A Discussion on the “Democratization of Design”
By Irisa Ona, Visual Design II, frog
On July 24th, AIGA Eye on Design hosted a debate titled: “Can Anyone Be a Graphic Designer?” The debate featured Natasha Jen (Pentagram), Rik Lomas (SuperHi), and Aliza Dzik (McKinsey) who shared their perspectives on the current climate of design. The debate covered hot-button issues around the democratization of design and its effect on the industry and its designers.
Last Thursday at frog, we hosted our own discussion in the New York studio during Creative Forum — a weekly gathering centered around the pursuit of creativity and learning outside of our respective disciplines. In the past we’ve had workshops, discussions, activities and speakers at Creative Forum covering diverse topics from dumpling making to North Korean graphic design, from a study of vintage eyewear to personal finance.
The Current Climate of Design
Design has become part of popular culture. “Empathy” and “creativity” now have a price tag and more and more companies are seeing the business value of design. With the rise of gig economy platforms, anyone in the world can get a logo for relatively cheap. Design is coveted and even more people are considering pursuing design as a career — whether that is product design, interaction design, or industrial design. As design inches deeper into the mainstream, it’s no surprise that everyone wants a piece of the pie — but what does that mean for the industry and for designers? What does it mean for frog, a design studio not just made of classical graphic designers but also of interaction designers, strategists, industrial designers, and visual designers? We posed these very questions to three frogs in a series of provocations. The panel included industrial design lead Francois Nguyen, associate creative director Jane Wong, and principal mechanical engineer Adam Wrigley.
What is your definition of design?
In its most fundamental form, “design is about solving problems,” said Jane. It’s the logic behind a system that is trying to target a problem and find a solution in the most elegant and systematic way. Francois agreed, noting that while the general public tends to think design only focuses on aesthetic outcomes, design is really more about the early configurational stages. For Adam — who’s background is in engineering — the definition of design has changed dramatically throughout his time at frog. He spoke about how working with designers, he has learned to appreciate how design and engineering overlap, and how it’s not just about “making something look cool — it has to do more.”
What does “democratizing design” mean to you? Can anyone be a designer?
The panelists all agreed that access to tools is an important part of fostering a robust design community. Francois compared this accessibility phenomenon to the music industry where anyone can make a studio quality album in their bedroom with tools like Garage Band. However, he also argued that while greater access to tools is great, the flip side is that people start using those tools in the same way, creating saturation and ultimately an aesthetic plateau. Just because someone gives you a pencil, doesn’t mean you’ll have the appetite to push that tool to its greatest boundaries. “There still needs to be elegance in execution,” he noted, “that’s what makes great design.”
Jane added that it also takes time and experience to become not just a proficient designer, but an excellent one. Design is a naturally iterative process; it takes practice, progress, destroying all of that progress, and then building it up again to succeed. So even though anyone can have access to the tools of design these days, not just anyone can be a great designer.
Adam said he was weary of the “gatekeeper” syndrome, noting that “I can call myself a soccer player even if I’m not on the national team, but that doesn’t mean I’m a good soccer player.” In other words, what makes a good designer is the experience gained and validation from the field, peers, and revenue. “A title doesn’t make you — you still have to have the portfolio and work to back it up — that’s what you stand on, not the word.”
What are the downsides of the democratization of design?
Accessibility to design tools for the general public sounds great in theory, but it also comes with repercussions for the field and the craft. Francois noted that in the very near future, artificial intelligence systems like IBM’s Watson will have the capabilities to write algorithms that will churn out completely proficient design. But as Jane said, while the design AI produces might look good, it doesn’t have the same foundation, base or soul that’s gained by human experience and critique. Good design needs to be critical — of itself, of its surroundings, of society and of the future. This understanding is what gives great design the magic that can never be replicated by a computer.
Does this make the design industry elitist?
Regardless of access to tools and the debate over who gets to call themselves a designer, there remains the very real issue of access to the kind of experiences that build credibility and allow individuals to move ahead in the field. We see this in the makeup of design leadership — throughout most firms, leadership gets less and less diverse the higher up you go. In this case, democratization of the tools only gets us so far when there is still an inclination to keep the craft elite or closed off. Some of our audience members pressed on this issue of inequality in the field, and the panelists agreed that there is a fine balance to strike between honoring the craft and opening up our understanding of who and what that “craft” is comprised of. Maybe it’s not just graduates of elite schools or masters of outdated typography. Maybe it’s also a digital native that has an entirely different set of references and understanding to make something unrecognizable, but necessary for the advancement of the craft.
Though we know well enough that this inequality is not unique to the design field, Adam posited that beyond the democratization of tools, the internet has also provided a democratization of platforms and visibility. Whereas designers once needed funding or recognition to share their work with the world, now anyone on social media can put their ideas out there and develop a following based on the merit of their work.
We’ve reached an age in design where we have more access to tools than ever before. This expansion or democratization has catapulted design to new heights where industry leaders from healthcare to financial services are acknowledging the business value of design and expanding their design capabilities. But with this entrée into the mainstream comes a new challenge in maintaining that critical balance.
Through dialogue and practice, we’re attempting to reach this balance. We encourage collaboration and diversity in thought and the chaos of different disciplines coming together to create something new and provocative. We’re striving to stay diligent and rigorous in our craft, while creating a more inclusive and accessible future for designers around the world. To quote our founder Hartmut Esslinger — “Today is what’s thought about long ago. Now we have to project, think, experiment, and prototype the future.”