Your Design Here

In the beginning, circa 1968, there was The Whole Earth Catalog,
the catalyst and model for the do-it-yourself movement. Subtitled
“Access to Tools,” it told readers where to find the
information, equipment, and supplies to do their own thing—from
brewing beer to illuminating books.

The Whole Earth Catalog
was the bible for everyone frustrated with industrialized mass
production, from back-to-nature hippies to engineers with garage
workshops. It was a best-seller that enacted what it preached:
Enthusiasts produced the book with minimal design experience and an IBM
Selectric Composer (leased for $150 a month, plus $30 to buy each font)
for DIY typesetting. Wrote founder Stewart Brand, “We can sit down
with the layout people and editors and fit copy precisely to the page,
with all the options of last-minute corrections.” Amazing.

designers, DIY has two distinct meanings, and The Whole Earth
embodied them both. DIY can be a style, with a deliberately
unpolished look and feel, including such marks of amateurism as
handwritten letters, inelegant spacing, and slightly crooked type. DIY
style recalls John Ruskin’s Victorian-era nostalgia for the
imperfections of Gothic handcraft; it’s a rebellion against
machined perfection. DIY’s imprecision also declares—often
disingenuously—that no professionals were involved. As long as DIY
looks crude, whether by accident or design, professionals have nothing
to fear.

But, of course, DIY has a second meaning, the one foretold by
Brand’s exuberant embrace of typesetting tools. Designers no
longer have a monopoly on design. These days the tools are cheaper, more
powerful, and easy to find online. They’re also more likely to
have skill embedded in them, whether that means the embroidery stitches
programmed into a sewing machine or the standard layouts of a blog
template. As a result, DIY work doesn’t have to look crude, and it
can take on just about any style. “If Dave Eggers decides to
design his own magazine, that doesn’t mean it looks a particular
way. It means he’s decided to become a producer,” says Ellen
Lupton, a PRINT contributor and editor of D.I.Y.: Design It
, a handbook written and designed by her students and
professors at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she heads the
graphic design M.F.A. program.

Today’s DIY ethic emphasizes
customization over craft. The point is not to perfect an underlying
skill but to produce something that’s yours alone. The impulse for
what art theorist Ellen Dissanayake calls “making
special”—behavior that is “sensorily and emotionally
gratifying and more than strictly necessary”—is far more
universal than the talent or patience to create polished work. Hence the
stylistic paradox of today’s do-it-yourself: homemade products
that strive to look store-bought, made possible by tools that let
amateurs recombine predesigned modules to produce professional, or
semi-professional, results. “With the help of TypePad, even the
severely HTML-impaired, specifically me, can build a website, and this
kludge is my own artful creation,” announces National Journal
columnist Jonathan Rauch on his personal homepage. DIY tools range from
CSS software templates to the special papers, letter kits, and
decorative stickers that scrapbook hobbyists use. They permit
customization, Build-a-Bear style.

Developing such tools is itself a
design challenge with business potential. The handbag makers Freddy & Ma
let customers design their own bags online, choosing from six basic bag
styles, several types of leather and hardware, and more than 200 textile
options, including prints created for the line by nine professional
designers. “We want you to experience the design process; the
thrill of designing something beautiful, the anxiety in your stomach as
you wait to receive it, and the joy of seeing your ideas turned into a
unique product,” write founders Anthony and Amy Pigliacampo at

DIY tools tap a powerful source: the unfulfilled
desires in each person’s head. When Neil Gershenfeld of MIT Media
Lab’s Center for Bits and Atoms offered a course called “How
To Make (Almost) Anything,” he found that students weren’t
taking it to pick up professional skills. Rather, he writes in Fab:
The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to
Personal Fabrication
, “They were motivated by the desire to
make things they’d always wanted, but that didn’t
exist,” such as an alarm clock you have to wrestle to turn off.
Computer-driven tools like laser cutters and 3-D scanners let these
barely trained experimenters turn their desires into physical realities
without giving up industrial precision. Graphic design tools do the same
for creating statements and communities.

With enough experience and
enjoyment, playing with design tools can turn amateurs into
professionals. In Lupton’s day, students came to art school
knowing nothing about design. “We were going to be artists,”
she recalls. “We had studied drawing and painting in high school,
and we were the art kids.” The design program had to sell itself.
By contrast, today’s students “come to art school knowing
what design is, knowing that they want to do it, knowing much of the
software, often having designed many things independently.
Generationally, it’s so different. They come to school attracted
to design already.”

Nor does every designer go to school. Like
many writers, I have my own website, including a blog, and I frequently
hear from readers who love the design and want to use the template.
There is no template; I hired a pro to overhaul the site originally
created by a DIY-talented friend. But my site’s designer, Adrian
Quan, is himself self-taught. An English major in college, he learned
web design over years of fooling around with computer tools, learning
from video and online tutorials, books, and conferences, and analyzing
the best of the design he saw around him. “If a piece of
design—web page, brochure, magazine, whatever—looks, works,
and feels good and right, the question of who made it and how much
experience they have becomes almost irrelevant,” he says. After
seven years of self-employment, he has just been hired as a web designer
at a Fortune 500 company.

Stories like this upset some designers, who
equate specialized formal training with professional status.
Periodically, calls arise for licensing or certification to keep out
uncredentialed competition. How, if not through professional standards,
can ignorant clients be sure of getting “good design”? To a
professional writer, of course, these restrictionist dreams sound
bizarre. After all, the First Amendment promises that anyone can express
him- or herself in writing, yet writers don’t live in fear that
people are issuing unlicensed prose. Everyone (at least in theory)
learns to read and write in school, which is to the benefit of daily
communication, and not the detriment of professional writers. Neither my
self-image nor my pro-fessional standing is threatened if you write a
letter or a memo or a poem celebrating someone’s birthday, or, for
that matter, publish an article or create a blog. Literacy doesn’t
quench the demand for skillful writing—it enhances it.

Much of
the professional knowledge gained through apprenticeship, whether as a
writer working with editors or a design student or young designer
working with master designers, comes from having an experienced pro
suggest alternatives that achieve the same goals more gracefully. We
learn by seeing how and why the “after” is noticeably better
than the “before.” The changes may be subtle, but their
effect is palpable. The ability to make those subtle improvements at
every stage of a project is what distinguishes a seasoned
professional—however trained or compensated—from an amateur
or a rookie. To fear that shoddy DIY work will replace good professional
design is to suggest that the two are indistinguishable to the untrained
eye. But the whole idea of good design, or good writing, is that the
untrained audience will, in fact, respond to some work better than
others. In a competitive marketplace, clients value that edge.

And, as
every writer knows, real expertise is sadly elusive. Writers, like
designers, may have to worry about how to get paid now that traditional
business models are threatened by online publishing. But neither writers
nor designers need fear that the world will stop needing our skills.
Within limits, you can teach a computer program to check spelling or
spec type. But conceptualization and structure involve
hard-to-articulate tacit knowledge, the sort of expertise that comes
with experience. Talent, practice, and apprenticeship make a tremendous
difference when it comes to solving the hard problems of any

Despite hippie dreams of self-sufficiency, we aren’t
about to give up the advantages of specialization: “gains from
trade,” in economics jargon. Responding to a DIY debate published
on the AIGA’s online design journal, Voice, the designer
and artist Raymond Prucher made a vital point: “A DIY-er might
take 10 hours to do what we accomplish in a 5-minute thumbnail.”
Specialization is efficient. In fact, it’s even efficient to let
others do things you might do as well as they can, if you can do
something else even better. “Why Michael Jordan doesn’t mow
his own lawn” is one way to express this idea, which economists
call “comparative advantage.”

Our economy is, if anything,
more specialized than ever. Specialists not only make my clothes and fix
my car, both classic do-it-yourself jobs, but wax my eyebrows and paint
my fingernails, too. Americans spend nearly half their food budgets on
meals away from home, up from just over a quarter in the early 1970s.
Those meals at home include salad from a bag and rotisserie chicken
cooked in the supermarket—templates for making dinner. Cake mixes
were once a convenient substitute for baking from scratch; now
they’re the hands-on alternative to bakery products.

Little of
today’s DIY design is a substitute for the real challenges of
professional practice. It’s either routine or purely
personal—the equivalent of home-style cooking, not a four-star
restaurant meal. We wouldn’t eat better, or appreciate fine
cuisine more, if only certified chefs could buy fresh ingredients or use
pots and pans. Access to typefaces doesn’t define good graphic
design any more than access to a word processor and a dictionary
guarantees good writing. The more amateurs do things themselves, the
more they develop a refined taste for good professional
work—whether in the kitchen or at the design station.