Tracy Jenkins | Reviews

D.I.Y.: Design it Yourself

Embroidery by Zvezdana Rogic.

Design is, more than ever, a way to relate to the world around us. Our fascination with design, as both a process and an ideal, is reflected in the products and services that are increasingly available to the general public. We can customize nearly all the things we consume, turning mass-produced stuff into OUR stuff. We can custom-build cars online, download cellphone ringtones, and willingly pay a premium for uniquely-distressed jeans and one-of-a-kind courier bags. Buying has never been more ubiquitous — or arguably, more effortless — which may in truth speak more to the democratization of credit than the democratization of design.

And then there's D.I.Y., or "Do It Yourself" — an approach perhaps best described as amateur undertakings, homespun experiments and abortive beginnings. D.I.Y. is the recipe you try; the spare room you wallpaper; my grandmother's Christmas tree laden with her own hand-beaded ornaments, or the grossly-botched carpentry job my father proudly attempted one weekend — and paid for twice when my mother had to call in a licensed carpenter to repair it. D.I.Y. is a stab at something, and the finished do-it-yourself object is really the documentation of a working process. Most, if not all of the pleasure in D.I.Y. comes from the 'doing' part. Naturally, experts are exempt from such classification — we don't, for instance, refer to a handcrafted chair or hospital appendectomy as D.I.Y. projects. We call them furniture and surgery.

D.I.Y.: Design it Yourself (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006) is also a new book edited by Ellen Lupton, written and designed by graduate students and faculty from the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). Written primer-style, it aims to reach out to the non- or just-emerging designer: "This is a book for people from all walks of life who want to publish words, images, and ideas on paper, on t-shirts, on the Web, or anywhere else," writes Lupton. (Her twin sister, Julia Lupton, also has an essay in the book.) Broken up into 32 brief chapters, many as short as four pages, the book condenses its content into sub-genres such as packaging, logos, and weblogs. Yet, in spite of such professional classifications, the most visually fresh and interesting projects aren't the ones dealing with traditional forms of design (newsletters and business cards) but those that reside in a craftier realm: blank books, embroidery, or T-shirts.

Julia Lupton's essay, 'D.I.Y. Theory' highlights the importance of doing by referencing Karl Marx: "Capital works by separating ownership from labor," she explains. "The capitalist owns the means of production and distribution (the factory, the tools, the retail stores), while the worker does the producing (earning a wage instead of owning what he or she makes)." This statement might also describe the life of a "typical" employed designer: put another way, if you can't own what you make, at least you can own the experience and the completely individual way you approach your work. (At the end of the day, this is your style or craft.) Arguably, it's when you focus on HOW rather than WHAT you make that you begin to build a body of work — what Lorraine Wild describes as the "designer's voice," or "that part of a design that is not industriously addressing the ulterior motives of a project, but instead follows the inner agenda of the designer's craft. This guides the 'body of work' of a designer over and beyond the particular goal of each project."

Perhaps it's precisely the absence of a cohesive body of work, in this book, that is most vexing — for while the brevity of the chapters allows the book to cover a lot of ground, the overall read is choppy, and the work shown here is uneven. Some chapters seem to end abruptly, while others feature a wider variety of projects. It is difficult to discern whether the authors intended to represent each student's best efforts, or if certain pieces aren't simply meant as sketches, illustrating an idea rather than a finished portfolio piece. From chapter to chapter, the work goes from looking like it was produced by undergraduates to looking like it was pulled from a late twentieth-century design annual, to finally — but not often enough for a book that's the product of MFA candidates — to examples that reflect a sophisticated and highly individualized point of view. The result makes for a confusing visual read, one that is so overtly 'designerly' that the book seems an unlikely target for the non-designer. It's neither simple and rigorous enough to truly appeal to the novice, nor beautiful enough to be an "annual" even though the work is highly fetishized. (The chapter on brands, for example, stands out for its cohesiveness in part, because its lesson is centered around a single project with similar, yet consistently well-crafted examples of one student's line of customized baby clothes.)

Like the shifting quality of the work, there's also an unevenness to the writing. And here, the duality is bizarre: from an almost teen magazine kind of language in the project chapters (characterized by a didactic "how-to" tone that could just as easily be instructing the reader on how to catch a guy or make an oatmeal mask), to the Luptons' academic and somewhat radical essays referencing barbarians and shout-outs to Karl Marx. At the same time, the authors acknowledge that design in general (and graphic design in particular) can be identified as a "thing-by-itself" and perhaps has to be in order to be examined, understood and taught. Ellen Lupton explains: "As a medium closely connected to popular culture, graphic design has had a tough time defining itself as an autonomous academic discourse. One could say that for graphic design, the barbarians have always been at the gate. We are the barbarians, the bastard children of the fine arts. We are the publicists and popularizers, the people of the street." While Lupton isn't the first to address design and its core competencies at a nonprofessional level (in Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek wrote: "All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity"), she may be the first to liken designers to barbarians. I suspect most practicing designers, on any given day, aren't so sure which side of the gate they're on. At best, we're all out there doing our own thing, making it up as we go along, re-appropriating, re-purposing and reconsidering the options as we do so.

Which brings us back to D.I.Y., which is increasingly informing — and informed by — the cultural imperatives of a shifting economy. With manufacturing (our country's long-standing economic mainstay) being moved overseas, we have become a service-based economy: everything we used to do ourselves can now be done for us, at a price. Merchandising, magazines and reality television have helped to elevate D.I.Y. to a spiritual high: today, you can remake a home, a wardrobe, or even a loved one, and you can do it yourself — so why not design things yourself? Here, design potentially takes on a much more significant role.

9/11 was a brutal D.I.Y. event, ratcheting our individual doing power up to an unprecedented level and making everyone seem a potential threat — or conversely, a potential hero. This event was all the more horrible because the attack was so lo-fi and unlikely: 20 men with box cutters, commercial airliners re-purposed as bombs? It would be nice to think that with the world in such a serious state, the role of design and designers might become one of greater consequence. Instead, we have a Homeland Security terror-alert system that advises us when to buy duct tape and plastic to cover up our windows. This is a placebo solution if ever there was one: the promise of D.I.Y. lulling us into the false belief that we have control over the things we fear the most.

In the end, D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself is perhaps most successful when it focuses on design examples that are borne of personal expression rather than professional need. Julia Lupton writes: "When you go public with a product or a message, you never know who is listening, or what they will make of it themselves." In the spirit of such altruism, we would all do well to remember that while design may not always change the world, it can be instrumental in helping us make our way through it. And this is the side of the gate where designers should gather in the streets — with things to say rather than to sell.

Tracy Jenkins is a principal and founding partner in Village, a cooperative of type foundries based in New York City. She has worked at Ogilvy's Brand Integration Group and 2x4 since completing her MFA thesis, 'Do-it-Yourself' at Yale University in 2004.

Comments [11]

As a teacher of Pop Culture & Media Studies at a public high school, I often set my course up as a study of underground culture versus mainstream culture.

Invariably, what happens in my efforts to get students to explore the differences between the two cultures is that the DIY nature of the underground shines through.

So we explore DIY movements, and I try to get students to look closely at all of the elements in their lives that are done for them; that are designed for them.

"Do you like the way that's done?" I ask them.

"Do you like the way this looks, or that looks?"

What they being to realize is that there is power in design, and power in doing it yourself.

Plus a lot of joy.

I'm going to give this book a whirl, and hope that, despite its inconsistency, I can take something away from it in my efforts to design and do it more and more myself.

An excellent read.

I'm not sure if the placement was a mistake, but I found DIY in the photography section of a bookstore. For a couple minutes I really contemplated buying the book. Sure, if you've been designing for any period of time most of the examples seem obvious. In the end it was an easy buy because the examples made thinking and designing interesting again for me. I appreciated the different levels of experience that came across in the book. There's a simple energy in the photos that feels less contrived than most design books.
Michael Surtees

I'm interested in the term DIY. The mere mention of it reminds me of those interior design shows that leave me in horror. Is this what greater America sees as good design? Fauxing walls and adding fur trim to lightshades?

More recently though, I see DIY referring more to the Readymade- and Makers- style of 'creating'and I wonder why this genre has appropriated the term. Kitsch value? Or is it because they feel that this terms appeals to the Greater audience?

To me, DO-IT-YOURSELF is a bit condenscending. It's as if to say, "you couldn't do IT before w/o these instructions" and therefore where is the actually design if you're following a recipe? Isn't DIY then, more about recreating?

Jen Wheatley Panasik

I think there's a difference between DIY and good design, or at least, there can be a difference. No doubt about it.

We live in a consumer culture. I think many people have yet to see how viewing oneself solely as consumers affects them. A woman in my town's daily newspaper wrote a letter to the editor in which she referenced the war in Iraq. In it, she asked this question, which I'll paraphrase since I left the paper at work: Aren't those soldiers over in Iraq fighting so that we can choose to buy what we want, watch what we want, and park our cars where we want?

While I agree with her that we should certainly be able to have the freedom to do these things, it's interesting to me that these were the parameters by which she defined our freedom.

For a citizen such as this letter writer, simply viewing herself as a creator as opposed to a consumer may be quite a leap.

Magazines such as Readymade, and the "crafty" elements of the DIY movement may make professional designers uncomfortable since what is being encouraged may be somewhat kitschy, paint-by-numbersish, and not necessarily that pretty, but at least it's beginning to empower the individual to create.

And if the proponents of wabi sabi are to be believed, the beauty of art and design lies in its imperfections anyway, which regular "citizen designers" most likely possess in boatloads.

I'd rather a person feel empowered to line her lampshade with a bit of wacky fur than to sit around watching the telly sighing at the blue light bouncing off the walls of a barren living room. It may leave designers in horror to see the art of average folks, but even if it's shitty, it's still art. The beauty is in the creating, not the creation.

For the record... I am a professional graphic designer. I hate good design. I'd rather my girlfriend made me a birthday card, than bought me one designed by Paul Rand.

I tend to agree with Luke...there are some things that are more important than a ready made, mass produced objects. A hand made card is sentimental on many levels. However, is a mass produced Eames chair less desireable than a chair made by a local DIY woodworker? That question is only answered by where a person places value.
I can't say that I hate good design...ever. If so then why are we getting up to go to work everyday? I certainly hope it is not to unleash more bad design into the world.

Thank you for this piece. For years I have been studying creative communities and I have found that amateurs make up a healthy part of them. I love how, in on line communities for instance, professionals offer guidance and inspiration to novices and how novices serve a critical function in return.

In interviews with designers of all sorts, it is clear to me that we have most definitely moved away from a period of time when most of us are merely passive consumers. We can engage as producers as well. At the risk of slipping into technological determinism, technology plays a significant role in this transition. As you remark, is now easier to produce and share on a global scale.

Although I am an academic, I think conjuring up Marx is right on. There is something happening that is very different from traditional capitalism. Yet DIY is an unfortunate title as I think this movement goes deeper. I see creative communities centered on a design discourse based on sharing, gift-giving and reputation. From my interviews I'd say that we are entering a period, predicted by Adrian Shaughnessy in an article called From Here to Here (Creative Review, April 2004) and discussed here by Rick Poyner, of time when design for other design sake becomes a practice in itself. You could argue this has always been the case, of course, but I see something akin to academic discourse blossoming - replete with small markets selling designed materials (whatever they may be) almost exclusively to other designers. These designs, as you rightly point out, may have more to do with expression than commerce.
gregory turner-rahman

Gregory is right that D.I.Y. is part of the broader "sharing" culture, which includes the open source software movement, the copy left movement, and more. D.I.Y. as a broader phenomenon has self-education and information sharing at its core.

D.I.Y. design is not necessarily, however, without a public purpose. Tracy's review opens by suggesting that D.I.Y. is restricted to homes and hobbies—grandma's Christmas tree, dad's botched carpentry. But many people out there in the world who are not design experts have a desire to "go public" with a message, from promoting a small business or publicizing a band to expressing a political point of view. These people can and will join the information commons without paying an expert to get them there. These people are real, and they include a lot of kickass grandmas as well as tech-savvy kids.

In this respect, D.I.Y. is more like the bombings that Tracy refers to (a bit grandiosely, perhaps) at the end of her piece. The bombers did not likely do what they did simply because they would enjoy the process of developing their personal craft. The end result, and its public impact, must have been important to them, too.
Ellen Lupton

I am an English professor. I am also a DIY designer, both at work (where I create teaching tools, posters and web sites), and at home (where I make everything from cards and magnets to logos and blogs).

DIY has changed not only how I live, shop, cook, and raise kids, but also how I conceive of my own job at the university. More creation, less critique. More thinking, less knowledge. More conversation, less expertise. More publishing, but in new media and for more publics.

The discussion continues at design-your-life.org.
Julia Lupton

i think the relationship of the idea of DIY to 'new media', or the web, is very relevant and fascinating because it raises the question of distribution, or 'going public' as ellen lupton refers to. im interested in myspace, an internet community similar to friendster but apparently now more popular. the site allows you to construct your own profile by not only filling in written responses to questions, but also by embedding video, audio, playlists, photos, and surveys that the user selects and links to as an act of creating one's identity and immediately distributing it to an audience of 40 million or so.

the process and tools used in creating a global corporate identity are not so different from those used in creating a website for your dad's poker night. in fact, theyre one and the same. the only difference is the computer's make and model, and the maker's design credentials. the difference lies in the access to modes of distrubtion. 99.999% of the world will never have access to the funding that gives access to modes of distribution necessary to mount a global branding campaign. while horrifyingly exemplary in their unexpected misuse of accesible tools, even the 9.11 terrorist attack tracy jenkins refers to as the ultimate DIY act had financial backing for preproduction on par with hollywood film budgets.

distribution, for me, is a key word in relationship to DIY. my first awareness of the term came through independent music labels in the early nineties who bought their own presses and figured out ways to bypass the monolithic music industry standards. the aspect of distribution in relationship to DIY seems to take a backseat as it becomes more of a buzzword that joins the pantheon of middle-class catchphrases that refer to self-improvement and an attempt to return to the pre-industrial self. the web, the first great post-industrial mode of communication, is the first truly accesible channel of distribution where anyone is guaranteed at least the potential of a worldwide audience. the wired pc becomes the first tool of both creation and distribution.

Over at AIGA Voice, more on D.I.Y.: Ellen Lupton and Steve Heller debate the merits of D.I.Y.
William Drenttel

Tracy Jenkins is a principal and founding partner in Village, a cooperative of type foundries based in New York City. She has worked at Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group and 2x4 since completing her MFA thesis, "Do-it-Yourself" at Yale University in 2004.

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