As drawing, painting, theater, dance, and music classes have disappeared from many American schools and so too from our homework-help sessions, some parents wonder where our children will begin to learn how and why to make something beautiful and meaningful.
Everyone is a scientist/engineer now, everyone is a writer, everyone is a designer. No training, no study, no history, no apprenticeship: Is that what D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself or Design It Yourself) is about?
If we read Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, perhaps we would not worry so much. And we would have a better idea of why encouraging more D.I.Y can ultimately produce stronger design (or other) work throughout our society.
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.Ellen Lupton 1
With this and her other D.I.Y. books, Lupton is a spokesperson for the Design-It Yourself (or Do-It-Yourself) Movements, closely aligned to the Maker Movement, which started with exuberance in the mid 2000s and continues through Maker Faires in one city/town after another.
Lupon may also be the doyenne of ethical community-and-designer collaborations. I base this on looking at some of the MICA collaborative projects like Baltimarket: Fresh Food in Urban Food Deserts in my home city and reading her book on graphic design brainstorming.3
Her work does seem different from some recent MFA design project discussions that seemed to have, unfortunately, a patina of mental colonialism, as in the western artist drawing up designs that are then made in non-western countries, as if those countries did not have artists and designers themselves or as if they needed an update (i.e., murals or posters) on how to appreciate the importance of clean water.
However, in Lupton’s work with her students and her communities in Baltimore, I do not see this attitude. I see respect for opinions and ideas of the collaborators. Worth a deeper look. And Baltimarket continues to serve those in food deserts.
So, if you are building your own website, designing your own business card, or constructing your own robot, you are part of this D.I.Y. movement, brought about by the recent recession, the rising value of the handmade, and other conditions to be eventually described in more detail by anthropologists, economists, and historians.
As we see that we can no longer buy all the beautiful glittery things we desire and sometimes the tools we need to survive, we are beginning (again) to make things ourselves, and we are finding this very satisfying.
Diversity of Minds
But what put in us this desire for glittery things in the first place? Cultural critics and neuroscientists will have more than a few ideas about this. But I digress. The energy of the D.I.Y movement and the possibilities for diversity of mind that this could foster make me a fan.
We in the U.S. can learn a lot from what designers are doing in other countries, as they do not wait for American designers to come and design things for them. Just one example: Saki Mafundikwa’s work in Zimbabwe.
Saki Mafundikwa, graphic designer, typographer, and author4 of Afrikan Alphabets, left a successful design career in New York to return to his home country and establish the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA) a design and new media training college in Harare. Design students from the U.S. also go there to study.
For more about Mafundikwa and the history of Afrikan typographies, see Mafundikwa S. TED Talk: Ingenuity and Elegance in Ancient African Alphabets, AIGA’s profile of Mafundikwa, and Typography + Language + Writing Systems = Afrikan Alphabets written by Ima-Abasi Okon on the website Another Afrika. To dispel the notion of a western design hegemony, it does not take much.
Mafundikwa had this D.I.Y. advice for his students, which could serve all of us, no matter our art or discipline, whether we are pursuing a vocation or career or entering the D.I.Y. world:
You wanna break the rules? Well, you gotta learn the rules first. Learn to draw like your life depends on it.Saki Mafundikwa 5
I’m not visual, so do I have to draw in this workshop?Barbara Kristaponis6
Yes I said yes you do. Yes.
- Lupton E. “The D.I.Y. Debate.” AIGA: The Professional Association for Design, January 24, 2006, accessed August 31, 2020, https://www.aiga.org/aiga/content/inspiration/voice/the-d.i.y.-debate/.
- Lupton E. (ed) D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself. NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006: 15.
- Lupton E. (ed) Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming. NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.
- Mafundikwa S. Afrikan Alphabets. NY: Mark Batty Publisher. 2007.
- _______________. “Profile of Saki Mafundikwa.” AIGA: The Professional Association for Design, September 1, 2008, accessed 8/26/2020, https://www.aiga.org/design-journeys-saki-mafundikwa.
- From private conversation before design workshop given by Kristaponis for medical writers and editors. AMWA National Conference 2011. Apologies to James Joyce.
This article was first posted on January 7, 2015 and updated in September 2020.
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