The D.I.Y. Debate

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) battle.

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 credibility.

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 highest level.

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 place.)

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.

About the Author: Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, and graphic designer. She is director of the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She also is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.