Dmitri Siegel | Essays

Designing Our Own Graves

DIY Coffin: You Can Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399, Joe Scanlan, 2001

A recent coincidence caught my eye while at the bookstore. A new book by Karim Rashid called Design Your Self was sitting on the shelf next to a new magazine from Martha Stewart called Blueprint which bore a similarly cheerful entreaty on its cover: "Design your life!" These two publications join Ellen Lupton's recent DIY: Design It Yourself to form a sort of mini-explosion of literature aimed at democratizing the practice of design (never mind that, as Lupton has noted, Rashid's book is actually more about designing his self than yours).

With the popularity of home improvement shows and self-help books, our society is positively awash in do-it-yourself spirit. People don't just eat food anymore, they present it; they don't look at pictures, they take them; they don't buy T-shirts, they sell them. People are doing-it-themselves to no end. But to what end? The artist Joe Scanlan touches on the more troubling implications of the DIY explosion in his brilliantly deadpan piece DIY Coffin, which is essentially instructions for making a perfectly functional coffin out of an IKEA bookcase.

Scanlan's piece accepts the basic assumption of Design Your Life and Design Your Self: that design is something that anyone can (and should) participate in. But what is behind all this doing-it-ourselves? Does that coffin have your career's name on it?

The design-your-life mindset is part of a wider cultural and economic phenonemon that I call prosumerism — simultaneous production and consumption. The confluence of work and leisure is common to a lot of hobbies, from scrap-booking to hot-rodding. But what was once a niche market has exploded in the last decade. Prosumerism is distinctly different from purchasing the tools for a do-it-yourself project. The difference can be seen most clearly in online products like Flickr and Wikipedia. These products embody an emerging form of inverted consumerism where the consumer provides the parts and the labor. In The Wealth of Networks, Yale Law School professor Yochai Benkler calls this inversion "social production." and says it is the first potent manifestation of the much-hyped information economy. Call it what you will, this "non-market activity" is changing not just the way people share information but their definition of what a product is.

This evolving consumer mentality might be called "the templated mind." The templated mind searches for text fields, metatags and rankings like the handles on a suitcase. Data entry and customization options are the way prosumers grip this new generation of products. The templated mind hungers for customization and the opportunity to add their input — in essence to do-it-themselves. The templated mind trusts the result of social production more than the crafted messages of designers and copywriters. And this mentality is changing the design of products. Consider Movable Type, the software behind the blog revolution in general and this site in particular. This prosumer product has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to publish themselves on the web. For millions of people, their unconscious image of a website has been shaped by the constrained formats allowable by Movable Type templates. They unconsciously orient themselves to link and comments — they recognize the handiwork of a fellow prosumer. Any designer working on a webpage has to address that unconscious image. And it does not just impact designers in terms of form and style. As the template mentality spreads, consumers approach all products with the expectation of work. They are looking for the blanks, scanning for fields, checking for customization options, choosing their phone wallpaper, rating movies on Netflix, and uploading pictures of album art to Amazon. The template mentality emphasizes work over style or even clarity.

This shift in emphasis has the potential to marginalize designers. Take book covers. The rich tradition of cover design has developed because publishers have believed that a cover could help sell more books. But now more and more people are buying books based on peer reviews, user recommendations, and rankings. Word of mouth has always been a powerful marketing force, but now those mouths have access to sophisticated networks on which their words can spread faster than ever before. Covers are seen at 72dpi at best. The future of the medium depends on how it is integrated into the process of social production. The budget that once went to design fees is already being redirected to manipulating search criteria and influencing Google rankings. A good book cover can still help sell books but it is up against a lot more competition for the marketing dollar.

Prosumerism is also changing the role of graphic design in the music industry. When the music industry made the shift to compact discs in the late 1980s, many designers complained that the smaller format would be the death of album art. Fifteen years later those predictions seem almost quaint. The mp3 format makes compact disc packaging seem like the broad side of a barn. The "it" bands of the last few years—Arctic Monkeys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Gnarls Barkly to name just a few—have all broken into the popular consciousness via filesharing. Arctic Monkeys and CYHSY generated huge buzz on MySpace before releasing records, and Gnarls Barkly's irresitable hit "Crazy" made it to the top of the UK pop charts before it was even released, based entirely on mp3 downloads. The cover art for the new album from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was the result of a do-it-yourself flag project the band ran online. The public image of a musician or band is no longer defined by an artfully staged photo or eye-popping album art. A filename that fits nicely into the "listening to" field in the MySpace template might be more important. The mp3 format and the ubiquity of downloading has shrunk the album art canvas to a 200x200 pixel jpg. Music videos, once the ultimate designer dream gig has shrunk as well. Imagine trying to watch M&Co.'s "Nothing But Flowers" video for the Talking Heads on a video ipod. As playlists and favorites become the currency of the music industry, the album as an organizing principle may disappear entirely. Soon graphic designers may only be employed to create 6x6 pixel favicons.

In Revolutionary Wealth, veteran futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler (Future Shock, The Third Wave) paint a very optimistic picture of prosumerism. They rightly make the connection between the do-it-yourself ethos and the staggering increases in wealth that have occured around the world in the last century. They describe a future where people use their extraordinary accumulated wealth to achieve greater and greater autonomy from industrial and corporate production. Benkler also spends a great deal of time celebrating the increased freedom and autonomy that social production provides.

But is the unimpeded spread of this kind of autonomy really possible? Benkler also raises serious concerns about efforts to control networks through private ownership and legislation. Wikipedia is not a kit that you buy; you do not own your Flickr account and you never will. When you update a MySpace account you are building up someone else's asset. The prosumer model extracts the value of your work in real time, so that you are actually consuming your own labor.

And what would the role of the designer in a truly do-it-yourself economy? Looking at Flickr or youtube or MySpace, it seems that when people do it themselves, they need a great deal less graphic design to get it done. The more that our economy runs on people doing it themselves, the more people will demand opportunities to do so, and the more graphic designers will have to adapt their methods. What services and expertise do designers have to offer in the prosumer market? Rashid and Lupton have provided one answer (the designer as expert do-it-yourselfer), but unless designers come up with more answers, they may end up designing-it-themselves...and little else.

Dmitri Siegel is a writer and designer. He is an adjunct faculty member at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and is an art director at Sundance Channel. He also publishes Ante, a journal of visual culture.

Comments [32]

I believe in people owning their own content, and I provide installation of open-source packages on people's own hosting server, to create their own blogs, wikis, social networks, photo galleries, etc. Some people don't want the myspace templates (the number of people looking for designers with MySpace design experience would attest to this) -- I design custom templates for the software I install and configure, if desired. I also make sure that the RSS feeds et. al. are working properly.

Once people realize -- really realize -- that they don't own their own content, they're going to come looking for someone like me to liberate them. I find it REALLY annoying that my competition for "wiki" on Google AdWords was charging $1200/month to host a wiki -- but they gave the first month for free, so the ad said "free wiki". So you pay them a real person's salary per year for the pleasure of not owning your content? Honestly, GoDaddy and others host rather cheaply...and can run the software.
Criss Ittermann

Great article. There's a famous saying by Marcel DuChamp: "The Artist Selects". "The Designer Selects" as well, but if all a designer can do is select--from a menu, from a stock photo library, from the fonts they can get, or mimick ideas in the "cutting edge" work marketed in the in the latest issues of design publications and on the web, then we are in trouble.

After taking a close look at (Martha Stewart) Blueprint I felt like this was just another extension of a Martha signature publication (next up: Martha Stewart Insider Trading!!!). But Blueprint clearly is aimed at the younger audience of magazines like Real Simple and Simplycity.

That designers need to adapt to the prevalence of DIY couldn't be more emphasized today. I'm sure there are many designers out there who have clients that think that just because they have software or a digital camera they can do their own thing. Also with trends setting the standards for what design is valuable (i.e.: can you do Flash vs. can you design something in a creatively appropriate way that suits the clients needs). It's a constant battle and has definitely devalued the worth of a fair amount of creative work. But, I guess it it weeds out the mega cheap clients.

I know it's probably been said before but really good creative work, even if many aspects of the creative and production process can be democratized and delivered quicker with powerful software tools, still cannot be done with the press of a button (it's a process)

I noticed recently on the San Jose Mercury News site they have been offering users the opportunity to upload their own digital news photos or video. On the same page is a rather unethical submission agreement. But banking off the desire for exposure to get free content is certainly nothing new in the realm of media (it's a business). On the flip side things like blogs and Flickr photo gallleries although corporate packaged on a certain level, offer access to seeing and reading users own perspective that simply are not otherwise as accessible in mainstream print media.

Mark Eastman

Mark Eastman

I view this change to design-it-yourself as a positive thing for the design community. Good design work requires a significant amount of time and talent and as individuals attempt to be their own little version of Paul Rand—if they know who he is—they will find out how much talent/training is actually required to create effective design. By trying to do it themselves they will realize that some things are best left to the professional.

For example, I can change my own oil but when my car doesn't start I have it towed to the garage.

Sure, some people will not realize that design is worth paying for if they could do it for free, but then they reap what they've sown. Overall I believe that this shift will educate more people about what design is.

Amazing Rando
Amazing Rando

I was working on something similar involving operating system interface design. It's such an area of specialization that quite often the design gets left up to the programmers who are under such a time crunch due to heavy competition that they let novel design fall to the wayside to make room for speed and ease of production. A virtual space is only limited by the imagination of the person(s) designing that space. So why then are most virtual interfaces mirrors of the everyday?

With open-source taking on new speed it's an area of design that I hope to see flower in the next few years. If I could I certainly would do-it-myself.
Brad Martin

Another technology that supports your argument is RSS. Most of my internet reading is done in my RSS reader. I am actually annoyed that Design Observer only puts an excerpt of the articles in their feed. I guess it is anti-design, but I would rather read the entire article in my RSS reader than make the tedious effort to make the extra click to visit Design Observer. It could be argued that RSS is making web design irrelevent.

Oh, and you can already make your own coffin. I got that link from one of the hottest "prosumer" blogs that you failed to mention: Make Magazine. It is a wonderful site.

As a designer, I don't feel threatened by DIY'ers. Also, I would hate to be anyone that stands in the way of that mob... good luck Dmitri!

Fascinating post, Dmitri. Not only is this something I've thought about a great deal, but I whole-heartedly agree with your take on the subject.

I wanted to point out that some of the issues surrounding this discussion may be related directly to some of the issues raised in Michael B's earlier discussion of working on spec. The more that prominent designers communicate to the public that it's possible to do it themselves, the more the public may be willing to believe that design is not something worth hiring professional designers to do for them. This is already happening, and many of the greatest tales in the mythology of "innovation" are those of accidental or amateur innovators. The evolution of the post-it note is a case in point.

I also think your observations about the "templated mind" (great phrase) play directy into the kind of DIY activities that are taking place. From the design of Nike ID shoes, XBox decals, and much of the "personalization" allowed on Web 2.0, the DIY "prosumer" is allowed as much design as the content management system can effectively manage on his behalf. For those who want to break the rules in a managed DIY environment, this is unfortunate. For those who don't know the rules, however, this templated atmosphere is a blessing, because it removes unknowns. One has the illusion of ability without the blessings of wisdom or the judgement of craft.

One of the most powerful things a professional designer can do is ask questions a client doesn't even know they should be asking. To do this requires a freedom with one's tools that allows something like improvisation, play, and even dreaming to happen on the project's behalf. It is not a templated act.

In effective communication, users are often asked to learn a unique story and then apply it. In that sense, designers who advocate DIY are commuicating well, giving the world something like an applied crash course with very specific and purposeful limitations. Having received the message that design is important, the public may now make design lessons specific to their own experiences. This will change how the public thinks of design, and, as you point out in the case of Moveable Type, change the public's expectations of designers as well.

But we must not confuse - or let the public confuse - the outreach and advocacy of design for expertise and leadership in it. One hand washes the other. A growing group of design prosumers is the most engaged and interested audience a design leader could hope for, but their passions must continue to be stirred and their interests fostered. Otherwise, it may be the patients who end up taking over the asylum.
Rob Giampietro

I am going to have to say that I disagree with the DIYers being positive for the design community. As much as I'd like to believe that people would soon realize that it takes professionals to do things, I dont think it will happen like that. Once they get that glimpse of how to customize their templates or whatever, then comes the "I design" phase. And instead of learning about good design, they will find articles to how to customize, just to get the job done.

With that said, designers could hurt themselves in making all the thousands of free templates for these CMS's and blog software, which puts the control back to the users in them thinking they can do it themselves. What work will be left for us?
J Phill

J Phill,

designers could hurt themselves in making all the thousands of free templates for these CMS's and blog software, which puts the control back to the users in them thinking they can do it themselves. What work will be left for us?

Probably something more rewarding and fulfilling than designing blog templates. Theres always something new to be designed — sometimes it just has to be found or created.

I fully believe that as designers it is not our job to design everything, but to lead the way to having everything designed.
Derrick Schultz

Dmitri, The more I thought about it, the more I realized that your article needed a complete rebuttal. In true "do it yourself" fashion, I have written my objections and posted them at Be A Design Group.

Be sure not to overlook Readymade Magazine. For those who embrace or welcome the DIY spirit of independence will probably already know about it.


nate hofer

Be sure not to overlook Readymade Magazine. For those who embrace or welcome the DIY spirit of independence will probably already know about it.


nate hofer

for every industry, there are DIYers. architecture. construction. auto repair. plumbing. roofing. landscape design. real estate. the list goes on and on. for example, i tried to landscape my yard. it turned out okay but it looked fabulous after i paid a landscape company. we have all tried to DIY something or another. none of these industries have fallen on their face because of it. stop the drama. just keep up the good, high-quality work. the cool thing about design is that there is always the opportunity to create something new. let's stay focused on moving the design industry forward.

people can do it yourself or hire people to add things on, of course. a great example is at the farnsworth house when edith farnsworth decided she needed to add bookshelf space so she bought some rows of bookshelves and nailed them into the wall. she also added the most awful furniture, which i am sure she liked. she also added screens to keep out mosquitoes. unfortunately i do not have the picture to post for everyone, which i saw at the farnsworth house office, of how she added her special touches to the space.

everyone thinks they are a designer, or have taste, and in most cases they are dead wrong.

winthrop joe

Adrian: It could be argued that RSS is making web design irrelevent.

Anything can be argued, given enough delusion.

It was also believed that computers would lead to a paperless office. That turned out so absolutely wrong, there's an MIT Press book that looks into why, and articles published regularly pointing out that paper use continues to rise.
RSS will not replace web design. It just won't. Neither will blogs replace periodicals. They are different things with different purposes.

constrained formats allowable by Movable Type templates.
Elaborate? In my experience, people who feel constrained by MT(and, largely, any publishing system) simply don't know how to make it do what they want. I also suspect that the constraints you refer to are actually defined by the blog format(which I don't believe in) and the user's own slavish adherence to "it" rather than the underlying software.

The rich tradition of cover design has developed because publishers have believed that a cover could help sell more books.[...]
You seem to suggest that cover design should trump actual book reviews/recommendations. (You don't expect me to trust the blurbs, do you? Those are as designed as the art is.) But then, you suddenly shift to claiming that books' design budgets are being redirected toward gaming search engines(source?). I think I'm missing a connection here.
You also avoid the question of why. Yes, covers help sales, but so do other marketing efforts. Do they get better returns? I like nice covers, but practicality has to kick in at some point.

And what would the role of the designer in a truly do-it-yourself economy? Looking at Flickr or youtube or MySpace, it seems that when people do it themselves, they need a great deal less graphic design to get it done
You're muddling your examples. Flickr and YouTube are not customizable. They're just presentation spaces. The reason they're "less" designed is because the focus is your images/videos, not their site. Minimalism is hard, remember? Calling them undesigned is a clear indicator you haven't actually checked. Design on the web is somewhat quantifiable; those two sites have large and detailed stylesheets.
MySpace is customizable, but for reasons I'll let Mike Davidson explain, it's unreasonably difficult, even for the experienced, to get anything decent out of it. That's MySpace's fault, not the users'. Granted, the immediate users probably still wouldn't produce much of interest even given more control, but at least the people who provide them with templates would have something to work with. Note that they're generally confined to changing colors and a few strategic images.

Interesting - but what I find more interesting is that someone such as Martha Stewart can launch a design focussed magazine named Blueprint when there is already an internationally recognised, well established design magazine with the same name. Having been apart of a magazine launch where our chosen title was already in use (in a completely different sector on the other side of the planet) and still not being able to use it, I am mystified how the magazine can run with this name. From my experience they are either paying the original Blueprint a fee for the name, completly ignoring the fact they are using an existing name and breaching copyright laws, or the magazines name is actually Blueprint - Design your life!. In any case it just doesn't seem right... does it?

One of the things I'm a little bit surprised by is the assumption of "design," even "graphic design," as being a wholly visual practice. The graphic design industry has been under "attack" for a couple of decades now, since the rise of desktop publishing, and continues to cry volumes of tears over all those "hacks" who come pouring out of so-called design schools with a few months' training and hang up their "graphic designer" shingle. The DIY'ers are just the next generation of these marginally skilled makeover artists.

But if design is more than applying a skin—and I think most would agree that it is—there's still a lot of work to be done. After all, aren't designers "sitting at the head of the table with the CEO" etc.? Notice no-one seems to be advocating DIY thinking and planning. God, no, that would be work.

Perhaps, as Su indicates, the emphasis in design will move away from the surface and into the guts, the mechanism, the back end, and the reasoning. AND if aesthetics are not to suffer, it's up to designers to design the DIY tools in such a way that "skills" are built in by the template system. Templates are just new tools, it's up to designers to design them so they produce beautiful results. (Myself, I'd be thrilled to work on a system that enforced good typography on the average MSWord user.)


On another note, I'm a little amused by the American free-enterprise/free self expression ethos on one hand and the Ayn Rand flavour of fascist aesthetic control on the other. A home-owner's denigration of a fabulous piece of architecture may be an after-the-fact affront to designers everywhere, but it is still a person's home, and they have the right to live in it in whatever way makes them feel comfortable.

In this sense, prosumerism (great word, by the way) is perhaps taking back control of as much individuality as people can in their struggle to not be managed in every minute aspect of their lives. I would much rather enter the space of someone who had made or controlled their own environment in whatever way represented who they are, than one which had been "designed" by a professional to the prevailing notion of "taste." Ultimately self expression will find an out.

marian bantjes

Also, I just returned from reading Adrian's little screed over at BADG, and I just have to say there seems to be an assumption that Dmitri has written a hysterical, fearmongering piece on The Next Great Menace to the design profession. I didn't read it that way. This happens all the time with Jessica Helfand's posts where something is [ahem] Observed, and the following commentary assumes a judgemental stance that I have difficulty finding evidence of in the original post.

Whenever this happens I'm completely surprised (and disgruntled) that the author doesn't step in to correct the matter, leaving me to wonder ... maybe I'm not reading the posts correctly.
marian bantjes

Marian: As to the Ayn Randian "fascist aesthetic control," I wholly agree. There's an overwhelming dollop of arrogance that inevitably intrudes on discussions of the laity in design (speaking as one of the laity myself), and it seems to focus on the cult of the author.

For better or worse, intention, and especially authorial intent, means nothing. It's irrelevant to the text (the creation, the design, etc.) because the meaning or the experience of the text is produced more by the reader (or viewer) than it is a product of the author's intent or even the work. Authors include cues and triggers, and there is an aim to provoke certain experiences and emotions, but it is dependent on the reader being well-versed in those triggers and cues and cultural context for the work to succeed.

The elite will always resist the development of an educated (or even active) laity because it removes the status one receives from being elite. That's one admittedly Freudian interpretation. Of course I'm sure there are economic reasons for wanting to limit the labor supply pool. But the dogged insistence that the "prosumer" is better off not even bothering is hostile and ultimately self-destructive.

As for the Farnsworth house example, I'd be damned if I let anyone--the architect himself especially--tell me what to do with my own living space. And that's really what this is: the development of an organic, living culture of design and communication. Meaning is not static and aesthetic creations are worthless if they do not evolve with context.

I agree with Marian and I'm glad she spoke up.
the Brightside

Either I'm also perceptive/slow as I didn't regard this as an anti-DIY diatribe. Being self-absorbed, I saw it as related somewhat to my own "I Come to Bury Graphic Design Not to Praise It" (perhaps it's just the similarly-morbid titles).

To argue that phenomena such as "templating" may have profound implications for our culture and the design profession is far from condemning them. And to suggest that they may profoundly affect designers' agency is hardly hysterical.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Su, thanks for filling in the blanks of my first comment about RSS. No, RSS doesn't replace web design. It is one of the tools that is redefining how the internet works. I thought it should be added to Dmitri's list of technology advances that are bad for design - which I obviously take issue with.

Dmitri, I am a little perplexed why you haven't responded to any of the comments in the past week. I would love to hear your response to the criticism and feedback. That is what makes this medium great (and yes at times frustrating).

Bennett: Thanks for your interest in my response to the responses. I have been on vacation and so not able to do the real time "Hold On!" and "Right On!" I might have liked. I think the best comments here are those that have attempted to address the core question of the piece: How can and should design evolve in light of the prosumer revolution. Criss, Brad, Rob, Mark, and Marian have all taken interesting stabs at this. Increasing the field's emphasis on cognitive science, consulting, information architecture are all worthy ideas.

Kenneth and Marian have identified the flaw in Adrian's response. Adrian bit too hard on the bait in this article and missed the substance. I try to follow this golden rule: read first, read second, rant third. I do have one question for Adrian though: how did you get your response to list higher on Google than the original post? That's genius.

Su: Minimalism is hard, remember?
Since you chose to take that pot-shot I have to ask, do you really think YouTube and Flickr are examples of minimalism? There is a difference between minimal and minimalism, remember?
dmitri siegel

Wow, I guess I did take the bait. Forgive me for taking you literally when you show a coffin and ask "Does that coffin have your career's name on it?" It sure sounded like you were saying that "prosumers" are going to put designers out of work.

I guess I just disagree with your premise that the "prosumer" is a threat to design. I see it as a huge opportunity rather than an obstacle. I don't see any need to create a strategy for making design "evolve in light of the prosumer revolution." Designer's are already actively involved in the revolution and reaping the benefits. It doesn't take increased "emphasis on cognitive science, consulting, and information architecture." All it takes is the recognition that these DIY'ers aren't our enemies - they are our clients. Once you realize that no counter revolution is necessary, you can stop focusing on coffins and start singing the praises of iTunes, Wikipedia, and Flickr like the rest of the world. Join the revolution, don't fight it!

I have to ask, do you really think YouTube and Flickr are examples of minimalism? There is a difference between minimal and minimalism, remember?

The lower-case m was intentional, in case you're asking about Minimalism. If so, probably not. I have neither the background nor interest to name-drop movements. Nor would I cite either as examples of minimalism(lower or upper), but maybe aspirational. You can't deny that they could both very easily be a whole lot more cluttered.

Considering how much stuff there is, and how many ways there are to get around, it's surprising how little "interface" Flickr has visible at any given moment, and the last update did a fair amount to hide even more than had been before. Pretty much everything about Flickr, including its technology has simplified over time.
YouTube less so, but it's also much younger, and I predict its own updates will take a similar reductive approach. It's a fairly established pattern in web design for sites presenting large amounts of content. Mperia still needs work, but was a chaos of pointless lines a year ago.
By comparison, upon arrival at MySpace(everybody's favorite whipping boy) within the top inch and a half of the site, I'm presented with a search box that can work 7 different ways, 15 main menu choices, and 12 sub-nav options before even arriving at the content or busy design.

Regardless, this skirts my actual point that Flickr and YouTube are not especially viable examples for your argument(and to answer you: Someone has to design Flickr, YouTube et al). I'm just tired of the same scapegoats being drawn out in these discussions, usually with little concern for their actual applicability, or for how they could become applicable. (If you really want to talk DIY, then look at Greasemonkey and Platypus. User-contributed content and templates are barely the beginning.) MySpace is the only one that fits, and only marginally, which becomes obvious from either actually trying to customize it, or reading Davidson's piece.

Adrian I could not agree with you more. DIYers are not just our clients, they are US. Right now I am writing on a blog and listening to itunes and probably uploading user feedback on several pieces of software unconsciously while beta-testing this web-browser and wearing customized Nikes. It is precisely because designers are so involved in this economic shift that we have to ask the tough quesitons: Isn't it strange that Wikipedia has started screening it's contributors? If Fox owns MySpace does that mean they own MY space? Does Amazon know more about me than my friends? What sort of copyrights am I giving up by writing this sentence in this medium? The prosumer revolution isn't finished. We are doing it...right...now. So we must engage with it critically. That's why I sincerely commend you (and all those who have commented) for taking the time to write your response. Counter-revolution is ALWAYS NECESSARY.
dmitri siegel

Dmitri, Thanks for the response. This is a good discussion.

great post. it touches on theories laid out by michel de certeau and arjun appadurai: "ordinary people have begun to deploy their imaginations in the practice of everyday lives." (modernity at large, arjun appadurai). in a general way, this post touches on the tension between cultural homogenizatoin and cultural heterogeneity, or to put it another way more specific to the article, the tension between the top-down, imposed template and the bottom-up, indigenized customization.

de certeau claimed that consumption does not manifest itself through its own products, but rather through its ways of using the products. consumption, which de certeau likened to production as the secret activity of everyday 'users', was more 'hidden' before. now, with customization (primarily in the digital and on line space) ways of using are more readily traceable by others (ie more objective). an application like iTunes, through sorts, becomes a record of songs played, categorized, and ranked by a user, and becomes accessible to others via the local area network. a site like myspace, with its customizable backgrounds, fonts, buttons, comments, photos, and emoticons, is a visual record of the use of that website by millions of different users. its a very fascinating change thats really only occurred in the last five or so years.

of course, it also isnt new. graffiti and vandalism, for example, record city-dwellers' use of the city. skateboard wheel tracks are traces of skater's use of an urban space. and ethnic transformation of city neighborhoods by new immigrants is testament to the openness and customizability of urban planning projects.

As Manuel notes above, aspects of this issue aren't new. I am always suspicious when the historical uniqueness of a certain trend is cited (especially with digital technologies). How are the phenomena mentioned here different from making clothing from patterns? Or kit homes?
Kenneth FitzGerald

Excellent points. There is a rich historical context not only for prosumerism but for the theoretical analysis of it. Here is one bit of history which I couldn't squeeze into the original post that you might find interesting. The term prosumer first emerged as a contraction of the words professional and consumer. In the 1980s electronics companies began marketting a class of products that fell between professional and consumer price points. The marketting strategy was clearly ahead of its time—although I remember buying a DAT recorder (professional) with no XLR ports (consumer)— but I like the way the term imagines an emerging class of professional consumers. It's almost like the logical conclusion of prosumerism as I have defined it.

What is novel about the kind prosumerism we are talking about here is the accessibility of distribution—the growth of networks (and here I include overnight mail, cheap long-distance phone, and of course the inter-web). People can not only buy recording equipment that is just shy of professional quality they can also distribute their music and have something just shy of a musical career. This was not true of pre-fab homes and do it yourself kits. The closest historical precedent might be HAM radio.

The suprising by-product of this democratization of distribution (at least to me) is that that the production/consumption cycle has splintered into millions of tiny exchanges. That macro project where you make something and distribute it and reap the rewards occurs over networks that extract labor (not to mention personal information) drip by drip for a myriad of entitites. You put in work for hundreds of companies every time you go on line to "do your thing." With the clothing pattern you get the dress in the end, but what do you really get out of contributing to the Amazon's total information awareness? Better advertising?
dmitri siegel

overnight mail is a good example as it embodies 20th century revolutions in both transportion and communication.

also, its interesting kit homes are mentioned. i was thinking along the lines of the tower block. stefano boeri in mutations by rem koolhaas (as well as his own book Uncertain States of Europe (USE)) discusses the example of the chinese community at the place d'italie tower blocks in paris as a demonstration of the flexibility of the modernist grid. the chinese immigrants have subverted the original program of the housing system, which was to serve middle class, white parisians (similar in a way to stuy town in new york) and have converted it into a new chinatown with ethnic restaurants and places of worship. this is a physical example of bottom up customization of a top down template or system.

searching for input fields is a very good way of putting it. ultimately, how those input fields collect and classify informaiton is beyond a user's control, but what is actually input by the user is always unpredictable. recognizing this dialectic between the top down and the bottom up is a bit more beyond DIY i feel, as it recognizes that one makes choices within a set of limitations.

regarding amazon.com, i remember jeff bezos saying that his idea of the perfect store is one that has the one exact item that you wanted. its interesting that amazon.com does not spend very much money on media space, but rather puts its money into its services. in a way, a highly developed set of algorithms that can guess your tastes (and what you want to buy) by matching you against the habits of other like minded consumers is better advertising than being assaulted by an in-your-face branding campaign.

Thanks Dmitri and Manuel for the responses. For me, the prosumer idea is interesting as it dovetails with my obsession with the activities on the amateur/professional border, from citizen legislators to writers who produce one novel (e.g. Harper Lee). It's somewhere more sophisticated than "folk" or "naive" art, yet not operating in the professional sphere. It's likely my own quirk but I've never quite been comfortable with the idea of a "professional" artist (and this includes design, literature, and music). A certain level of ability is necessary but then the dictates of the marketplace determine the work: more product. The phenomena mentioned here suggest a space between.
Kenneth FitzGerald

I often show slides of Joe Scanlon's DIY Coffin project when I give talks about the DIY design movement. People always laugh, of course. Ha ha. Then I point out that there is, in fact, a DIY funeral movement, and funny as death may seem to a group of 20-something designers, the death industry is a big business that is controlled by a powerful and pernicious network of private companies. A small group of concerned citizens in the US, UK, and elsewhere are trying to take back death: who and how we pay for it, who controls it, and so on.

Dmitri's piece provides some great insights on the DIY design phenomenon. The problem is, we keep looking at this issue from the inside out. "We" are digging our own graves (if only someone would let us). DIY is a global social phenomenon that is affecting countless "professions." The phenomenon is not driven by the professions themselves: it is driven by the outsiders, the so-called users, consumers, prosumers, and other plebes who want to get in. And get in they will.

The journalism field has been hit over the head with this change, and the field is changing in response to it. Let's stop viewing ourselves as a protected community in charge of its own destiny. Let's join the world instead.
Ellen Lupton

Jobs | July 21