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This year, students and faculty at Maryland Institute College of Art produced the book D.I.Y: Design It Yourself,
edited by Ellen Lupton. The book argues that graphic design is a common
language that should be accessible to everyone in society. Design
critic Steven Heller disagrees. Lupton, who is director of the graphic
design masters of fine art program at the Maryland Institute College of
Art (MICA), and Heller confront each other’s views in this (friendly)
Steven Heller: In the mid-1980s, Apple launched a
television advertisement that showed an image of hands cutting type and
pasting it on a board. This demonstration was probably the first time
“graphic design” was demonstrated to the American public on national
television. Then, as memory serves, a quick cut to a state-of-the-art
Macintosh screen showed a layout (probably for a newsletter) in
progress. The voiceover went something like, “This is a graphic designer
... And now you don't need one anymore.” After getting our five seconds
in the spotlight, we were summarily smacked down into the ooze from
which we had emerged.
We certainly learned that—even after a national commercial
blitz—graphic designers are a hardy lot, and even the best computer
layout programs will not wipe out the species. But I'm still wary about
placing our art and craft in the hands of amateurs. I'm sure Shakespeare
would be miffed to learn that a room full of monkeys could really pound
out Romeo and Juliet. Out damn spot.
By making our work so easy to do, we are devaluing our profession. I
like democracy as much as the next person, but because of new
technologies, the definition of “amateur” in fields like graphic design,
photography, film and music, among others, is being redefined. With
everything so democratic, we can lose the elite status that gives us
Ellen Lupton: Desktop publishing didn’t wipe out
graphic design; in fact, the field got bigger, in part because the
general public had gained a better understanding of design by working
with tools similar to those we were using. People became more educated
about design by playing around (and working) with fonts and computers.
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.
Verbal literacy is good for literature—Shakespeare means very little
to people who can’t read or write. Likewise, visual literacy is good
for design: when people experience the power of typography and images
first-hand, they can better understand design that is produced at the
SH: I cherish literacy, too, but I recoil when I
think of mediocre designers “doing it themselves.” People should not
think they are Designers because they can fiddle with type on a computer
template. If people start thinking that graphic design is as easy as
One, Two, Three, it will diminish designers’ authority and clients’
respect. (I admit certain paranoia here, but it stems from a reasonable
The age of the feral designer is over. Our instincts must be
channeled, molded and formed by rigorous educational practices. I worry
that D.I.Y. is a license to kill—and to kill the designer. Please save
us from well-meaning amateurs!
EL: We are in a new phase of culture now, where
people have direct access to powerful tools—not just design tools, but
also to video, animation, music, podcasting and blogging. People are
actively engaged with media production across the board, whether we like
it or not. By encouraging the public to use design tools intelligently,
we will ultimately increase the general understanding of professional
work, as well as raise the level of design across society. My students’
book is one small contribution to a much bigger movement.
I write this while on an airplane. Which is an apt metaphor for where design has gone (and is going). Design is now a world without defined disciplines,
boundaries or restrictions. It is a world with endless points, all interconnecting and leading to a greater destination. Each one of these connection
points is an opportunity to build pieces of a greater story. You are the architect of your own flight path. Create your personal journey by taking
advantage of every opportunity that arises.
Section: Inspiration -
personal essay, mentoring, advice, students
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Section: Events and Competitions
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