Sugru is a pretty amazing product. Well, let me say up front that I’ve never actually tried it, so it might be more appropriate to say Sugru sure looks like a pretty amazing product. It comes out of the package as a putty with great adhesive properties, but when it dries it becomes a kind of durable rubber. Fine, that seems interesting enough, but what’s it used for? That, my friends, is the question, and the lack of a definite answer is what makes Sugru so compelling.
See, Sugru is marketed as the world’s first “hacking putty.” The idea is that it can be used to improve, fix, or customize just about anything, and that this modification can be carried out by anyone. Because it starts out easily moldable it can be made into any shape, but it’s hardened qualities – strength, shock absorption, grip, etc. – make it useful in almost any situation. Or so the company would like you to think.
The problem with a new product that’s so open ended is that we aren’t really sure how to use it. We need concrete applications, at least to get us going until we’re used to it as a product. Fortunately, the smart folks that make the stuff foresaw this pitfall, and their entire marketing campaign revolves around presenting dozens and dozens (and dozens) of things you can do with Sugru. Some fun ones involve making a digital camera drop-proof and kid-friendly, customizing the grip on a bow used for horseback archery, and preventing your carabiner from cross-loading.
This stuff is seriously incredible. Forbes Magazine called it “20th century duct tape,” and Time Magazine rated it the 22nd best invention in 2010 (beating out the iPad by 12 spots). If you’ve got 10 minutes to spare, I highly recommend checking out this video that interviews Sugru’s inventor, Jane ní Dhulchaointigh, and walks through the design process and the philosophy behind the product.
But underneath all the hype and the utility surrounding Sugru, there’s a simple paradigm shift waiting to be adopted. At it’s core, what Sugru offers is a new way of interacting with products. Industrial designers often operate with the conceit that they are optimizing a particular object, but the truth is that no one optimization will work for all of us. We each have different preferences and different bodies, but most of us are too scared to try to customize the sleek gadgets and simple tools we use every day. What the team at Sugru is trying to do, through DIY videos, regional demonstrations, and an online maker community, is to popularize the idea that any one of us has the power to shape the objects we interact with. This is a revolutionary idea, and one that has more weight than ever with a product like Sugru on the market.
One of the most intriguing things to evolve from this idea is a new fencing grip that is meant to be modified with Sugru. This is a huge step, because it represents the first substantive move toward products that are incomplete until customized by the user. Sugru is a great product, but not all products have left room for individual adaptation. A truly anthropocentric, ergonomic future is one where products are purchased unfinished, ready to have their final tweaks made by their new owner. And not in a superficial way like colors and cost, but in a very real, tactile way that impacts comfort and usability. It’s a way of thinking that would require a profound turnaround, and a reinvestment in the durability and long-time ownership of things, but it ultimately leads to a future of greater satisfaction and less waste.
I think the real challenge for people going forward is going to be taking that first step. Most of us don’t notice when things don’t quite fit, so we don’t have the instinct to change them; we’ve learned to live with our imperfect things. But once you make that first change or that first fix, I imagine it’s difficult to stop. If we want to move away from our current culture of disposable consumerism, we have to start small. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go order some Sugru.