The first wave of customization begins early in the age of the artisan—the ability to make a product of distinguished quality at a premium of time, material, and often, cost. It’s a process that is outsourced to an expert, a designer or a maker, before an item is ever fabricated. In this type of customization, which continues today in tailor-made goods, the customer is more a patron than a participant.
The second wave of customization evolves with the era of the factory and the mass-made, where stock products develop out of the one-of-a-kind, and a wider consumer economy grows around the availability of more commodities with higher design and lower cost. From personal goods like jeans and shoes to favorite tech staples like smart phones, the jump is intuitive to the accessories, chairs, and tables that form the backbone of a mass design movement.
But a curious thing happens when consumers acquire everyday goods: we keep changing them after they’re made. We put a patch on the jeans and a special shoelace in the sneaker, decals and stencils on the notebook and hand-picked cases on our phones. We make the look and feel of these items matter a lot more by making them our own.
This accessorizing is a potent form of self-expression. It’s the perennial impulse to carve our initials in the tree. And everyone is doing it. Call it the mass monogram.
In personalization, individuality is transferred from the imagination of the owner to the object.
Consumers innovate by improvising with easily available ingredients in countless ways. Any adornment becomes personal because it’s identifying and different. These choices are therefore incredibly important, even though they may be a surface treatment and are most often decorative.
Decoration is no less meaningful to the process of personalization than design—what might be seen as the foundational blueprint of something custom. Working from the outside in to change the personality of an item is a powerful means of creating a custom version from that blueprint.
One industry that leads the way in this intersection of the custom and customer is fashion, where couture items are reinterpreted over and over again into basics, and then reconstituted into new styles by consumers on the street. The word custom comes, in fact, from the Old French word for costume. Today it’s evident that this spirit of fashion is deeply affecting other areas of interior and industrial design by driving companies to design and redesign products with more of the custom ingredients that people want.
If customization is the active process of personalizing design choices, then personalization represents the desire to be unique in the first place. It’s why customers want to customize any product.
Applying the consumer model to the workplace means understanding the very human, core desire to be ourselves, to avoid sameness, by personalizing the look of the world around us. It is the heart of how we can take advantage of the same item, the same piece of furniture or device, in our own way.
Workplaces are beginning to pursue opportunities for customization with the same adventure, nonconformity and warmth that we bring to the way we personalize our own looks, our gear, our media and our homes. The key is to tap into the way consumers want to personalize products by empowering them to participate in the creative process. Check back in to learn more in our next chapter from Participate.
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Photo credits: Henrik Kam, Copyright Alberto Bernasconi/Offset.com
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