Do novelty products reveal the future of design?

Sam Jacob, from the December 2014 issue

By Sam Jacob

Eviatar Bach, A picture of a Big Mouth Billy Bass at Rest, 2010. Licensed under Creative Commons

Remember Big Mouth Billy Bass? Sure you do, that animatronic plastic fish mounted like a taxidermied trophy that would wiggle around and sing Bobby McFerrin’s novelty hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy (1988) or Al Green’s Take Me to the River (1974) when you triggered its motion detector. It was an idiotic product, but it shifted millions of units between 2000 and 2001. Its ubiquity even saw it appearing among a collection of ornaments owned by one of the sinister characters in Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, a banal joke among the harrowing aftermath of an Indonesian terror campaign.

Billy Bass is the epitome of a novelty product. It’s stupid, funny (if you are that way inclined), cheap and useless. But it’s also an amazing combination of technology and production, combining sensors, programmed chips, mechanics and injection moulding, all delivered at remarkably low cost.

In fact, we could see most novelty products as simultaneously idiotic and sophisticated: their novelty often conceals real innovation. They’re a testing ground of the possibilities of technology and price at any given moment.

Is it possible that computers are already algorithmically generating entire product lines from the adjacencies of our consumer records?

Novelty products have an additive, recombinant tendency, and it’s from this coming together of two things that their ‘novel’ quality emerges. Recently we’ve seen this recombinant-ness become part of the manufacturing process itself, as though novelty products had gained just enough machine intelligence to self-generate.

This first came to prominence when a series of offensive T-shirts emerged on Amazon with slogans like ‘Keep Calm and Hit Her’. Their total lack of moral compass wasn’t a human failure but the result of machine generation: slogans made by an algorithm that combined verbs and pronouns from a list of terms imported from the Internet, and posted jpgs of hundreds of T-shirt designs to Amazon to be printed on demand if ordered. Not a traditional design decision in the whole of the process. And though the offensive designs were withdrawn, we can assume that there is a whole range of inoffensive machine-designed comedy T-shirts out there somewhere.

Using a similar process (for different ends), the artist Eric Drass, aka Shardcore, proposed a line of ‘Hipsterbait’ T-shirts by developing an algorithm that would pair band names with a picture of the wrong band to produce the ultimate ironic T-shirts. Shardcore’s algorithm acts as the author of junk-culture artefacts, producing an endless churn of novelty. It’s precisely its meaninglessness, the aping of this desire for novelty, that is, we assume, the point.

The way we consume online leaves data trails whose paths manifest like the jagging forks of synaptic electricity. Is it possible that computers are already algorithmically generating entire product lines from the adjacencies of our consumer records? And even if they were, would this be a bad thing? After all, Netflix’s remake of House of Cards came from analysis of the viewing habits of its 33 million subscribers (there are now 50 million), which matched the original 1990 BBC miniseries with Kevin Spacey and The Social Network (2010) director David Fincher.

Could this, as manufacturing process evolved to handle custom production, data and the possibilities of recombination, be a new form of design innovation? This is the product-design equivalent of an infinite room of monkeys and typewriters churning out potential hybrids, scraped and spliced into new species. Is this the start of a self-organising world of stuff? The beginning of an inanimate world of materials assembling itself into products, starting to offer itself to us in ways its rudimentary artificial intelligence thinks we want?

Novelty products are punts, bets that look to turn cheap components into high-volume sales. They might – like Billy Bass – explode (not literally, but in sales terms). More likely they will totally fail. They are, in other words, products at the coalface of market economics. With only their novelty to rely on, they have to forge their way without recourse to utility, need, luxury or other qualities of non-novelty products. Yet maybe they are not so different.

Novelty is a close cousin to those more patrician ideas of newness and innovation. ‘Innovate or die’ is the prime directive of contemporary technology and knowledge economies. It’s the mantra repeated in the boardrooms where business meets design. Innovation, we are told, is one of the key drivers of advanced economies – the source of both growth and progress.

But it also inevitably produces a surplus of redundancy – of things that never caught on, that failed to capture our imagination, that end up remaindered and discontinued. In fact, the relentless pursuit of newness eventually renders everything in the present outmoded and, eventually, destined for landfill. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.