Designing and Making: What Could Change in Design Schools. A First Systemic Overview of Makers in Italy and Their Educational Contexts

Massimo Menichinelli, Pd.D Candidate – massimo.menichinelli@aalto.fiMake in Italy CDB Foundation / Aalto University, Italy / Finland

Massimo Bianchini, Research Fellow – massimo.bianchini@polimi.itDesign Department, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Alessandra Carosi, Research Fellow– alessandra.carosi@mail.polimi.itDesign Department, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Stefano Maffei, Associate Professor – stefano.maffei@polimi.itDesign Department, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

This paper explores the evolution of designers and makers educational models in relation to places (virtual/real), educational activities (virtual/real), technologies and the modification of designers’ profile in terms of skills and capabilities.

This study is inserted within a wider framework of transformation of production models. It can be described as an emerging socio-technical paradigm characterized by new forms of advanced, open and distributed manufacturing. Democratization of fabrication devices linked to an increasing abundance of low cost (free) design resources, the appearance of indie online marketplaces and new social forms of micro-financing innovative projects (crowdfunding) show the rise of new ways of learning by doing (e.g. making, tinkering, hacking, fabbing).

Starting from the results of a national survey conducted on emerging Italian makers, makerspace managers and self-producer designers community, the paper tries to define new learning approaches and practices able to generate design innovation. The paper argues that current design educational resources (courses, didactical facilities and practices) should change in order to be able to support the new design capabilities strongly characterized by a Maker approach.

Keywords

Design education, Digital fabrication, Fab labs, Makerspaces, Making, Self-production, Learning processes.

A NEW LANDSCAPE FOR EMERGING DESIGN AND PRODUCTION PRACTICES

Designers’ practices have constantly evolved in the last two centuries. Starting from Arts and Crafts Movement at the end of the 19th century, designers have progressively developed also an intertwined relationship with the field of industry. During the whole 20th century design has taken part to different design and production paradigms, from a process developed exclusively by professionals to a process where users have an increasingly important role (Abel et al., 2011; Atkinson, 2010; Gershenfeld, 2005; von Hippel, 2005; von Hippel et al., 2011). Finally, at the beginning 21st century, design has become the cornerstone of a new kind of industries, the Creative ones.

Design professionals, starting from the first decade of the Third millennium, can be inserted within a new co-evolutionary process that involves design, production and market. It takes place thanks to the following phenomena:

  • the change in the occupational field of design (design is becoming a mass profession, Branzi, 2010);
  • the transformation of production and distribution activities, in particular the appearance of open and distributed digital manufacturing technologies and personal fabrication services (Lipson and Kurman, 2013);
  • the change in the design approach due to the strengthening of interaction activities related to final users-consumers and the democratization of technologies which lead to the openness of the designer profile: everyone could potentially act as a designer.

The increasing number of designers and creative individuals (which is not accompanied by an equally strong design job demand) represents a generative condition that pushes some of them to self-produce (or small scale produce) goods by integrating complementary resources they do not possess. This is possible thanks to a wide network of physical and virtual platforms (including open and/or peer-to-peer ones) for learning and training, research, design, production, distribution and (micro)financing.

All these resources, which integrate design skills and the ‘making’ approach, enable the development of new entrepreneurial types of professionals-producers. On one hand designers acquire more technological and practical skills, on the other hand, makers evolve their design attitude and capabilities. In this way, under the term ‘designer’ we decided to include the wider category of makers, since many makers or makerspace users are actually designers (Ghalim 2013, Maldini, 2014).

Indeed nowadays, an heterogeneous and increasing population of individuals, without being designers or manufacturers, can materialize their ideas independently transforming them into product-service solutions, even technologically complex, potentially marketable on a global scale. It is interesting to observe the appearance of new hybrid designers, which are half traditional design professional and half emergent producers, in some ‘design nations’ such as USA, UK, Holland, Belgium and Italy. They have been called designer-craftsmen (Craft Council, 2012), open/p2p designers (Abel et al., 2011; Menichinelli, 2006), designer-makers and designer-enterprises (Bianchini and Maffei, 2012).

This paper investigates how designers are changing their attitudes, influenced by the rise of new practices as making, fabbing and personal fabrication and, at the same time, how makers are using new design knowledge and capabilities. In particular, in the field of higher design education, this research analyses what is the gap between new designer needs and the existing design educational offer.

A NATIONAL SURVEY ON MAKING AND MAKERS: THE MAKERS’ INQUIRY

The Makers’ Inquiry1 has been developed in 2014 in order to explore the world of design, making and self-production in Italy. Three emerging categories of designers have been taken into consideration:

  1. Makers as advanced design users and design innovators;
  2. Designers-producers as self-producers, designer-craftsmen and designer - entrepreneurs;
  3. Makerspace managers as product manager and design facilitators.

The Makers’ Inquiry was created in order to identify the main features of Italian Maker community in terms of: skills and capabilities, design processes, working places, social and economic conditions. Up to the present, no similar studies have been conducted on national or international base. The survey has been firstly distributed in Italy but there is the will to collaborate with institutions from other countries in order to spread the research all over the world and propose therefore a framework for comparing national Maker communities2.

Just a subset of questions from the 67 composing the whole inquiry has been selected to be mentioned within this paper in order to understand the educational aspects of Italian makers and makerspaces3: their educational background, activities and relationships with formal educational institutions and places.

THE RISE OF A NEW PROFILE OF DESIGNERS-PRODUCERS: SKILLS AND CAPABILITIES

The survey of the Makers’ Inquiry has been officially launched in July 2014 and ended in October 2014 with the involvement of 134 subjects who completed the online survey. This section analyses the profiles, the emerging skills and capabilities of Italian makers, self-producer designers and makerspace managers.

MAKERS PROFILE

Starting by describing their personal profile, half of the interviewed defined themselves as self-producer designers (48.5%), 1/3 defined themselves as makers (29.8%) and 1/5 defined themselves as makerspace managers (21.6%).

The majority of the age of interviewed subjects falls into the range between 30 and 40 years old, with a peak at 36 years old. No under 21 and over 60 subjects are present. This means in Italy there is a lack of supporting educational system able to facilitate the culture of making among the youngers. There is a mismatching link between secondary school and higher education specialization. As it is possible to observe in different countries (like the US), students can already approach the maker culture during the first years of education leading them to be further skilled since the very beginning of their education.

The majority of makers live in big urban areas such as Milan, Rome and Bologna. It is interesting to highlight a link between the presence of makers and, on one side, traditional industrial districts (Emilia Romagna and Veneto), on the other side, the new urban creative industries (Milano, Roma, Venezia).

Currently, making is a primary activity for only of less than 1/3 of the subjects (26.1%). The majority of the interviewed subjects state freelance work as their principal activity (31.3%), while just 6.7% are students. This means in Italy the attention towards the maker culture is mainly professional, i.e. approached by people who have already finalized their curricula and are not yet part of companies. At this stage, making is seen as a complementary activity (54,4%) or a hobby (19.4%). A first common place regarding makers failed: makers are less hobbyists and more professionals. This leads to the idea of a profusion of designers that are evolving their profiles towards a “hands on” and entrepreneurial approach. The majority of interviewed subjects (60.4%) have been involved in making activities since five years. Therefore in Italy the intensification of interest regarding the making activity could be related both with the Great Recession (since 2007 on) and a later spread of the Maker Movement compared to the US. The Maker Movement could be read as a possible answer to manage the greater de-industrialization phenomenon taking place in advanced economies4.

The majority of makers are highly educated (44.7% have a master degree, 13.4% have a bachelor degree while 17.1% have a higher school diploma; 88.8 % speaks also English). Industrial design, architecture and engineering (mechanics, informatics, electronics) are the most common fields of education of Italian makers. Therefore an integration of creative (i.e. design approach) and technical skills can be highlighted within the profile of the makers. The connection of this data with the age range of makers suggests that making and self-production activities are conducted in parallel or consequently to the finalization of the educational paths of the subjects.

NETWORKS AND COMMUNITIES ASPECTS

The Making activity is mainly undertaken together with colleagues/business partners/friends. One third of the interviewed subjects carries out making activities collaborating with a numerous group of makers (>3) often inside aggregating facilities such as makerspaces. One fourth of them collaborates with a small number of people (1 to 3) which usually consists on his business partner or relative. Another third prefers working alone, in an autonomous way. Just a few of the subjects (less than 10%) claims that they collaborate with artisans, after having conducted the design phase mainly independently.

For the great majority of the subjects, collaboration is mainly important in terms of sharing technical & technological competencies and production processes, for the pragmatic use of tools and machines and the organization of new initiatives. In a second place, it is important for developing new projects or in relation to working places. The interviewed subjects associate more DIY, self-production, makerspaces, openness, collaboration and sharing to the idea of making than physical computing, tinkering, hobby and consumerist activities. The majority of subjects participate in online communities dedicated to making (65.5%) even if only 41.7% define themselves as members of such communities. They are more interested in following the activities of the communities rather than downloading and sharing useful contents and are mainly not interested in developing projects and organize events.

From these answers it can be deduced that, on one side, makers and self-producers are characterized by a positive energy towards initiative and innovation adopting practical experimentation. This confirms a learning by doing inclination of the community. On the other side, makers and self-producers practice actively collaboration, mainly together with a numerous group of individuals instead of small pairs, confirming the predisposition of makers to sharing and collaboration. Nevertheless an important number of subjects prefers working autonomously. It is interesting to note that just a small part of interviewed subjects mentioned artisans as collaborators in their activities: are they taken for granted or have makers not communicated enough with them yet? Currently, it can be stated that universities do not play an important role within the Italian makers communities. There is not an explicit connection between Italian universities and the Makers movement. Nowadays Italian universities do not provide yet technological resources or spaces used by makers.

NEW TECHNICAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL CAPABILITIES

Makers and self-producers have demonstrated to possess a pragmatic use of their knowledge and to make the most of their competences exploiting theoretical and practical skills.

Analysing in detail the new competences observed, the majority of subjects present capabilities in technical and technological fields such as Informatics, Electronics, CAD/CAM Design, Digital and Analogue Fabrication5.

TABLE 1 – Makers’ technical and technological competences

Informatics Electronics CAD/CAM Digital Fabrication Analogue Fabrication
Professional 29.8% 5.9% 43.2% 24.6% 24.6%
Amateur 28.5% 21.6% 22.3% 30.5% 38.8%
Elementary 17.9% 38.8% 11.9% 11.9% 11.1%
None 10.4% 18.6% 8.2% 11.9% 6.7%
Guru 6.7% 0.7% 7.4% 7.4% 8.9%

Regarding the level of technical and technological competences, the majority of professional skills are detained by CAD/CAM software use. The higher amateur skills level is achieved by analogue fabrication (38.8%) while the higher number of elementary skills is detained by electronics (38,8%). Finally in informatics the majority of subjects reach a very high standard, affirming to have a amateur (28,3%) and professional level (29,8%). It is interesting to note that, regarding analogue fabrication, amateur level skills results to be the highest. Compared to other skills, as this capability is intrinsically related to a “hand on” approach, more individuals reached a higher than elementary knowledge. Generally, very few subjects reach a “guru” knowledge level of their skills, but the majority of subjects claims to possess a high level of competences (amateur/professional) in informatics, digital and analogue fabrication (amateur) and CAD/CAM design (professional). On the other hand, the majority of individuals are not well skilled in electronics; indeed the highest number of zero level competences finds place here (18,6%), but also, generally speaking, the number of people with zero level skills is low for each category (apart from electronics, the maximum rate is 13,4% for digital fabrication). This means that makers and self-producers can rely in a solid base of technical and technological competences, which enables them to manage their projects and solve problems in different technical fields. The majority of makers and self-producers acquired their competences alone, in a self-taught manner. This info can be referred to all categories, even if electronics has the highest number of autodidacts. Secondly, informatics, electronics and CAD/CAM design have been acquired in school and university while skills in digital and analogue fabrication are mainly obtained thanks to work experiences. It is interesting to highlight how the traditional educational system is nowadays not able anymore, at high school but also university level, to provide makers and self-producers with the skills they will need in their future activities. This is the reason why people decide to lean on their own what they need. This info leads to the consideration of the need for a more open education system in which both the educational system is able to provide a wider contemporary educational offer and people are able to choose different subjects without the obligation of closed and restricted curricula. About the level of confidence with technologies, people mainly design (43.2%) or build them (41.0%) while less people affirm to modify them (38.0%) or repair them (28.3%). They almost do not regenerate them (15.6%). This means that for makers and self-producers the theoretical approach on making (i.e. design, project) is as important as the practical one (physically building things); it can be stated that makers apply then a typical design practice.

The majority of subjects update their competences on internet, looking for info and tutorial in the net, in specific forums, blogs, articles, attending web courses etc. Secondly also traditional offline training is considered useful: attending courses, seminars and workshops, frequenting Fab Labs, talking with people with same interests, going to sectors fairs, conferences etc. Mainly people first look for the info on line, then apply physically in a lab what they have found in the net. Therefore Internet can be considered a new optimized educational system.

SKILLS (DESIGN, PRODUCTION)

Regarding the approaches, skills and capabilities related to design culture, makers and self-producers mainly create their products starting from zero.

More than the majority of them (59.7%) do not adopt an Open Design approach that focuses on using and modifying already existing projects. But at the same time, ¾ of them (78.3%) develop their design projects together with their community. It is interesting to highlight that, at the moment, the majority of interviewed is not interested in generative design (89.5%). They also do not exploit enough openness and, above all, collaboration processes during the design phase. This is probably linked to another emerging aspect related to makers community: the pragmatic need to share and collaborate mainly for technical/technological reasons when it is time to physically work, i.e. during the realization phase.

TABLE 2 – What is your design approach?

Yes No NaN
I create my projects from zero 79.1% 20.1% 0.7%
I use and modify existing products (open design) 40.2% 58.9% 0.7%
I develop projects in collaboration with a community (co-design) 28.8% 78.3% 0.7%
I use applications which generate models (generative design) 9.7% 89.5% 0.7%
I develop the project while physically realizing it (tinkering) 41.7% 57.4% 0,7%

Fabrication processes have been analysed in detail in order to understand which activities are prevalent and if makers realize all in house or create networks with other subjects.

TABLE 3 – Percentage of production activity makers carry on respect to Digital and/or Analogue Fabrication

Digital Fabrication Analogue Fabrication
From 10% to 30% 26.1% 24,5%
From 40% to 60% 20.7% 29.7%
From 70% to 90% 23.7% 19.4%
100% 5.9% 8.9%
NaN 22.3% 17.1%

For 1/3 of subjects (29.6%), more than 70% of their production is linked to digital fabrication while a slightly smaller part of subjects (28.3%) are dedicated mostly to analogue fabrication. Summarizing, the majority of subjects mainly dedicate up to 60% of their production to both analogue or digital fabrication, even if numbers are slightly higher for analogue (54,2%) instead of digital one (46,8%). It can be noted that, on processes a balanced combination of adoption of digital and analogue fabrication can be observed. Makers and self-producers are mainly focused on production practices as almost all the subjects dedicate just 10% of their production to other fields, leaving some space for other activities not involved in material production such as informatics, electronics etc. Regarding the relation between self-production and outsourcing, it is interesting to notice that makers and self-producers recognize their activity mainly related to self-production for almost of subjects, while more than ½ of subjects consider outsourcing related to 50% of his work. This means makers are also able to generate micro networks of production based on the concept of outsourcing production activities thanks to collaboration with makerspaces, artisans and facilities.

NEW EDUCATIONAL SPACES FOR NEW DESIGNERS-PRODUCERS AND THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH SCHOOLS AND UNIVERSITIES

Some sections of the Makers' Inquiry explore in depth the characteristics of the spaces dedicated to making and self-production. This analysis shows the features of these spaces, their communities and individuals and the related service offer including training and education.

‘DESIGN AND MAKING SPACES’: MAIN CHARACTERISTICS

Home is considered the first workplace for the majority of interviewed subjects (50.7% works at home, and 18.6% works only at home). 61.9% work in a makerspace (and 16.4% work exclusively within them). Craft workshops are considered the third place as work setting for 27.6 % of subjects (8.9% work exclusively there). The most interesting (and negative) evidence from this analysis is the lowest percentage of people declaring to work in schools and universities classrooms (2.9%) and universities labs (4.4%). While most of the work happens at home (even in combination with other places), school and universities are still too little considered. Given for granted that makerspaces represent a connection between educational and work contexts, their implementation inside schools and universities could improve their condition of working context.

The majority of makers spend time at a makerspace: 35.8% of them are members of the makerspaces and 17.8% are not members but visit them with different levels of frequency. Given the fact that makerspaces are a recent phenomenon in Italy, 46.2% of makers do not spend time at a makerspace and 29.8% of them act in this way because they already own a personal lab. Following the logic of personal fabrication (Gershenfeld, 2005) it is possible to imagine a new generation of design and fabrication technologies that can be shared among homes, makerspaces and universities labs and classrooms. The rise of low cost, open source and multi-purpose digital fabrication technologies (Sells at al. 2010) suggest this opportunity, redesigning the geography of design and making activities within schools and universities and transforming classrooms in temporary makerspaces and microfactories. How makers work in all the fabrication facilities sheds light on how such spaces are interesting and where they could be adopted. For example, within such facilities, 49.2% of interviewed subjects develop their own projects (personal fabrication/DIY), 29.8% develop projects together with other people (Open design / DIWO) and 22.3% follow activities organized in the makerspace (including, therefore, educational activities). Thus, such spaces are not only important as an educational context, but also as a context for developing personal or collaborative projects. 25.3% of interviewed people select only makerspaces for accessing technologies. A minority of subjects access technology through loan and rent (9.7%). 7.4% of people access technology by acquiring the finished artifacts from cloud manufacturing services (e.g. Ponoko). This means there is a growth of alternative options in materializing artifacts can be considered to be integrated in the current making facilities within design schools and universities. The analysis of Italian context shows the absence of makerspaces within design schools and Universities. This fact is reinforced by another desk analysis conducted on the 185 Schools and Universities of Cumulus Network that shows a lack of presence of makerspaces: only 12 makerspaces over 185 schools and universities were identified (Bianchini, Bolzan, Maffei, 2014)6.

This tradition has been confirmed by our data: the Makers’ Inquiry includes a specific section presented only to makerspace managers in order to obtain data on their services, including the educational offers. For example, education is the first among the main four offers of makerspaces in Italy with a 79.3% of positive answers. Italian makerspace managers declare that main users are enterprises, artisans, professionals, public and private institutions and students (children, unemployed, retired and funders are less important). The analysis shows that makerspaces offer activities that can connect students, enterprises and professionals, therefore presenting an opportunity for putting students in contacts with the work context already while studying. The current ‘making’ educational offer provided by Italian makerspaces is mainly focused on basic elements of makers practice (86.2% offer basic courses and 48.2% advanced ones).

‘DESIGN AND MAKING’ SPACES: MAIN ACTIVITIES

Within this educational offer, 72.4% takes place at a makerspace, 34.4% take places at school and 20.6% at universities. Makerspaces are the main place for such educational activities, but the educational activities in schools and universities are more often combined with activities in makerspaces than outside of them. The presence of a makerspace (or the collaboration with a makerspace) is therefore still important for the educational activities regarding making in schools and universities in Italy. Regarding design schools and universities, it is interesting to highlight the possible complementarity between the multipurpose attitude of makerspaces and the specialization of many design facilities, traditionally focused on specific techniques, materials and technologies (wood, glass, ceramics, metal, CAD,...). Regarding the educational offer, young and adults (86.2% each one) represent the main user target for Italian makerspaces. Teenagers (65.5%) and children (44.8%) follow, while elderly are the last target (37.9%). This current combination suggests intergenerational knowledge exchange between young and adults and the possibility of lifelong learning programs related to design and making within makerspaces. Furthermore, teenagers, children and elderly could be addressed more in educational formats: the data suggests more activities and policies for targeting them. This model within the field of design education suggest the opportunity to connect young generation of designers together with more experienced multidisciplinary communities of practice.

CONCLUSIONS

The emergence of designers-producers opens two main issues for design education. The first one concerns the change of design educational activities and the second one the change of design and making facilities where these activities take place.

The (possible) change of design educational activities. Participants in the survey expressed strong interest in sharing, collaboration and openness (even if the latter to a lower level), and while most of their activities fall into the personal fabrication (DIY) field, there is an important aspects of collaboration (DIWO) in the activities taking places in makerspaces. The issues of sharing, collaboration and openness could be therefore still emerging, and may be interesting for further research, especially within the contexts where multiple actors design and produce together, in order to better coordinate their activities within the makerspaces and/or schools and universities.

Starting from this evidence design schools and universities could be considered as an integrated part of an emerging production system that combines new and traditional design and production entities, and of course different actors, skills and capabilities. The link between schools/universities and local/global makers communities can enable new kind of design educational activities ‘without borders’ (e.g. Fab Academy). This kind of connection may also facilitate an evolutionary leap from multidisciplinarity (currently guaranteed by makerspaces) to multispecialization in terms of combination among design, maker practice, technology and science (Aldersey-Williams, Antonelli, Sargent, 2008).

The (possible) change of design educational places. If the intention is to promote forms of contemporary innovation based on new designer figures (as in the case of designers-producers), it is necessary to intervene in the places where the new processes of development and materialization of ideas can come about.  Design schools and universities can be finally conceived as a new kind of ‘Factories of the Future’. especially when connected to makerspaces and Fab Labs, both inside and outside them. Places where experiment and create new advanced fabrication technologies that can enable new forms of production such as micro and self-production. To do this Makers as trained and untrained designers, need of design education and of its connection with makerspaces. Moreover these places can be conceived as enabling educational environments, environments that comprise a set of interrelated favourable conditions: regulatory, organizational, economic, info-communicative, cultural, and political. These conditions influence the capacity of the designer to act within society as an organization, and they induce him/her to engage in processes of development of his/her activity that are sustainable and efficacious. Finally, from the Makers’ Inquiry experience a possible model of open and distributed ‘teaching and learning’ emerges forecasting new form of independent innovation and microcapitalism where design education could play a central role.

FIGURE 1 – Where subjects physically conduct making (base:134)

FIGURE 2 – Important of exchange, sharing, collaboration (base:134)

FIGURE 3 – Service offer provided by Italian makerspace. (base:134)

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1The Makers’ Inquiry (http://makersinquiry.org/) is a project promoted and coordinated by the Department of Design of Politecnico di Milano together with Make in Italy Foundation CDB (www.makeinitaly.foundation) and Make in Italy Association (www.makeinitaly.org/). This initiative is supported by DESIS Network (www.desis-network.org/). The Makers’ Inquiry has been officially launched in 2013 at the European Maker Faire in Rome.

2Up to now contacts have been established in order to reply the Makers’Inquiry in France and China.

3Within this research, there is no distinction between Fab Labs and makerspaces, and therefore we here adopt the word makerspace as a general term for both. However, Fab Labs are especially interesting because of their global diffusion (more than 400 in the world) and their historical greater focus on research and education, representing thus a possible model within design and non-design educational offer. The reason of this focus comes from the fact that Fab Labs were developed in an academic context (the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT) with the goal of developing research mostly providing education to digital fabrication technologies and processes (Gershenfeld, 2005).

4Traditional design professions are facing a transformation from the inside: part of them are interested/forced to act independently from service and manufacturing sectors.

5Informatics (i.e. Processing, Python, C, Javascript, VVVV, Open Frameworks, etc.), Electronics (i.e. Arduino, RaspberryPi, etc.), CAD/CAM Design (i.e. Autocad, Illustrator, Slic3r, etc.), Digital Fabrication (i.e. 3D Printers, CNC milling machines, laser cutting machines, etc.) and Analogue Fabrication (i.e. lathes, drills, sewing machines, etc.).

6Bianchini, M., Bolzan, P., & Maffei, S. (2014). (re)Designing Design Labs. Processes and places for a new generation of Designers=Enterprises. Presented at the Nord Design 2014, Espoo, Finland / Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/8629200/_re_Designing_Design_Labs._Processes_and_places_for_a_new_generation_of_Designers_Enterprises