a broken whatever, you see what it could be: that’s a cord that could go on a lamp, or there’s a timing mechanism. I like to build stuff out of discards to celebrate the soul of the object. Objects in people’s lives have meaning to them. Something that actually has

iPod: that was built out of an old stereo cabinet. That was an important thing in somebody’s life. It gets broken down and eventually fades out of their life. For me, it’s reborn as something new with a bunch of components of all different eras, of all different lives that are put together. It creates this kind of mosaic of soul. And it’s functional, something I can actually listen to music on every day. I like having those things in my life. I also don’t throw anything away without stripping off usable parts. If I throw an old VCR away, I’ll always clip the power cord and save it. I’m always rewiring lamps and stuff that fails. What is the best way to learn to fix things? Take something that’s broken and take it apart. A lot of times, failure is visual in nature, meaning you can open it up and you can actually see what’s burned out. You learn a little bit every time you open something up. Maybe you only fix it 10% of the time, but you gain that knowledge. It’s just an issue of the bravery to get started. So don’t throw anything away without at least trying to fix it, except cathode ray tube TVs and computer monitors—those are scary.

Full interview available online at Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


Mate r i a l

Product Development 2.0 Internet-based tools are democratizing making and distribution by Blaine Brownell


ntil recently, making and distributing a new product have remained costly and difficult parts of the design process for new, individual designers. But a new crop of digital fabrication technologies and online distribution channels has the potential to upend the economics of bringing products to market. The result may be a “long tail” effect: new internet-based product development tools potentially will allow some designers to gain unprecedented market penetration. Making Made Easy Laser-cutting, 3D printing, CNC routing, and other computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) technologies have been warmly embraced by designers, extending the power and accuracy of design software into the material domain. As these systems have become more affordable over time, they have also become an accepted part of designers’ prototyping toolkit. These processes bring complex geometries within reach and save time and money compared with hand-tooling techniques. Modeled after increasingly popular do-it-yourself and self-publishing services, “make-it-yourself” sites that utilize these technologies have become powerful allies to emerging designers. Rather than paying expensive setup costs involving dies and jigs (not to mention large-volume material pro-


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

curement and storage), designers can produce small quantities of products more independently and at relatively low cost. One such site is Ponoko, the selflabeled “world’s easiest making system.” Ponoko is a digital portal for designers, digital fabricators, material suppliers, and consumers. Designers can upload their creations in the form of laser-cut templates that are priced, processed, and shipped. Not only can this service facilitate prototyping and testing, but it can also serve as a vehicle for designers who wish to sell their works online. Since its 2007 inception, the New Zealand-based company has produced over 30,000 fabrications for “makers.” Nervous System is a design company that uses Ponoko to manufacture and market a series of experimental jewelry inspired by patterns from nature and computation. Their delicate designs are often made from nontraditional materials and the results are quite beautiful: a stainless steel pendant that looks like coral, a honeycomb-like bracelet of silicone rubber that distorts and stretches as you wear it. According to Nervous System co-founder Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, Ponoko’s greatest strength is its focus on the needs of designers. The clarity of their business model and willingness to meet evolving manufacturing needs are huge benefits when compared with

more traditional and less-flexible lasercutting manufacturers. For example, Ponoko agreed to laser cut felt at their request even though it had never done it before. While felt traditionally would be die cut, laser cutting offers a more affordable but challenging alternative given felt’s flammability. The agreement allowed Nervous System to create its Radial Necklace, which has a lace-like pattern based on a model of a radial spring mesh under tension. Now, Ponoko offers felt as a material option to all designers. “Laser-cutting manufacturers have been around for a while,” explains Louis-Rosenberg, “but they are often traditionally minded, harder to work with, and not focused on the consumer. At the core, Ponoko is just a manufacturer, but instead of focusing on engineers or professionals they focus on making it easy for anyone to access the technology.” Services like Ponoko potentially allow designers to reach a wider audience as it enables them to cater and optimize small batches of products. With no overhead costs, Nervous System can manufacture its products as demand dictates instead of committing to quantities in the hundreds or thousands. Although Louis-Rosenberg does not envision Ponoko becoming a versatile marketplace on par with online stores like Etsy, he claims that the service

does enhance the designer/consumer relationship. As he puts it, “For some things mass production will always be more appropriate, but what I really hope to see in the future is designers and producers being closer to consumers… [as] consumers [get] a better understanding of where their products come from and how they are made.” Ponoko has also recently joined forces with CNC router company ShopBot to launch the 100kGarages project, a platform that will harness the power of 100,000 fabricators, welders, sculptors, and other small-scale

lowing fabricators to be more involved with assembly and finishing. Crowdsourcing Product Development Another notable service is Cuusoo, a Japanese company (“dream life” in English) founded by industrial designer and businessman Kohei Nishiyama that provides a bridge between budding designers and large manufacturers. Users upload designs that are seen and voted upon by a growing designer and consumer community. Designs that receive enough votes move to a second round in which manufacturers begin evaluat-

No longer are designers limited by mass production, required to single out one idea from many, leaving countless untested alternatives on the table. builders throughout the world to make products for designs submitted through Ponoko’s web portal. This concept not only turns centrally based manufacturing on its head; it also promises to reduce transportation costs for products sold to designers located near each “garage.” Such a model would have been unthinkable with traditional mass production, in which specialized machines and well-trained labor have helped to ensure quality control. With 100kGarages, precision is controlled largely by machine-driven processes, al-

ing the products’ economic viability. The works determined by Cuusoo’s online network of 20,000 members to be the most promising are ultimately picked up by large retail chains— avoiding the hefty investments required by conventional product development and market research methods. Cuusoo thus taps the collective energy of a burgeoning online community to test and validate designs. Cuusoo presents other economic benefits as well. According to Nishiyama, “The cost of inventory

doesn’t exist anymore because the products are all virtual until they are ordered. Also, the resources are endless—because in this case, the resources are the brains of the users, which are unlimited in their capacity to generate ideas.” The users in this case are the designers as well as the potential customers, who are all actively involved in the design development process. While this crowdsourcing model has already proven successful with sites like Threadless, the open T-shirt design community, Cuusoo demonstrates that it is viable with other products as well, with close to 600 currently waiting to be commercialized. By 2007, Cuusoo had brought 20 products to market and five generate stable revenues. No longer are designers limited by mass production, required to single out one idea from many, leaving countless untested alternatives on the table. Although it is still early to make a comprehensive assessment of these services, the change is already palpable. A broadening spectrum of creative artists, craftspeople, and industrial designers are participating in a compelling new form of production that may ultimately transform established methods of product conception and realization. For more information visit:

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


T hi nki n g

W h a t T e c h nology Says B e co m i n g a P a r t of the Conversation b y C h r i st o p h e r L e Da n te c


his past March, a man used his mobile phone to take a picture of Michelle Obama serving food in a soup kitchen in Washington D.C. The immediate assumption from some conservative commentators was that the man taking the photo was homeless. The commentators further argued that a homeless person had no business lining up for a free meal if he could afford the luxury of a mobile phone. These comments opened up the debate of whether choosing between food and a mobile phone was choosing between necessity and luxury.


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

This story is a familiar one. Having spent the past two years engaged in ethnographic and exploratory research on how technology affects the homeless and their care providers, the practical necessity of the mobile phone has come up repeatedly. My interviews have cut across several demographics within the homeless community and each has surfaced the practical uses of the mobile phone. Mobile phones, it was pointed out during the debate, are necessary lifelines for the homeless. In addition to the practical benefits of owning a mobile phone, my interviews have drawn my attention to the symbolic benefit of mobile technology: owning a mobile phone signifies social membership. Phones help homeless people stay connected with their support networks of friends and family, aid their search for employment, social services, healthcare, housing, childcare and counseling, and ultimately act as mediator to the social institutions the homeless deal with as they seek to reestablish stability and self reliance. Simple gestures like casually placing a mobile phone on the table at a coffee shop says something about the individual, his or her connections to the world, and his or her ability to participate as a member of society. One individual I interviewed explained how he had kept a non-functioning mobile phone to put his friends and family at ease. As he put it, “They know if I got my cell phone I must be doing alright.” Perceptions of Technology and Social Status The social relevance of the mobile phone can be traced from the history of the mobile phone as a technology of prestige. The striking image of Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street using an early, and laughably large, mobile phone can be connected to this popular association. These images link the mobile phone with the

power broker, the person who needs to be connected at all times: the person with money and influence, who epitomizes and defines luxury. This early association of mobile phones with status persists and fuels the image of the mobile phone as a status symbol. Yet, technology’s association with luxury has become more complicated as the mobile phone has become a low-cost, mass-market technology. Anyone, including the homeless, can reasonably afford a mobile phone. For example, a new phone with pre-paid service is less than $15 at Wal-Mart. The rapid uptake of mobile phones in the past ten years, from 76 million subscribers in 1999 to more than 276 million in 2009, points to the general ubiquity of digital technologies across both the public and private sectors. On one hand, this is good for society. As technology becomes more affordable to a greater number of people, the gates of participation open wider. On the other hand, though cell phones have become more affordable, society has not been quick to change its perception of technology as a luxury item. This incorrect perception has led to the creation of new stereotypes and prejudgments about who has the right to access these technologies, both of which can hinder participation. This tension between the mobile phone as a luxury and the mobile phone as essential is driven, in large part, by the legacy of social status affiliated with the technology. While the status signified by mobile phones is changing as they are used by greater numbers of people across a more diverse socio-economic landscape, it still says something about its owner. For the homeless in particular, the status a mobile phone signifies is a crucial part of why the mobile phone is a necessary item. It is more than just using the mobile phone to maintain social connections through times of uncertainty and instability. It represents the ability to demonstrate social membership through simple possession.

For the homeless the status a mobile phone signifies is a crucial part of why it is a necessary item. It demonstrates social membership through simple possession.

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


Mediating Access to Technology For groups or individuals marginalized by poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, a lack of access to these technologies both amplifies their status as outsiders but also limits their practical opportunities for betterment and change. Finding a job and securing housing are both much more tractable when one has a mobile phone, and for the segment of the population homeless from economic crisis such as job loss or health-care related expenses, the mobile phone becomes a crucial tool for a return to stability. In my own field work, the homeless pointed to mobile phones as a way to disguise their homelessness to potential employers. In one of my respondents’ view, having a mobile phone meant not having to reveal he lived in a shelter, but more importantly it meant he would be able to be in contact with that employer and not miss an opportunity because he was not present to take a call. Furthermore, local governments and nonprofit organizations are going digital in order to reap the productivity and efficiency benefits that have been prized and realized in the private sector. Yet as these public outlets of information and services move online, we begin to create a tension in who has access based on how access is mediated. For example, for the segment of the homeless population who grapple with drug addiction and mental health, the mobile phone is increasingly being used by care providers as a way to reach out and act as lifeline and counselor when these individuals most need it. Public health researchers at the Center for Disease Control have begun to build intervention programs around mobile phones, focusing on the flexibility they afford to care providers in contacting and intervening with homeless individuals who are at a high risk for contracting or spreading HIV. For public services, like welfare and disability entitlements, the public has the right to these services. However, as these services are bound up in systems that require technology to access them such as online search, registration, and verification, then arguably, access to facilitating technologies— including mobile phones and personal computers—should also be a right. Technology as a Necessity Being homeless is being a kind of outsider, marginalized, often ostracized from society. For many homeless this means engaging in a struggle to regain entry into society through housing, better employment, and ultimately self reliance. It also means coping with the stigma that comes along with being homeless. The mobile phone is a potent way to mitigate these marginalizing forces. It satisfies both the practical


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

needs of the homeless in providing a means of managing their many responsibilities as well as their need for basic social participation. In the brief examples here, the mobile phone is no luxury item. It is as necessary and as fundamental as food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare because it mediates access to these necessities. The public’s flabbergasted reaction to the idea of a homeless man taking a photo of Michelle Obama demonstrates a larger issue about our beliefs surrounding who should have access to certain technologies. However, beyond these different beliefs lies the reality that as a society, we depend and thrive on being connected to one another. More than anything, the mobile phone, the Internet, and services available through these technologies enable us to work, engage in play, and participate in contemporary society. These technologies both mediate our connections and indicate to whom we might become connected. Ultimately, we need to realize that technologies may start out as luxuries, but as they become central components of our everyday life and interactions with one another, they are elevated to necessity.

The mobile phone is no luxury item. It is as necessary as food, clothing, and healthcare.

IKEA Hacking by Jonathan Bean & Daniela Rosner


ake a guitar amp from a broken alarm clock. Turn a pair of salad bowls into a speaker. Or transform a cabinet door into a sleek writing surface. Exhibit a more or less puckish disregard for an IKEA product’s intended use and assembly instructions— and, bam!, you’re an IKEA hacker. What is it about IKEA that drives some people to reuse, recombine, or modify products from the ubiquitous retailer of housewares? What prompts them to post their hacks online on sites like so that you, too, can reproduce the hack at home? Why have we ended up with IKEA hacking and not, for example, WalMart hacking, Target hacking, or Home Depot hacking? There’s an obvious an-

swer: accessibility and price. But IKEA is more than just cheap. As design researchers at UC Berkeley, we became interested in IKEA hacking because of its merging of craft, domesticity and consumer culture. Today more and more people creatively fix, reuse, and customize consumer products, and then codify and share their production process with others online, prompting further modification. We conducted qualitative interviews with IKEA hackers and quickly found that to many of them, IKEA is more than a brand; it’s a lifestyle. Hacking

IKEA meant adapting its aesthetic, milking its accessibility, and mocking its modularity. That’s not a $19 chair, says the IKEA hacker. That’s a neatly boxed and affordable stash of “raw materials.” Ubiquity, standardization, and modernism become invaluable components of the creative process.

bumerang: $0.50

bertil: $39.99 Sander Von Bussel’s Desert Island is an art piece made from a chair, hangers, and flooring from IKEA.

hemse: $7.00 / m2

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous




When we first started to study IKEA hacking, we asked if hacks could be sorted into different categories. One of the hackers we interviewed described a continuum of IKEA hacks on which purely practical hacks are at one end (ones that increase a product’s utility—a bookshelf slimmed down to fit in a narrow hallway) and more whimsical expressions are at the other end (ones that reveal personal taste or creativity, such as Sander Von Bussel’s Desert Island, represented below). Overall, it is the ubiquity of IKEA’s products and the company’s accessibility that IKEA hackers challenge and take to the extreme.



At some level, shopping at IKEA means embracing the DIY spirit. An IKEA store is different from a standard department store—it has high expectations for customer involvement. A trip to IKEA requires you to wander through showrooms, locate the items in the warehouse, and schlep heavy boxes (often full of dense particleboard) to your cart. In addition, each furniture item obliges you to assemble it yourself using wordless instructions. A shelving system for your living room, for example, may consist of five modules, each an assembly of separately sold components: a frame, drawers, cabinet door, shelves and hardware. This added work is part of the company’s corporate identity: more choice for less money.

T he On lin e Life o f IK E A H ackin g

IKEA hacking is not often something people do behind closed doors. All the people we interviewed enjoyed sharing their hacks, and even getting a certain level of fame for their hacks, by posting online on sites like IkeaHacker or Instructables. Sharing one’s hacks seemed to cement one’s identity as an IKEA hacker. One hacker, who goes by the online handle “Vince P”, to screen off his bed from the rest of the studio, used frosted glass IKEA wardrobe doors held in place with Stolmen tension poles so that he wouldn’t have to drive screws into the floor of his apartment. The materials for the doors cost $813—cheap in comparison to the cost of sliding glass interior doors installed by a contractor. His hack become well-known after it appeared on the Apartment Therapy home decor blog as part of the 2006 “smallest, coolest” contest. Comments on the site praise Vince’s taste and ingenuity and link to IKEA’s website to specify the exact parts he used. One commenter posted a link to an-



Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

other person’s blog with exacting directions for assembling a similar hack. We saw that IKEA hacks get shared online because hackers often feel obligation to the community. They have used online forums and blogs to learn the techniques used in their own hacks, so they feel that they ought to explain their own hacks to others (in much the same way that you might expect a neighbor to whom you’ve loaned a tool to return the favor). IKEA hacking can also lead people to learn new skills. For example, when one of our participants, John, decided he wanted to remodel his kitchen as a mark of devotion to his new wife and children, he used online forums to build the knowledge and work up the courage he would need to tackle the project. “I’m not a ‘real’ builder,” he said. “I’m a web designer,” but still he tackled his kitchen project, which he blogged from start to finish and that involved everything from foundation work—he used the jack from his car to help install a new beam—to the exacting work of resizing IKEA cabinets.




S ta ndardi zatio n

The IKEA aesthetic, hovering somewhere between economy and Modernism, is very important to IKEA hackers. The spare, sleek design of a Bollö chair or the smooth, unornamented finish of an Ädel cabinet performs the role of a blank canvas. People use the materials like modular blocks—reconfiguring individual pieces to form a more customized whole. One hacker we interviewed explained that part of the fun of IKEA hacking was figuring out products’ construction methods—such as the board on frame construction of the inexpensive Lack shelves—and finding ways to work with it while maintaining the IKEA aesthetic. With some ingenuity and tinkering, the $19 chair quickly becomes a more elegant and expensive commodity.

Standardization of IKEA’s product names across the world lends itself to a global community of IKEA hackers. From Germany to Malaysia, a Blanda Matt bowl is a Blanda Matt bowl. This means that IKEA hackers worldwide can easily purchase and discuss the same products, the product names becoming a common language for hackers. Like that Lack shelf hack? You can reproduce it this weekend by running out to your local IKEA, buying the exact same “raw materials,” and finding the instructions online.

It is the ubiquity of IKEA’s products and the company’s accessibility that IKEA hackers challenge and take to the extreme.


Ubi quity

We learned that particular “raw materials” are commonly used across different hacks. Some, such as Blanda Matt salad bowls, Produkt milk frothers and Lack tables, probably are commonly hacked because they are cheap—with a more accessible price point, they are a more likely target for customization than other IKEA products. But other products are valued for hacks because of distinctive qualities that make them useful in an assemblage. For example, take the tension poles sold as part of the Stolmen closet organization system (think large, heavy-duty, vertical versions of those shower curtain rods that squeeze into place between walls). IKEA hackers have used the tension poles as supports for bike racks, desks, and cat trees.


C o n c lusio n

In the hands of IKEA hackers, ready-to-assemble chipboard and plastic bits are transformed into symbols of individuality. For some, they become symbols of mastery over the consumer marketplace. To others, they mark creative explorations and pragmatic goals. They are ideas given material form, assembled with a dash of creativity. In 2008, a contest held in parallel with the Amsterdam museum’s exhibition on IKEA hacking generated around 100 entries from all over the world. One of the winning hackers bought an Arstid lamp, removed it from the box, returned the lamp for a refund without the box—cheap indeed!—and then turned the box itself into a lamp. Hacking IKEA means hacking any part of the company: its products, its process and its identity. The final hack, it seems, is the transformation of IKEA hacking into a phenomenon that is as global and powerful as the brand so carefully crafted by the company itself.

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


T hi nki n g

The Real Cost of Free by Krista Donaldson


onsider this dilemma: a poor farmer in Tanzania has a small, dusty plot of land where she struggles to grow mchicha (think spinach) and tomatoes. She and her kids lug water from a nearby well. She cannot afford fertilizer. She cannot afford a treadle pump to bring more water to her crops or a drip irrigation kit to more efficiently use her water. The cost of these products is trivial to us. Do you give the poor farmer a pump if you know it will transform her crops and


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move her family from just scraping by into the middle class? What if you knew that with your donation, she would be able to make enough money to send all her kids to school, not just her oldest son? It’s hard to say no, isn’t it? But you should. “Free” is a big source of debate in my community, design and development—the design of products that will enable new sources of income for poor people in less industrialized economies. In some situations—for example, following a disaster—free is the only option for a population’s survival. But I am talking about development, not relief. Despite the number of social enterprises and non-profits that design products to help poor people, not enough of these products stick—in

the sense that they are bought, used to potential, and repaired indefinitely until something better comes along. The danger, the real cost of free, is that free or heavily subsidized consumer products allow for bad design. By bad design, I mean what you get when a product’s attributes are mismatched with a user’s needs. (We can all think of examples; my favorite bad design is the security screening at airports.) With users who do not have much money the main need is invariably a radically low retail price. Designing a good product for almost nothing is often an overwhelming design challenge, especially for Western designers. If we cannot design a product that meets this crucial requirement, what other criteria are we neglecting to meet? Do we really understand the users’ needs? And ultimately, should the product even be launched? I will avoid the larger debate and try to convey what I have seen and heard on the ground with consumer products that are meant to improve poor peoples’ lives. To start with there is a lot of waste, some defying logic:

culturally inappropriate foodstuffs, expired medicines, homemade sweaters for sweltering-climate refugees. There are some devices that seem pretty cool to Western minds, but are mismatched to local conditions: a water pump powered by a children’s merrygo-round (kids don’t like to play on it!), emergency shelters that become a sauna once the sun comes out. There are also some elegant products that have made minimal impact, such as the AfriDev deep-well pump (unaffordable to farmers). Among all of the products I have seen, very few have had real and widespread beneficial im-

sidized products are like those “on sale.” And have no doubt; customers know when a product is on sale and when it is priced to market. It is the behaviors around these products that determine how sustained their impact will be. For example, KickStart, an East-African NGO I used to work with that makes water pumps, observed that once a farmer receives a donated pump, his neighbors are unlikely to purchase pumps even if they can afford them. This reticence to buy when one might get the same thing for free is sometimes referred to as “the handout mentality.” Really though, aren’t the other farmers just hedging their bets? And they may continue to do so, even to the detriment of their families. The new thinking—now more mainstream—is that these consumer products need to work within the local market system. They should be

The danger, the real cost of free, is that free or heavily subsidized consumer products allow for bad design… Designing a good product for almost nothing is often an overwhelming design challenge. pacts on specific populations. Yes, it is a bit disheartening, but it’s tempered by the extraordinary adaptability and resourcefulness of the people who are the “target beneficiaries”: the sweater gets dissembled to become a mat, and mechanical devices of all types are cannibalized to be sold or remade into more useful items. Regardless, free stuff is perceived to be stuff no one wants. Heavily sub-

distributed in such a way that manufacturers, distributors and retailers can all make a profit. Can this be done with donated products? Sure, if there is an ongoing and indefinite funding source. (Okay, so really no.) Can it be done with subsidized products? Yes. And this is generally how it is done in the non-profit sector—but products should still be priced to the market. Organizations like KickStart, IDE and

D-Rev depend on donor funds for research, development and marketing. Other organizations like the Aravind Eye Clinic use a cross-subsidy model to be economically sustainable— wealthy patients pay a premium for their eye surgeries thereby funding the surgeries of the poor patients. Excessive or unwise subsidies are the kiss of death, though. Like donations, they are not sustainable, they skew markets, and they hinder local entrepreneurship. They may be good for one farmer, but not good for everyone. In design and development, the pendulum has swung enough to the market-driven model that the “forprofit social enterprise” is now the thing to be. Partly driven by the ideas in C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, founders of these organizations believe that for-profit companies selling to poor people can be profitable. This should not be a surprise to anyone: poor people buy things, and they do not necessarily buy items with low profit margins. For example, in many parts of Asia, it is common to see individual-use packets of items for sale at the local general store: shampoo, coffee, medicine—anything that lends itself to an individual serving. These are more expensive per unit than the larger size bottle, box, or package of the same product, but this size is all that the poor consumer can afford. The consumer gets what they need, and the storeowner, supplier and manufacturer all make profits. Minimizing cost does not mean free. Good products that want to have a sustained impact—actually lift people out of poverty—need to be matched to the price points of the local market. An affordable product will stay on the market as long it meets the needs of the customers—our Tanzanian farmer and others. This is good for everyone.

Saver Spring 2010 Ambidextrous


Re v i e w

It’s More Than Just the Perfect Price by Mark Schar


Ambidextrous Saver Spring 2010

ply unavoidable. IKEA obtains a significant amount of the timber from Eastern Europe and the Russian Far East, where half of all logging is illegal. She concludes that IKEA’s ultimate success is “convincing millions of people around the world that mass-manufactured furniture that looks, feels, and smells like extruded Lego blocks is not only affordable and stylish but soulful.” Ouch. In the end, Ruppel Shell offers few solutions to the Cheap problem. Her definition of “the perfect price” is an amorphous concept borrowed from her mother, something she calls “the happy medium” between affordability and sustainability. What is the lesson for designers? On a whole, Ruppell Shell provides an informative and critical look into the social, political, and emotional forces that drive the consumers’ pursuit of cheap prices. We as designers do not always create new products and services with price as the only constraint—there are many factors that drive design. At the end of the day, it is important to think about how what we produce affects not only the end user, but more importantly our environment and every individual involved in manufacturing these objects. Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. July 2009. Penguin Press, 320 pages. Hardcover: ISBN-10: 159420215X, list $25.95.

Photo by Hyung-Suk Kim

“Expect more, pay less,” the tagline of discount retailer Target, might be the downfall of Western Civilization, according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of the book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Cheap is dangerous? Really? Ruppel Shell, a contributing editor for The Atlantic and professor of science journalism at Boston University, has been researching the cost of products. As Ruppel Shell sees it, the drive for lower priced goods has come to define the American way of life, starting with John Wanamaker’s 19th century “Grand Depot” department stores. In her new book, she asserts that cheap goods— whether cheap furniture, cheap clothes, cheap food— are all paid for by somebody, even if it’s not the person taking the cheap goods home. Shell begins by detailing the history behind America’s obsession with cheap. By lengthening store hours, cutting down on labor costs, optimizing store layouts, creating acres of free parking, and building stores in close proximity to neighborhoods, early entrepreneurs during the 19th and 20th Century were able to create the shopping culture that persists today. Furthermore, while some things cost substantially less today than they did in the 1970s, like clothes (-32%), appliances (-52%) and food (-18%), many things cost much more like mortgages (+76%), health insurance (+74%) and childcare. The march downward in price is nothing more than the “process of creative destruction,” a signature of a healthy economy as defined by Harvard economist Joseph Schumpter. And developing countries certainly have benefited from the move to a manufacturing economy, lifting the standard of living for billions of people. Cheap is here to stay, Ruppell Shell uses a series of examples to show how price tags do not reflect true cost. In a chapter ominously titled, “Death of a Craftsman,” she recounts her trip to Helsingborg, Sweden, home to IKEA’s corporate headquarters, to learn how IKEA tries to achieve its vision: “to make good products at low prices.” After visiting IKEA, the average consumer might initially assume that all IKEA products are manufactured in Sweden. In fact, the majority of its products are produced by more than 1,300 vendors in 52 countries. The consequence of IKEA’s relentless pursuit to achieve the lowest cost and extensive product supply system often means that deforestation, material waste, and toxic chemical flame-retardants are considered sim-

Co m ic

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My Oyster Card Holder 2005 - 2007

I collect cheap mementos during my travels. Whether it’s kitsch keychains, tragically designed airline safety cards or movie ticket stubs, I’m always looking at the underbelly of plentitude for the perfect object to hold memories of where I have been. My favorite memento started its life as a Oyster Card holder. Oyster is a transit card used for London’s Underground and transit systems. It comes in a plastic blue case, with a textured hinge bifold that has thermal graphics all over it. The holder came for free with the purchase of a month’s worth of transit. I bought the Oyster card during the winter of 2005 while visiting London during a two month hiatus between jobs. An eager wanderlust had led me to take the long way home visiting various parts of the world. Just as I was leaving the UK, I paused as I reached out to throw away the now valueless card. With a moment’s hesitation I threw away the card but kept its holder. It was the perfect memento to represent my travels. Once back home I soon started using the holder as a wallet. It always brought a smile to my face when I pulled it out. It served to remind me of my time as a nomad, to never get too comfortable, and to never settle down. It smelled like freedom. I appreciated the simplicity of the bifold, a type I had not tried before. I could slide a few bills tenderly into the front pocket (the textured spine would crack if I forced too many things within its fold). Slim and sexy, it forced me to be simple and shed things it couldn’t fit. I fell in love with the brightness of the object. Bright blue and unashamedly plastic, it was cheap and simple. Carrying it I felt proud, even clever, for repurposing an object I had almost thrown away. Looking back now, I suspect the cleverness was not entirely my own. With its gratuitous front pocket, folding wallet-like ability, and message on the inside cover pleading “Please reuse your card,” it was clearly designed for preservation. Nothing embodies my trip for me more than my Oyster Card Holder. Whenever I pulled it out of my pocket the unmistakable bright blue would get noticed and spark conversations around winter sabbaticals and nomadic freedom. It wasn’t just an object— it was a way of life. A few years down the line, the Oyster card holder began to fall apart. My re-entry into a real life and a new job required me to carry business cards and more bills than could comfortably fit inside. The strain of adding a few credit cards and an ID card to the mix took its toll, and the Oyster Card Holder cracked at its seams. A tiny rip became two tiny rips, and then the two expanded. The flimsy plastic material of the holder had not been built for this purpose. The inside cover slowly starting peeling away. The transfer printing on the cover eroded softly with repeated use. The bright blue gradually faded. Instead of allowing it to completely come apart, I put it out to pasture. As the Oyster Card Holder was fading so too was my resolve to be a nomad. The desire for stability entered my life just as the card holder left. I couldn’t always be in transit.


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Photo by David Goligorsky

by Ahmed Riaz

Ambidextrous Magazine Issue 12 "Cheap"  

This Cheap-themed issue was first born out of our worry over design's place in this tighter economic climate. With less money, how do design...

Ambidextrous Magazine Issue 12 "Cheap"  

This Cheap-themed issue was first born out of our worry over design's place in this tighter economic climate. With less money, how do design...