Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Designers vs. NotSoMuch: The DIY Debate

Lately, on several of the various design blogs I visit, there's been a heated debate over this book, DIY: Design it Yourself. It's a collection of do-it-yourself design projects and inspiration compiled by students and faculty of the Maryland Institute College of Art and edited by Ellen Lupton. The comments on the AIGA debate seem to mostly indicate a separation among the designers into two camps: those who think that a bit of design education is good for the masses, and those who think that putting design tools in the hands of amateurs is the ultimate Bad Thing.

To be honest, I have a few opinions on the subject. For one, I think it's rather silly to treat this book like it's a new idea: doing a search for DIY on Amazon nets over 6500 results, and the first several of them are really not that far off from the book in question.

I had a chance, at a recent ICA mixer, to check out a bit of the book, and I have to say: some of the stuff is pretty good. At the same time, however, I really don't consider the techniques in the book an example of what genuinely constitutes effective design. DIY is a book that teaches you how to make things that look cool, but it doesn't teach you how to come up with a good concept, or to think of design in terms of the specific business challenges it's meant to address. It doesn't even run the gamut of all the things you REALLY need to know about how to do a successful project/campaign. It is simply a resource for people who want to express their creativity in new ways, just like a thousand other books before it. It is not a substitute for formal design training. So why all the fuss?

Honestly, I think it's a matter of ego. And I can understand it from my own experience - we're in a world where access to the "tools" of design is unprecedented, and the marketplace is overflowing with people who call themselves designers because they downloaded a copy of Photoshop last week. We spend our days being pulled between being appreciated for the value we bring to our clients' businesses and defending our livelihood to the myriad of potential clients who can't seem to understand the difference between what we do and what their secretaries can throw together in Word. I'd like to think that with experience and establishing a solid practice, the ratios will change and we deal with more appreciation than misunderstanding, but that only seems to happen to the rare individuals that actually work in or run larger agencies. The rest of us, who remain smallish (and decidedly so), find ourselves dealing with this frustration day in and out. So on that level, I can understand the annoyance.

But given this, who is DIY really speaking to? Certainly not the secretary who's going to be doing the uneducated client's newsletters in Word, but the individual crafty person who wants to learn how to make things that look really cool. Perhaps the person who, like me, couldn't afford to take out $90K in student loans to attend RISD and found herself just "playing around with things," and from that developed an unending passion for design that has turned into a fulfilling career. And what, I ask, is wrong with that?

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