A Designer Joins the D.I.Y. Debate

More often than not, I’m so ensconced in the bubble of my daily schedule that I become removed from—and oblivious to—some of the informal yet pertinent conversations that are happening within the design community. During the moments when my brain is simply too fried to function properly, however, and I’m mindlessly scanning blogs or catching the latest piece of hilarity from Key & Peele, that’s when I tend to stumble upon the interesting stories that are tangentially, if not directly, related to design. In the midst of one such brain-fried moment, I came across a brief interview between Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller on the subject of the do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) movement and its implications for design professionals. Lupton and Heller are both individuals I admire—I use Lupton’s book "Thinking with Type" as a course text and am working my way through "The Education of a Graphic Designer" by Heller—so was inevitably fascinated by their conversation. Though the discussion took place several years ago when Lupton’s "D.I.Y: Design It Yourself" text was first published, the questions the two authors pose are still relevant, testing the boundaries of design as a profession.

Heller argues in favor of maintaining differentiation between amateurs and professionals: “By making our work so easy to do, we are devaluing our profession…With everything so democratic, we can lose the elite status that gives us credibility.”

Lupton then parries with the following:

“Perhaps our credibility shouldn’t come from design’s elite status, but rather from its universal relevance to daily life. Not everyone is a design ‘professional,’ a person dedicated to solving complex problems and carrying out large, capital-intensive projects. But everyone can design elements of their own life, from their personal business cards or letterheads to their own flyers and wedding invitations.”

Both make valid points. And, predictably, I agree with both.

The part of me that is squarely in Heller's corner bristles when my profession is seemingly relegated to that of glorified software-users who take advantage of the magical source of free fonts and vector art (aka the Internet's) to design stuff. The part of me that agrees with Heller also remembers pouring every ounce of emotional and physical energy I had into my design education. I don’t consider myself to be a creative hotshot but I can attest to the fact that having a terminal degree in the field requires much more than inherent creativity or proficiency with Adobe programs. Yes, the idea that I haven’t earned the right to claim expertise on some level, despite the effort I’ve put into becoming better and more knowledgeable about design and teaching, rankles.

On the other hand, to Lupton’s point, design as a form of egalitarian expression is a powerful concept. One need not wear the title “designer” to produce work that is worthy of acknowledgement. One need not wear the title “designer” to produce work that, even in a small way, makes the world a happier or more interesting place. Good design cannot be suppressed, regardless of who is doing the making and creating.

All of this is to say that I would rather put what time and energy I have into figuring out how to accommodate change as opposed to fighting against it; I prefer to use my design superpowers to help address the larger, systemic and complex problems Lupton describes than get caught up in territorial battles over business cards and letterhead. The design profession is changing, after all. D.I.Y. design might in fact be encroaching on domains previously overseen by professionals. However, with design education simultaneously providing paths to new collaborative, interdisciplinary career opportunities, there’s still room for everyone.