This entry recently appeared on the FluidForms blog; many thanks to Andreas Jaritz for the opportunity…
In 2006, Fast Company published a debate article entitled Can Anyone be a Designer? Andrew Keen and Joe Duffy argued the pros and cons and in the end neither one managed to convince the other (the title of this piece was one of Keen’s closing arguments), but the article raised some interesting questions which services such as those offered by FluidForms are increasingly bringing to the attention of professional designers. Questions not only about who has the right to call themselves a ‘designer’, but also about how design itself is defined.
Joe Duffy began the debate by claiming that
“…everyone plays the part of a designer. Design decisions are made by most everyone, everyday – what should I wear today? What kind of car should I buy? What color? Which options? What about the new sofa for the family room? What design style? Which color and fabric? These actually are design decisions…”
This is an argument I used in an essay early in my design studies. I thought it was insightful at the time, but then I was only 17. Of course, it’s totally wrong. These aren’t design decisions, they’re consumer choices. As Douglas Coupland said in Generation X, shopping is not creating. Arguing that choosing what car to buy is a design decision is like arguing that taking an aspirin is a medical decision, and that therefore I’m playing the part of a doctor, as one CSven argued on ProductDesignForums recently.
Fiat 500 customisation toolkit © Fiat
Even if there might be a philosophical debate to be had about whether these are design decisions, it doesn’t really help in deciding whether anyone can be a designer. But I don’t believe most consumers see these as design decisions anyway; in my experience most people think of design in terms of taste and aesthetics, and believe that in our post-modern world, everyone is entitled to an opinion on what constitutes good or bad design. In one sense they are right: one of the things that distinguishes design from art is that design is primarily about solving problems. And so to know whether a particular design is good or bad, you have to ask the people who have used it. But expecting consumers to have an opinion on whether a design is ‘good’, on whether one design solves a problem better than another, is a long way from claiming those consumers are themselves designers.
In Duffy’s definition though, design isn’t about problem solving, it’s about consumer choice, and in his opinion this is a good thing.
“As Americans act more like designers, they learn more about the design process, and in exploring it on their own terms, they gain a greater appreciation for the talent that it takes to practice it at the highest levels. They also achieve a better understanding of its importance in their lives.”
If people really were to act more like designers, they might indeed come to a better understanding of why design is important, both aesthetically and functionally. But this is where FluidForms, and other companies which offer customisation of products, raise some interesting questions. By offering tools to consumers which make the unique design of products easier does this raise the consumer’s appreciation of the designer’s skill? After all, people don’t usually come to appreciate things that are easy, they appreciate the skills involved in doing something they themselves find difficult.
Customised PC by Katsuya Matsumura
This opinion, that design isn’t actually that difficult, is one that understandably raises the hackles of design professionals. On a recent thread on Core77, a website and forum for industrial designers, one poster insisted that most design is much, much simpler than gourmet cooking. That sparked off a whole debate, much of it quite disparaging, about consumers who ‘self-design’ products. Some of the comments included:
“A small percentage of consumers may want to choose colors on their sneakers, or push and pull a few points on a nurb surface for a cell phone, but you comment comes off as pretty ignorant as to what design actually is.”
“The rapid prototyping machine in many ways is no different than the hot glue gun, it allows crafters to exercise their wimsy and their perspective, some of which is good, most horrid.”
“Myspace is a perfect example of what happens when you put design into the hands of everyone. A huge percentage of the pages on myspace are unusable/unreadable. Personal fabrication will be no different… on balance… a big, ugly mess.”
“It comes down to this, 75% of people are herd beasts, and buy what others in their social groups have/want.”
The way these comments are so dismissive of consumers-as-designers to a large extent demonstrates the degree to which professional designers feel their work is misunderstood. In the field of mass customisation this is also very common, sites such as NikeID (‘toolkits’ in the mass customisation jargon), are regularly referred to as offering consumers the opportunity to design their own products. Andrew Keen picks up on this in his arguments in the Fast Company article:
“The consequence of this design democracy is an ugly spectacle of deep purples and electric oranges. It’s a culture of me-me-me: my hideously personalized car, my hideously personalized sofa, my hideously personalized house. It’s that fat woman in the tight dress that only exaggerates her obesity. It’s that loud pick-up truck with the tinted windows and the tastelessly sexualized exhaust pipe.”
Phantasy Landscape, 1970 © Verner Panton
I sense some faux outrage here. But anyway, the question is, whose ugliness? If Wallpaper magazine was insisting deep purple and electric orange were cool, would Keen pick another example? What’s being described here is quite clearly taste, not design. And those who are most disturbed by consumers exhibiting their own choices are always those who consider themselves arbiters of ‘good’ taste, the people who see their own influence waning as consumers increasingly make decisions for themselves.
In the end, the question of whether anyone can be a designer comes down to the way in which design is defined. Professional designers think of it as a process which encompasses everything from consumer research and blue-sky concepting to the constraints imposed by manufacturing. In contrast, consumers tend to understand design as a noun, rather than a verb – something which is added to a product rather than something which fundamentally decides it. New manufacturing technologies, and the companies which are giving consumers access to them, will not turn consumers into designers. But they will allow consumers to act creatively to interact with a product and make decisions about its form and function. For me, that’s better than just shopping.
Note: since this article was written another discussion has taken place on Core77 which covers similar issues, you can read it here.