Are amateurs taking over? Don't panic—DIY design culture might just have something to teach us.
This article appears in the March/April 2007 issue of Print.
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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 theinformation, equipment, and supplies to do their own thing—frombrewing beer to illuminating books.
The Whole Earth Catalogwas the bible for everyone frustrated with industrialized massproduction, from back-to-nature hippies to engineers with garageworkshops. It was a best-seller that enacted what it preached:Enthusiasts produced the book with minimal design experience and an IBMSelectric Composer (leased for $150 a month, plus $30 to buy each font)for DIY typesetting. Wrote founder Stewart Brand, “We can sit downwith the layout people and editors and fit copy precisely to the page,with all the options of last-minute corrections.” Amazing.
To designers, DIY has two distinct meanings, and The Whole EarthCatalog embodied them both. DIY can be a style, with a deliberatelyunpolished look and feel, including such marks of amateurism ashandwritten letters, inelegant spacing, and slightly crooked type. DIYstyle recalls John Ruskin’s Victorian-era nostalgia for theimperfections of Gothic handcraft; it’s a rebellion againstmachined perfection. DIY’s imprecision also declares—oftendisingenuously—that no professionals were involved. As long as DIYlooks crude, whether by accident or design, professionals have nothing to fear.
But, of course, DIY has a second meaning, the one foretold byBrand’s exuberant embrace of typesetting tools. Designers nolonger have a monopoly on design. These days the tools are cheaper, morepowerful, and easy to find online. They’re also more likely tohave skill embedded in them, whether that means the embroidery stitchesprogrammed into a sewing machine or the standard layouts of a blogtemplate. As a result, DIY work doesn’t have to look crude, and itcan take on just about any style. “If Dave Eggers decides todesign his own magazine, that doesn’t mean it looks a particularway. It means he’s decided to become a producer,” says EllenLupton, a PRINT contributor and editor of D.I.Y.: Design ItYourself, a handbook written and designed by her students andprofessors at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she heads thegraphic design M.F.A. program.
Today’s DIY ethic emphasizescustomization over craft. The point is not to perfect an underlyingskill but to produce something that’s yours alone. The impulse forwhat art theorist Ellen Dissanayake calls “makingspecial”—behavior that is “sensorily and emotionallygratifying and more than strictly necessary”—is far moreuniversal than the talent or patience to create polished work. Hence thestylistic paradox of today’s do-it-yourself: homemade productsthat strive to look store-bought, made possible by tools that letamateurs recombine predesigned modules to produce professional, orsemi-professional, results. “With the help of TypePad, even theseverely HTML-impaired, specifically me, can build a website, and thiskludge is my own artful creation,” announces National Journalcolumnist Jonathan Rauch on his personal homepage. DIY tools range fromCSS software templates to the special papers, letter kits, anddecorative stickers that scrapbook hobbyists use. They permitcustomization, Build-a-Bear style.
Developing such tools is itself a design challenge with business potential.
The handbag makers Freddy & Malet customers design their own bags online, choosing from six basic bagstyles, several types of leather and hardware, and more than 200 textileoptions, including prints created for the line by nine professionaldesigners. “We want you to experience the design process; thethrill of designing something beautiful, the anxiety in your stomach asyou wait to receive it, and the joy of seeing your ideas turned into aunique product,” write founders Anthony and Amy Pigliacampo
DIY tools tap a powerful source: the unfulfilleddesires in each person’s head. When Neil Gershenfeld of MIT MediaLab’s Center for Bits and Atoms offered a course called “HowTo Make (Almost) Anything,” he found that students weren’ttaking it to pick up professional skills. Rather, he writes in Fab:The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers toPersonal Fabrication, “They were motivated by the desire tomake things they’d always wanted, but that didn’texist,” such as an alarm clock you have to wrestle to turn off.Computer-driven tools like laser cutters and 3-D scanners let thesebarely trained experimenters turn their desires into physical realitieswithout giving up industrial precision. Graphic design tools do the samefor creating statements and communities.
With enough experience andenjoyment, playing with design tools can turn amateurs intoprofessionals. In Lupton’s day, students came to art schoolknowing 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 knowingwhat design is, knowing that they want to do it, knowing much of thesoftware, often having designed many things independentl
y.Generationally, it’s so different. They come to school attractedto design already.”
Nor does every designer go to school. Likemany writers, I have my own website, including a blog, and I frequentlyhear from readers who love the design and want to use the template.There is no template; I hired a pro to overhaul the site originallycreated by a DIY-talented friend. But my site’s designer, AdrianQuan, is himself self-taught. An English major in college, he learnedweb design over years of fooling around with computer tools, learningfrom video and online tutorials, books, and conferences, and analyzingthe best of the design he saw around him. “If a piece ofdesign—web page, brochure, magazine, whatever—looks, works,and feels good and right, the question of who made it and how muchexperience they have becomes almost irrelevant,” he says. Afterseven years of self-employment, he has just been hired as a web designerat a Fortune 500 company.
Stories like this upset some designers, whoequate specialized formal training with professional status.Periodically, calls arise for licensing or certification to keep outuncredentialed competition. How, if not through professional standards,can ignorant clients be sure of getting “good design”? To aprofessional writer, of course, these restrictionist dreams soundbizarre. After all, the First Amendment promises that anyone can expresshim- or herself in writing, yet writers don’t live in fear thatpeople are issuing unlicensed prose. Everyone (at least in theory)learns to read and write in school, which is to the benefit of dailycommunication, and not the detriment of professional writers. Neither myself-image nor my pro-fessional standing is threatened if you write aletter or a memo or a poem celebrating someone’s birthday, or, forthat matter, publish an article or create a blog. Literacy doesn’tquench the demand for skillful writing—it enhances it.
Much of the professional knowledge gained through apprenticeship, whether as awriter working with editors or a design student or young designerworking with master designers, comes from having an experienced prosuggest alternatives that achieve the same goals more gracefully. Welearn by seeing how and why the “after” is noticeably betterthan the “before.” The changes may be subtle, but theireffect is palpable. The ability to make those subtle improvements atevery stage of a project is what distinguishes a seasonedprofessional—however trained or compensated—from an amateuror a rookie. To fear that shoddy DIY work will replace good professionaldesign is to suggest that the two are indistinguishable to the untrainedeye. But the whole idea of good design, or good writing, is that theuntrained audience will, in fact, respond to some work better thanothers. In a competitive marketplace, clients value that edge.
And, as every writer knows, real expertise is sadly elusive. Writers, likedesigners, may have to worry about how to get paid now that traditionalbusiness models are threatened by online publishing. But neither writersnor designers need fear that the world will stop needing our skills.Within limits, you can teach a computer program to check spelling orspec type. But conceptualization and structure involvehard-to-articulate tacit knowledge, the sort of expertise that comeswith experience. Talent, practice, and apprenticeship make a tremendousdifference when it comes to solving the hard problems of any profession.
Despite hippie dreams of self-sufficiency, we aren’tabout to give up the advantages of specialization: “gains fromtrade,” in economics jargon. Responding to a DIY debate publishedon the AIGA’s online design journal, Voice, the designerand artist Raymond Prucher made a vital point: “A DIY-er mighttake 10 hours to do what we accomplish in a 5-minute thumbnail.”Specialization is efficient. In fact, it’s even efficient to letothers do things you might do as well as they can, if you can dosomething else even better. “Why Michael Jordan doesn’t mowhis own lawn” is one way to express this idea, which economistscall “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 ofprofessional practice. It’s either routine or purelypersonal—the equivalent of home-style cooking, not a four-starrestaurant meal. We wouldn’t eat better, or appreciate finecuisine more, if only certified chefs could buy fresh ingredients or usepots and pans. Access to typefaces doesn’t define good graphicdesign any more than access to a word processor and a dictionaryguarantees good writing. The more amateurs do things themselves, themore they develop a refined taste for good professionalwork—whether in the kitchen or at the design station.
About the Author
Virginia Postrel is the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She is a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly, where she writes about culture and commerce. She is online at dynamist.com.