The Kickstarter Revolution

Anyone who has come anywhere near a design blog in the last six months has probably at some point stumbled upon the HiddenRadio, a small Bluetooth speaker/amplifier/FM radio that was to become one of the great Internet sensations of the last year. The concept was as simple as it was brilliant: a small, portable speaker whose volume could be adjusted simply by twisting the lid, and which could wirelessly connect to any Bluetooth-enabled device such as an iPhone, bringing loud, clear sound to pretty much any environment. "Every now and then," wrote Gadgetrynews. com, "there's a beautifully simple design that is so intuitive it beggars belief as to why no one else had thought of it." With its elegant, cable-free, buttonless design, simplicity of use and purportedly excellent sound quality, one would be forgiven for wondering why Apple itself hadn't thought of it first.

The company that in fact conceived the HiddenRadio could hardly be more dissimilar to Apple, not least because there is no company. The HiddenRadio is a quintessentially new typology of product, not so much in terms of its form or even its functionality, but in the economic model to which it owes its existence—a model that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, before a plethora of social media sparked off an inexorable transformation of pretty much every aspect of daily life. The story of the radio's genesis is the stuff of Internet mythology, and just one of several extraordinary success stories that have led in recent months to a frenzy of excitement around the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Put simply, Kickstarter allows anyone with an idea for a "creative project" to seek backing for that project by posting a pitch in video form. A funding goal and timeframe is set; if a sufficient number of backers (or "investors", as Kickstarter describes them) pledge their support by making a credit card payment, and the goal is reached, Kickstarter releases funds to the project leader. In the case of the HiddenRadio, the funding goal of 125,000 dollars was smashed just days after the campaign was launched, and from there it marched on to collect 938,771 dollars by the campaign deadline of 18 January 2012.

Top: The impossibility of producing the HiddenRadio through standard channels led Vitor Santa Maria (left) and John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen to try Kickstarter. Above: Gabriel Wartofsky worked on his foldable electric bike for two years. The funding he obtained allowed him to have 100 units produced

Interestingly, far from being a closely guarded secret prior to the launch of the Kickstarter campaign (as one might expect in the era of Apple-esque secrecy and media hype around product launches), the HiddenRadio had in fact already been circulating in the public domain for a good six years. As such, the story of the HiddenRadio is as much one of industrial-age misfortune, short-sightedness and failure as of Internet-era success. The story goes something as follows. John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen and Vitor Santa Maria came up with the concept in 2006 as an entry for a product design competition sponsored by Muji; at the time Vitor was working as a designer in Motorola's product development lab in Milan, and John was living in San Francisco. The concept went unnoticed in the competition, but, convinced of its potential, Vitor and John persisted undeterred in the effort to get it into production. A prototype was built, but attempts to find a manufacturer failed. Frustrated, they sent images to the design blogs Core77 and MocoLoco in the hope of being spotted by a product scout or, at the very least, of generating some buzz. Response was immense, but still no buyer was forthcoming. As a result of the hype, however, the HiddenRadio prototype was included in a small exhibition at the 2010 Fuorisalone in Milan. There it caught the eye — ironically enough — of none other than a Muji executive. Negotiations with Muji began, a contract was drafted, suppliers of core components were identified. But just as production was set to commence, the combined destabilising effects of the economic downturn and the tsunami kicked in; Muji put production of the HiddenRadio on hold. It was at this point that Vitor and John made the decision to launch a campaign on Kickstarter.

Scott Wilson used Kickstarter to produce the TikTok+LunaTik Watch Kit

Kickstarter is a New York-based company founded in 2008 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler. It defines itself as "a new way to fund creative projects", a category sufficiently broad to encompass everything from contemporary dance productions to fiction and from postal art to journalism. The model Kickstarter proposes is radically new, and although much of its success derives from the idea that one is purchasing exciting new products at knocked-down prices (backers of the HiddenRadio who pledged more than 119 dollars, for example, will receive one or more units, each of which is ultimately expected to retail at 175 dollars), Kickstarter is careful to draw a line between itself and an online store. By backing projects, "investors" are not actually purchasing products, and the site offers no guarantee that project leaders will ever deliver anything they promise. Instead, the company claims it is offering the Kickstarter community the opportunity to "make great ideas happen". A micro-philanthropy of sorts, with rewards, material or otherwise.

Testo alternativo Immagine John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen + Vitor Santa Maria, HiddenRadio & Bluetooth Speaker, switched on by unscrewing the lid, which also increases the volume — $938,771 ($125,000 goal), 5,358 backers

The idea of micro-philanthropy is less familiar here in Europe than in America, where cultural institutions and non-profits have historically been more reliant on small donations from large numbers of people. Yet Kickstarter's extraordinary success has caught even the American cultural establishment off guard. When the website's projected budget for 2012 was announced in February as 150 million dollars, the gasps of disbelief were audible: in just four years, Kickstarter had equalled and surpassed the 146-million-dollar budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government's fund for culture.

Scott Wilson, TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch, a kit to use the iPod nano as a watch, with detailing to match Apple standards — $942,578 ($15,000 goal), 13,512 backers

The question in the minds of many these days is: could Kickstarter herald a new era of crowd-funded industrial design? Even though it is a trust-based system that offers no guarantee whatsoever of successful completion, a remarkable percentage of projects (46 per cent in 2011) reach their funding goals, and many achieve significantly more spectacular results. On the last day of 2011, the record-holding funding drive on Kickstarter was the TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kit, which, with a total of 942,578 dollars pledged (or 6,280 per cent of its 15,000-dollar goal), narrowly escaped being overtaken by the HiddenRadio. On 11 February, another industrial design project, the Elevation Dock for iPhone, became the first Kickstarter to smash the 1-million-dollar barrier reaching a new record of 1,464,706 dollars (or 1,952 per cent of its goal). Just 24 hours later, the 2-million-dollar barrier was also broken, this time by a video game, Double Fine Adventure. By the time it reached its funding deadline, on 13 March, it had racked up 3,336,371 dollars from no less than 87,142 backers.

David Alden, Recoil Winders, a cable winder suitable for multi-type cables of telephones and cameras, USB devices, earphones, electronic games — $141,465 ($10,000 goal), 2,915 backers

Is Kickstarter really poised to change the face of manufacturing? Certainly not imminently, but certain disruptive effects can already be noticed. By providing a mechanism for individuals to effectively take pre-orders for products that don't exist, thereby eliminating uncertainty regarding market response (as well as the cost of financing), Kickstarter partially levels the playing field between large companies and one-man operations that might otherwise be unwilling — or unable — to fund the industrial production of their products. Furthermore, combined with the increasing availability of high-tech, low-cost machinery such as 3D printers, CNC mills and other advanced tools that make low-volume, low-overhead manufacturing quick and economically viable, Kickstarter is effectively opening up the prospect orders for the aforementioned Elevation Dock — a hefty chunk of glass-bead-blasted, CNC-milled aluminium —is manufacturing them in a workshop in Portland, Oregon, and will begin shipping in May.

John Loughlin, TiGR: Titanium lock as cool as your bike, A small and handy titanium bike lock. It can be clamped to both wheels and the frame — $108,065 ($37,500 goal), 740 backers

Kickstarter is by no means the inventor of crowd funding. Yet it is the only company to have succeeded in positioning it as a mainstream funding mechanism for a broad range of creative initiatives, and this success derives largely from its skill in structuring itself as a social media platform. The website itself is video-dependent, and since its finality is not the sale of products but galvanising enthusiasm around an idea, the videos of successful campaigns are compelling, energetic and often amusing, but never slick. Establishing a personal link with backers, who must essentially invest in one's project without any solid guarantee of returns, requires charisma and rewards it with the opportunity to project one's own message (and image) widely. John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen and Vitor Santa Maria would almost certainly have sold far more units — and made more money — had their radio gone into production with Muji, but their names, faces and profile as designers would be unknown today to the hundreds of thousands who have watched their HiddenRadio pitch on Kickstarter.

Gabriel Wartofsky, Folding electric bike for commuters, A compact and light folding electric bike, this project was developed by the designer when he was a student at the Art Center College of Design In Pasadena, California — $25,955 ($25,000 goal), 100 backers

For this reason, among others, the designers now consider every mishap in the HiddenRadio's six-year history to be a blessing in disguise. Yet beyond the handful of high-profile Kickstarter success stories such as theirs, certain questions remain. Wading through the design section of the website, one is struck by the lack of variety, with the vast majority of projects falling into the same categories, namely appendages for Apple products or bicycle accessories. This is hardly surprising given the demographic that frequents the website, but it raises questions about the scalability of Kickstarter's crowd-funding model as an engine for other branches of industrial design. There are other problems too: many — if not the majority — of successfully funded industrial design projects end up running significantly behind schedule in terms of pledged delivery dates, testing the patience and good will of some backers, while others (surprisingly few, though) never deliver at all. Despite vociferous complaints from the Kickstarter community, the website has yet to implement a flagging system that could help prevent, or at least discourage, abuse of the system. And for the moment, there is little clear evidence of how successful it might be outside the US. But given Kickstarter's remarkably short existence and ground-shaking success, there's no way of telling where the path it is beating will lead to.

Left: Diatom Studio, Sketch Chair, an example of open-source software enabling an item of furniture to be easily designed and made digitally. The Antler is the project’s emblem-chair — $34,475 ($18,000 goal), 584 backers. Right: Shannon Guirl, The New Century Modern Lamp, a classic ceramic and wood lamp devised by the self-taught designer who manufactures it, together with other models in her company, Caravan Pacific — $50,649 ($8,000 goal), 222 backers

One thing is certain: whether or not it actually changes the industry, Kickstarter represents a sea change in the way we think about the industrial design process. By positioning itself not so much as a business platform but as a "community", in which backers are exposed to every stage of the industrialisation of a product — from initial sketches to funding and final updates on tooling and shipping — it essentially recasts the production of industrial objects as a transparent, participatory activity, providing the first glimpse of what an open industrial design process might look like. Watching Casey Hopkins in his video pitch as he mills solid aluminium iPhone docks ("the same way Apple's iMacs and unibody MacBook Pros are manufactured"), one cannot help but contrast the utter, no-holds-barred openness of the whole process to Apple's military-grade secrecy protocols. Kickstarter resonates with a broader culture of collaboration, openness, ideas-sharing and total transparency that for better or worse permeates so much of contemporary Web culture, from the open-source movement to the TED phenomenon, and from the hegemony of social networks to the erosion of individual privacy. As it bursts from the fringes of hipster culture onto the stage of real-world movements of capital, the model it has pioneered might well "trickle up" and find its way into the normalcy of everyday business practice. In the meantime, let's sit back and see which influential designer will be the first to launch a campaign on Kickstarter. Joseph Grima (@joseph_grima)