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D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself
By Randy J. Hunt

The debate about the democratization of design has been circulating for a long while; long enough to draw me in, get me charged, bore me, alienate me, prompt complacency, and revolve through the loop a time or two. The recent release of D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself edited by Ellen Lupton has been a catalyst for further debate.

Since its publishing at the begining of the year, D.I.Y. has sparked discussions on the threat of, interest in, and lessons learned from the proliferation of non-professional designers and their relationship to the discipline. These conversations quickly leave the instigating book behind to pursue polemics and broader criticism. Understandably so, as it seems to have struck a collective nerve. The fact that the text has re-ignited and triggered such discussions alone is an indication of merit. The book itself, though, is also worth a look.

For a week, D.I.Y. accompanied me on daily treks, and without surprise I ran upon many colleagues and peers with enthusiastic reception to the book. Many of them came closely linked to its cover credit. No doubt an asset to the publisher since D.I.Y. is edited by their best-selling author.

To look at D.I.Y. as a project soley of Lupton’s genesis, however, is incomplete. Several other hands and minds were involved in the project, most of which are student, colleague, or family of Ellen Lupton. It is important to view D.I.Y. through this lens of collective authorship. That having been said, there are some issues indroduced by this compiled content which are well worth consideration.

A do-it-yourself guide to small-scale graphic design projects, D.I.Y. gets most of its page count from object-specific chapters ranging from T-shirts to CD packaging that highlight possible stylistic directions, common mistakes, and production techniques. Think a current BFA design portfolio and you’re likely to have a picture of what’s covered. You won’t find motion graphics or heavy type-setting. A few inclusions, take wall-graphics and embroidery, may even be a nice find for an experienced professional.

Chapters oscillate between the handful of contributors, so a certain discontinutiy arrises with a linear read. This sometimes works in other design texts, but in the case of a non-critical guide for a crafty audience, I’m not sure if this is to its benefit. The result is mildly chaotic and leaves some chapters begging to borrow a page or two of content their neighbors. When later revisiting for specifc tips, the disjointedness is less likely to be a hinderance.

Pooled authorship takes affect on subject organization.
Why are websites and blogs seperate? The website chapter manages to frame the process of planning a site, but does not really offer an approach to solving the problem. In fact, it alludes to some relatively archaic ways of executing a site. If someone picks the book up from among the man at Urban Outfitters, you can bet their perception of the line between blog and website is much less surgical than D.I.Y’s structure suggests. We all recognize the integration of blog-like organization into most emerging sites of at least nominal success. At the same time, it lacks the cost/time comparisons so thoughtfully included in the wall graphics or business card chapters.

In this chapter on business card design, we find some of the fuel for some complaints about how D.I.Y. may, in some small ways, be detrimental to professional designers. We see a spread with thirteen possible business card designs, all quite different, for a single “client.” The text excuses itself at a few points, insisting that design decisions be made only in service of the communication goals, yet I’m certain these thirteen examples are not conceived with such consideration. Though the text may say otherwise, what we find here is arbitrary stylization.

In relation to the larger debate, this one case when the brevity of the do-it-yourself guidebook approach may actually mislead and discredit the role of a professional designer. Is it cataclysmic? Of course not, but it remains frustrating. When this text is likely to have an audience already warm to design as a subject worth understanding, the opportunity to connect form and content by example is missed.

Preceding the various project guides, Ellen and Julia Lupton author the “Why D.I.Y.?” and “D.I.Y. Theory” chapters, respectively. Lupton introduces the book as non-academic and “celebrates graphic design as a medium of public communication that should be accessible to everyone.” I don’t see any inherent harm in this perspective, and with such intent framing the content, it is difficult to argue that what follows is anything other than a sincere attempt to do just that.

The scattered nature of the book first reveals itself when Julia Lupton’s chapter follows with references to Karl Marx and weavings of financial and social capital into the value of the do-it-yourself movement. At one point d.i.y. is a tool with which the public can sidestep the choices offered to them by corporations and thirty pages later it is pointed out that the craftsy approach of drawing on the surface of CD-Rs can save your garage band some money. It is not that these things are in contradiction, but to parallel them in what amounts to a how-to book is disorienting.

Concluding the book are a handful of interviews with professional designers that got a d.i.y. start. Here, the you-too-can-become-a-professional ideas which critics point to are punctuated with encouraging examples.

What makes D.I.Y. of value to trained designers and seasoned professionals?

› Most notable is attention to design detail of the book itself. It’s worth a good study and use-test by any concerned practitioner with an appreciation of nuances.

› An icon system is used to represent cost and time investment. It cleverly avoids specificity yet retains its value as a tool for comparison.

D.I.Y.’s page composition is akin to Thinking With Type, both refined and inviting. Sentences rarely fall across columns and never break onto the following page. We can truly appreciate the role of the designer/author’s sensitivity to the flow of text.

So what is it that D.I.Y. (the book) says d.i.y. (the sentiment) offers: subversion, frugality, creative expression, crafty satisfaction and a touch of pre-professional encouragement. Of course, it says this while floating uncertainly between each. Perhaps this lack of grounding is one way to reflect the current state of the design discipline. I’d be hard-pressed to make much of a case otherwise, but I do wish something in the book was more conclusive. There’s one thing I know for sure, the embroidered Zig Zag shirts are svelt.

Randy J. Hunt is an MFA Design candidate at SVA, founder of Citizen Scholar, and Minister of Relevance at schwadesign, Inc..

Book Information
D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself edited by Ellen Lupton
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press (January 1, 2006)
ISBN: 1568985525
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Mar.07.2006 BY Speak Up
Tselentis’s comment is:

Thanks for this review, Randy. You call our attention to a lot of issues that haven't been touched on elsewhere. Furthermore, your use of the word crafty falls in line with my theory that DIY is the Arts & Crafts of the 21st Century. This is not a rebellion against design, but perhaps a quicker path for generating ideas, where DIY forgoes technologies and even the service bureaus we rely on for production. Like Morris, DIY places the power and responsibility of production in the hands of the craftsmen-artists-designers. So doesn't this restore pride in the work they do?

On Mar.07.2006 at 09:45 AM
Randy’s comment is:

Jason, by "generating" ideas, do you mean realizing them in physical form? I'd completely agree on that note. Whether or not D.I.Y. helps anyone have ideas faster (must less faster and better) seems more arguable.

Can you imagine the day's when we have open-source rapid production? Jamais Cascio has some wonderfully encouraging thoughts on just that.

On Mar.07.2006 at 11:50 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

HHmmm. Open source. Now there's a thought, open-source design. Does that fall into DIY? Or how are they similar?

On Mar.07.2006 at 03:32 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

Here's some interesting news from the 2006 TED Prize.

2006 TED Prize Winners Wishes Announced

Cameron Sinclair, Cofounder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity, has wished to create a new type of "open-source design" database that will allow architects, funders, NGOs and others to share housing solutions globally. Architecture for Humanity is a six-year-old charitable organization seeking architectural solutions to humanitarian crises and providing design services to communities in need.

On Mar.07.2006 at 05:44 PM
gregor’s comment is:

I bought Ellen's book not too long ago, as well as have contributed to the thread on this book on the AIGA national site. Personally I love this small tome and see no threat to the profession as some commentators have alluded to elsewhere.

DIY has been around, well, almost forever, and will remain so. Will the accessibility of blazingly fast computers and software make DIYers increase in numbers. Probably not. Not everyone wants to design or create. Will this book propel a new group of youngsters (and oldsters) into DIY. Also probably not, as it is marketed to the design community. At all bookstores it's in the graphic design section, of course. You won't find it next to Donna Hay cookbooks or Deepak Chopra.

What interests me in this book more so than anything else is, while couched more or less in layperson's terms and avoiding entangling itself in design application tutorials, there's a refreshing approach to design in Ellen's book that keeps it simple. I like that.... In that I think there may be a lesson for all of us.

On Mar.07.2006 at 07:24 PM
pk’s comment is:

DIY has been around, well, almost forever, and will remain so.

i was gonna say. wondered what the big deal was.

On Mar.07.2006 at 07:30 PM
Elizabeth’s comment is:

I recently wrote a review of Ellen's book in BUST Magazine (where I work, no I didn't do the crappy website) and essentially said that of course as a professional designer, I'm wary of any book encouraging the masses to design stuff themselves (think of all those terrible Robin Williams teach-yourself-graphic-design books--gaaaaahhhhh). But I'm totally in agreement that this poses no threat to professional designers; and in fact, since people are clearly out there making their own crap anyway, having a guidebook that tells them gently but firmly that Comic Sans, et al, is bad... well that's just awesome.

On Mar.07.2006 at 11:05 PM
eric’s comment is:

I can see why some people would see a diy design book as a threat to the professional design community. But the design education of non professionals will only help raise the level of design in this country. If clients/consumers knew more about design, they would not only hire better designers, but demand better design work, and the clients would hopefully have a better basis for any comments made during the design process.

On Mar.08.2006 at 01:26 AM
Ellen Lupton’s comment is:

Thanks, Randy, for your detailed review of our book. It was produced by a group of 18 grad students and faculty at MICA (and some other contributors) in the space of two academic semesters. Producing the book was thus an intense social experiment. Your review captures some of the qualities that emerged from our social mode of authorship: sometimes "scattered," always "sincere."

What makes our book different from most other grad student publications is that we were always producing it with an audience in mind. (Most student-based publishing is, in the end, about the students, not about the needs or interests of potential readers.) It's been great to see all the analysis and commentary from the design blogs, but what's been even better is seeing that the book is finding a substantial audience "out there" in the general marketplace. Many people are buying it, and, I hope, reading and using it!

On Mar.08.2006 at 05:56 AM
Frank’s comment is:

I've been pondering the DIY movement for some time. Having received my start there (I'm not ashamed to say it), I'm realizing more an more that design is a democracy--for the people, by the people.

On Mar.08.2006 at 08:44 AM
Tan’s comment is:

>Many people are buying it, and, I hope, reading and using it!

It's a unique opportunity to see the process and result of a group of grad projects. If anything, Ellen's book gives you a glimpse into the possibilities of grad studies in design.

I'll just end by saying what many have said — DIY type books have been out there for years. Heller's got books out there on digital and traditional designs, and so do many other leaders in our field. My only gripe is that often, these types of books are incorrectly shelved in the software how-to sections of bookstores instead of the design sections. They miss their intended audiences.

Design should always be accessible to the mass public in all forms.

On Mar.08.2006 at 09:39 AM
Steven Kapsinow’s comment is:

I also reviewed D.I.Y on my blog, and my conclusion is that the book can only provide the public with a greater appreciation of design as a profession.

On Mar.08.2006 at 10:57 AM
Lila’s comment is:

Now and during college, I've witnessed incredibly talented individuals unintentionally breaking what we as designers/visual communicators call "the basic rules." I understand that it's only natural that they don't know what I (or any other designer) know. However, it didn't prevent me from cringing when I saw a poster with an amazing illustration using an inappropriate font.

What we all need to remember is that almost everyone thinks they are an expert at something they are not.

On Mar.08.2006 at 02:02 PM
Ellen Lupton’s comment is:

As many times as I have cringed at the errors of amateurs (and of professionals), I also have seen direct, powerful, unabashed designs (especially posters) produced by artists from outside the "discipline" of design. We showed many such posters at a recent exhibition at MICA, D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself. (The exhibition was a way to celebrate our book on campus and share our passion for design with the rest of the school and beyond.)

On Mar.08.2006 at 05:52 PM
pk’s comment is:

...an amazing illustration using an inappropriate font.

i collect DIY art from local (chicago) shows for this very reason. i find that "inappropriate" use is often a lot more spirited than professional design.

it's not just for professional curiosity, though, it puts me back in touch with my roots. i started working with fliers for local (knoxville tn) gay bars, goth bands, and raves on stolen time at the local kinko's under supervision of a manager who liked my work a lot more than he liked kinko's.

i often wonder if it's appropriate to say that all professional designers started out as hardcore DIYers. i know i did.

On Mar.08.2006 at 07:01 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> i often wonder if it's appropriate to say that all professional designers started out as hardcore DIYers. i know i did.

Probably a rhetoric question, but one that I can debunk. I was far from doing anything myself before becoming a designer. I did not draw. I did not do flyers. I did not get involved in my high school yearbook. I watched TV, played video games and basketball. My creativity at that time consisted of pinning heavy metal posters on my wall. I fell in love with design only after understading its rules, complexities and realizing its potential. I think things like grids, typefaces, white space, CSS are sexy and interesting because I have an understanding of them based on education and practice. So, I really think you can be a designer without having it somehow predetermined in your genes.

Regarding the book... My only concern — and I'm actually happy to hear from Ellen that the book is being picked up by non-designers — is that the book is heavily marketed in the design audience. It is a book published by one of the leading design publishers and written by one of the leading writers in the design profession and it has been discussed in all design blogs. And after reading this book, as a professional designer, I can say it is not for me at all. I enjoyed reading it and actually picked up some ideas from the work shown, but I didn't really learn anything I didn't know. For this book to be succesful it has to find an audience outside of us, it can't be placed in the Art & Design section of Barnes & Noble because, really, who other than us would browse that section just for the heck of it. If I want to bake a cake and I don't know how to, I go to a book store and head for the food/cooking section, knowing that I will find some sort of remedial course or caking 101, but I doubt many people, facing the problem of designing their own business card, powerpoint presentation or lost cat sign will head over to that remote aisle to look for help. Princeton Architectural Press (and Ellen) really need to get this book in front of people other than us.

On Mar.08.2006 at 08:00 PM
Paul’s comment is:

The DIY movement has been happening in other arts for quite a while now. Take a look at software like Apple's GarageBand and Sony's Acid, which allow a novice layman to take pre-recorded music loops and configure them to their own liking for royalty-free inclusion in videos, movies and tracks on otherwise-original CDs.

Will it put composers out of work? Not yet...most of the projects that use these software packages have zero budgets to begin with.

On Mar.09.2006 at 02:21 AM
Steven Kapsinow’s comment is:

"Princeton Architectural Press (and Ellen) really need to get this book in front of people other than us."

Or maybe designers should buy copies for friends, family members (and dare I say clients) who don't really appreciate or understand what designers actually do. :)

On Mar.09.2006 at 09:09 AM
Bakari’s comment is:

I also wrote about this book on my blog before I knew there was a debate about it, and then another one in response to the debate. Though I'm only a beginning student of design, I'm wondering how D.I.Y. is that much different than say books like say John McWade's Before & After books that also show non-designers design ideas and strategies? What makes D.I.Y. so different in this regard?

On Mar.09.2006 at 10:28 AM
Randy’s comment is:

Armin, I had those same thoughts that got cut from the review. I too am happy to know that D.I.Y. is finding its was into the hands that may not normally buy a PAP book, for that is absolutely where it will be most illuminating.

I must say, too, that I avoided listening to Ellen on Design Matters until I had concluded this review. After having the chance to listen in, I'm convinved the warmth with which she discusses her perspective on D.I.Y. in the interview points more at the sincerity of the project.

Most importantly the way in which the often mis-intellectualized* idea of "everything is design" is turned into the much more managable "we're constantly making design decisions in our everyday lives" is exemplary of the thoughtfulness behind the intentions. This doesn't come through in the book, and I sure wish it did, because its a simple but powerful case to the professional and d.i.y.'er alike.

* notice, "mis-" and not "over-," as I do firmly believe that design as a way of thinking does deserve intellectual consideration, but often in doing so it is cast as exclusive rather than inclusive, and thus losses its luster. Funny, I hadn't intended for that to fold so nicely into the conversation. Yes, inclusive is good.

On Mar.10.2006 at 01:26 AM