Stock or Custom

This came up recently in a thread talking about cars, but I’ve actually been thinking about it for a while in relation to all kinds of things.

As a designer, do you prefer stock objects or to customize (in things that you purchase/own yourself)?

Over the years, I’ve seen that for the most part I think designers like to customize. Maybe it’s a form of self expression…

Myself, however, I’ve always been one for stock. To me, customizing is compromising and a sign that the object you bought isn’t perfect and that the object is of poor design to start with. Why would you want to choose something that is weak rather than find the perfect object?

Cars, computers, clothing, whatever, what’s your thoughts? Am I just crazy?

As designers, I would also somewhat think that this search for perfection and respect for design would tend to lean towards stock things. If you designed an object, wouldn’t you be pretty mad if you saw someone put an ugly case or sticker on it, or hack some kludge? Doesn’t that mean you didn’t do your job in the first place?

Just some examples to discuss -

cars + aftermarket stereos, trim, etc.
laptops and colorware
ipods/phones and cases
anything (luggage, bags, bikes, etc.) and stickers/paint


I think it depends on how you look at it and what your specific needs are.
If you were designing a product and a screw head had to be exposed, you may want something nicer than just a standard philips head exposed, so you’d look for something nicer to spec out and if nothing works, then you may design a custom one or a cap to cover it up.
Consumers will do the same thing. Companies make products to cater to larger numbers, so specific things people may want are completely overlooked. So they want to customize it to fit their specific needs or wants. For instance, some ladies like everything to be accessorized. But if a phone they want that has all the features the way they want only comes in blue, what are they supposed to do if they’re having a red night? So for them, different color cases takes care of their need. Not everybody is into just silver or black. It’s not saying anything bad about the design. But design is for the masses and not everyone follows what the masses want. So should they be left with no products since there aren’t enough people with their needs for a company to cater to them? So in that instance, it’s perfect.

Personally, I tend to like to keep everything I have in perfect condition, so no stickers or screw on things for me. But some products get different usage than the companies may predict so aftermarket things do come in handy. Someone in a specific field may want to have a phone that’s always in site and they can access in an instant. That won’t work if their iphone is in their pocket so they need a case to fill in the gap for their specific needs. Not everyone needs a lanyard hole in their phone, so apple won’t put one in there. But a lot of people do need their phones on lanyards, so an add-on accessory is needed for them and perfect because it makes their original product more flexible and usable in a way that the original manufacture would have no desire to pursue.

Stock for the most part.
As you are describing, I bought it because I liked and appreciated the design and am unlikely to change that. If there is an obvious or glaring mistake that needs addressed:

A) it Likely didn’t fit my criteria to begin with
B) there is likely another product that did that I would more likely purchase

I remember one of my professors had an Olfa Silver and rather than detract from it with writing his name on it in a way that detracted from the product (a lot of things walk away at school, had to put his name on it somehow) he made a new label for it where the small yellow branding mark is with his last name, I think he matched the fonts too (different colors though).

That level of attention to detail and respect for the product really made an impression on me at the time.

This is a very interesting question. I currently do a lot of work in the action sports industry. In the design of products for this market we often note that stickers will be placed on the object. Be it a helmet or pad people including sponsor riders will place stickers on there equipment.

Personally I do a mix of buying customized items and stock. I really like things like Nike ID I think it is really cool that I can pick out materials and colors for a one off shoe for really no extra cost. That is really as far as I go with customizing. I don’t like add on products that stick on bolt on. They never really fit the original design intent. I usually keep looking for a product that fits my needs without an add on. There are so many products in this world that searching usually will reveal a prefect fit or at least a 90% fit.

I’m a huge fan of stock objects. There are a few exceptions to that. But overall I prefer well made stock objects. However, I think this mainly pertains to the appearance of an object.

For example, I love the look, feel, design of my macbook pro. However, I have upgraded the hard drive and ram for performance reasons. I do have a soft sided case for it too, but it’s for purely protective reasons. I still think it’s a great design that I love to show off.

I would never think to put a case on my ipod classic. no stickers, no case, etc. I love the look it’s gotten the more I have used it. The scratches on the back give it character.

Vehicles are a different story. I think you should either leave them stock or go all out and fully customize it to something that is a faint resemblance of what it once was. I have classic cars / hot rods in mind with this statement… not a pep boys special with as many bolt on pieces as you can find. There is a definite artistic value to be found in customizing old cars.

I like to “adjust” my stuff, but more in vein of de-badging and removing superfluous stuff. Though I do have Chrome set to black borders and XP set to Silver.

I think there’s a fine line between tuning, modifying, customizing, personalizing, and decorating…All of these change the stock product to something different but for different reasons. Performance, perceived performance, bling factor…

I recently had a chance to talk with Mitsuru Inaba, (former design head of Sony) who talked about the notion that products represent a snippet of time. Some products remain relevant over a long period of time, whereas some stuff doesn’t. I think customizing or changing a product away from pure stock, is a gesture to make the product even more relevant to you, personally. What’s relevant to you might change, but at that moment adding a super charger or bedazzling your phone is what really gets you hot. As a designer, what I’m more interested in is 10, 20, 30 years down the road to see if my stuff still rings true.

I would definitely agree that there are different levels of customization and personalization at different levels of expression and taste.

The Nike ID and changing XP to silver are not objectionable to me, as they are designed/curated extensions of the product and are more options (particularly in software land) than what I would normally think of as “custom”

Some good points. I do agree that there is a difference between personalization, customization, modification, etc. I actually just now recall I did a lecture presentation on it a long time ago in school. Don’t think I can dig it up but will see.

The point Brett made about the idea of time I think is very relevant. To me, however I think this is one of the biggest reasons I am against customization. I believe that there is an ideal of perfection in design out there that almost exists outside the context of time. The best design is a classic, at least to me. In that way, I try to look for products that will stand the test of time from a design perspective (technology of course is different). As such, customization is often temporal and goes against this way of thinking. In fact, that’s often the worst thing about customization - they are “trendy”. Nothing worse than seeing a good car ruined with late 90’s clear “euro” tailights for example…


Good points. I’m the opposite of most of you, and of the majority of designer I suppose, in that I really like the wear-and-tear, and personalization that happens to objects, once they pass their ‘birthday’. There is an ideal of perfection that exists outside of time like RK mentioned, but it doesn’t allow for entropy…

While I have a visceral appreciation for vintage objects kept pristine, like how nice it is to see an old truck well maintained, I cannot resist stickering and modifying even expensive consumer electronics right out of the box. I like evidence of individual use. While the original, unmodified, pristine is better for general functionality, I prefer worn-in grips, grimy manhole covers, worn grooves in concrete staircases, etc.

Related to that Sony design quote, Ettore Sottsass said something about things that strive for timelessness are forgotten while those that aspire to be completely ‘today’ become immortal. Backwards way of thinking about it, esp thinking about Bauhaus and Braun as ‘timeless’, but who says products have to be ‘timeless’? I would prefer to be absolutely ‘now’ or ‘future’ rather than ‘timeless’.

What you are talking about hits another point I think. There is a difference between the personalization that you do with stickers and the whatnot, and the patina of time. By saying I like things timeless, does not mean I don’t like wear and tear that comes naturally. I do. It’s the “manufactured” wear of personalization that doesn’t stand up over time that I’m generally opposed to.


But why do the originals stand the test of time better?

It might have to do with coherence in the form language of the object.
If a customer tweaks, mods or adds something to a design later, according to
his taste, (which might be influenced by trend), the original integrity of a great
draft gets lost.

This is why I am always looking for the unspoiled original. It makes it hard
to find a house as houses get modified over the years very heavily. (Somewhere
there was a case last year, that an architect sued his client who modified (ruined)
his work of art.

If I was in automotive design I’d sue the manufacturers of those cheap China Tack-ons:

On the other hand: Tweaking something within the boundaries of the original specifications
can help to underline the personality of a car. I have no problems in using OEM parts to bring
out the strength of a certain design.

I would like to compare it to music: Every conductor gives his own interpretation of Mozart,
but a rearangement (remix) takes great care and appreciation for the original to be successful.
Only the best remix tracks (hiphop) can be considered a work of art in their own right.

Coming back to your runnig aquisitation of an old BMW: Years ago I heard somewhere, that the
owner/founder of frog owned a 5series, that was heavily modified. As far as I recollect Mr. Esslinger
tweaked an E28 in order to bring some bloated elements more in line with the general knife cut style.
(I always hoped I’d find some more traces of that mod…)

yours mo-i

Well I think it depends. I have no intention of modifing my car for example. Stock cars always look better than tuned and it is really no wonder considering the amount of money and R&D that is involved. Bolting on some plastic wings and fenders sure ain`t going to improve that.

On the other hand my freestyle bike is completely tricked out and I wouldn`t have it any other way. Only thing still stock are the cranks. Oh, and the helmet is full of stickers.

Couple of other points…

  1. For the consumer, the customizing of a product might be less expensive or quicker than the ‘factory’ version. My wife has an Audi A3. She wanted the premium wheels, but with a stick, so it went outside of the ‘factory’ price list. She could have shopped around for ‘custom’ wheels and saved a bunch of dough. (It was her car so I didn’t insist on anything, but that’s another story)

  2. The need to customize comes from an awareness that there is something inherently wrong or missing with the ‘factory’ version. This implies that the consumer has an intimate knowledge of the product, at least enough to say “it needs to do or have ____” to be perfect. Perfection in product design seems to be more pursued or attained in contemporary Japanese product design (Muji, Nendo etc.) or even in their apparel. (Ever read the William Gibson story about how those Buzz Rickson bomber jackets were re-made in Japan, using replicas of the same exact WW2 sewing machines to create a puckered, imperfect stitch that would make it a perfect replica?) Most of the time those products are trying to do less, which brings more attention to the things they do. Fukusawa’s CD player for Muji, as one example.

  3. The more variables or features a product may have, the less likely it is to be perfect in someone’s eyes, as some of those features will not resonate with the user. Seems obvious, but even simple things get laden with features that take them away from perfection. You couldn’t get me to part with my Mochamaster coffee maker, with its single on-off switch and no user-aids at all. High-tech often makes things less perfect…like how auto journalists often hate on the Electronic Stability Programs that make modern cars more drivable for the common man.

I like stock, but there are very few things that are good, right from the factory.

You have some great points.

+1 one for the Mochamaster !

Some of my gut reaction against customization I think may stem exactly from this “addition” of features. I’d certainly consider myself and minimalist/modernist and like to think I subscribe by the Rams ideal of design being “as little design as possible” and the idea of design as a more subtractive than additive pursuit.

Perhaps this is why customization/addition doesn’t rub me the right way?

At the same time though, I know there are also trends to subtract to customize, such as debadging a car. I’m not a fan of this personally, but somewhat can see more of the attraction to it.


I’m a fan of both.

I always find problems with products that I have, so I feel the need to alter them. One of my first computers, I spray painted fire engine red, for example. I’ve built most of my computer desks. I’ve refinished chairs that I found in the trash. Maybe it just because I am too cheap to buy something I really like, but I feel like I’m just never satisfied. Even when I do splurge on something that I think will be perfect, I end up playing with it anyways.

The reason I don’t like customizing is just that it is hard to do right. Like that moded BMW I posted in the transportation forum, it’s easy to get that first 75%, but the last 25% is tough.

in a word: stock.

I think a better word might be: Original condition.

I have some vintage products (I know you have a couple too R :wink: ) and every once in awhile a visitor asks if I’d ever thought of cleaning them all up, repainting them, etc… NEVER. I like the beautiful patina of decades of use they have. Original condition.

That said I do get my cars waxed at a place that uses the polish they use on lear jets: but this is as far as I’ll go:

Slight aside…if you’re a “stock” person. Do you modify your cell phones? Even more to the point. Do you see a product, like a cell phone, that has thousands of options for modification as a good thing, or an inherent flaw?

hmm, I guess I don’t see it one way or the other. Would never have a bumper or case for my phone. If someone else wants to spend money on that, I guess it is their call, but it seems wasteful to me. I was part of this discussion many times in the footwear industry. someone would come up with an idea for an attachable doodad to make a shoe customizable… my take was that it was the very shoe that was the customizable bit in the first place… you customize yourself by that product in combination with other products on your person… this might not be making sense, but as an example, I don’t need to customize my iPhone 4, because it is not that item alone that personifies me, but instead it is my phone + my watch + my shoes … + that most important part, me.

I did have Thanksgiving over my brother’s place yesterday and somehow 4 iPhones ended up on a side table next to the couch… I did have a momentary “uh oh” but realized my OS image is of Kristina holding my dog… so I guess I did customize the digital aspect of the device. That is somehow different, more temporary, and less sacred to me.

But is the OS image a customization? Or simply a selected setting (similar to changing XP to silver as mentioned above). I think customization, I think RealTree rubber skin w/ a belt clip for your iPhone.

That said, I’m a fan of stock products. If and when I do customize, I tend to opt for items or accessories that make the object still appear stock. For instance, I bought Audi wheels for my Audi, because I didn’t like how it looked without Audi wheels. Because I selected a different wheel from its original purchased set, is that customized? Or again, a selected available setting?

+1 on the patina of time aspect, too…

As you know english is not my mother tongue, but in my understanding “customizing” is not
the execution of OEM options.

Some years ago we changed the original seats in the old Beemer for checkered Sports seats out of a totalled M3.
Those seats were available for the model at the time, but our car didn’t leave the factory with them. I know I might
get into arguments with originality nazis, but for my back and buttom those seats are a big improvement…

I see a different set of wheels or a new wallpaper on my PC not as “customizing”. But I don’t know a better word
for it. “optimizing”?

What is the difference between patina and rot? Patina is restricted to the surface?
And the difference between patina and dirt?

If an item shows gentle marks of careful usage, is that patina?

  • mo-i*

P.S.: “East Coast Customs”:

more works: