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Home Schooled

Ellen Lupton and Her Graphic Design Students Celebrate So-Called Amateur Design Ideas

Melina Giorgi, with apologies to Mike Weikert, Nancy Froehlich, and Kristen Spilman

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/1/2006

D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself

At Maryland Institute College of Art’s Pinkard Galley through March 12

D.I.Y. hosts an opening reception and book party March 2, 6-8 p.m., at Pinkard Gallery.

For MICA’s graphic design grad students, the DIY revolution began in the summer of 2004, when program director Ellen Lupton started teaching her sister, an English professor, how to design her own party invitations, greeting cards, and screen-printed T-shirts.

“It was like this intoxicating thing for her,” Lupton recalls, smiling. “Even though this is a professional woman, with all kinds of highly trained skills and so forth, here she is wanting to design things.”

Spurred by her sister’s enthusiasm, Lupton envisioned a unique yearlong project for MICA’s graduate students and faculty. All seasoned designers with years of do-it-yourself experience, the design team sectioned off to create T-shirts, CD packaging, zines, gift wrap, and other common 21st-century household items using materials and resources that you probably have, well, around the house. The resulting how-to book, D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself, is a newbie’s look at the world of graphic design that should appeal to even the most jaded Quark jockey.

“Most books about design are, ‘Here is great design, admire it,’” Lupton says. “Our book is, ‘Here’s design, do it. Welcome. Come on in.’”

Perhaps more importantly, the book is a document of our modern world, where blogging, customized clothing, and handmade posters are the norm. D.I.Y., the corresponding exhibit installed in MICA’s Pinkard Gallery, is a physical expression of the ideas found in the book, showcasing a range of self-designed products culled from various sources.

There’s a wall of band posters created by the likes of Mike Mills and MICA-trained designers (and sometimes City Paper contributors) Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals, aka Post Typography, with random extra fliers tacked throughout, including one Xerox notice about a “sausage and mustache party.” (Bring your own mustache, sausage provided.) There’s a corkboard’s worth of unusual business cards, some created by grad students to illustrate the book, others tacked on by passers-by. And a pair of formerly white Ikea love seats stand covered with graffiti by art school kids, writers, and at least one dinosaur enthusiast.

“I brought my kids and some of their friends on Friday, with a big box of Sharpies, and they got it started,” Lupton says. “I came in three days later, and the thing was covered. One guy keeps wanting to draw his penis and put it everywhere, so some of it’s rather witless.”

The spirit of the thing is clear: Design is for the people and by the people. Families and creative types can get a children’s museum-style kick out of the proceedings. But beneath the exhibit’s cheery interactive exterior a critical debate rages on. Like a jealous magician guarding his secrets, the design community is oddly split on whether or not its art belongs in the hands of amateurs. There’s a real worry that introducing the public to design concepts and practices devalues the worth of professional graphic designers.

Critic and designer Steven Heller recently challenged Lupton’s views, arguing in “The D.I.Y. Debate,” in Voice, the AIGA’s online design journal, “By making our work so easy to do, we are devaluing our profession,” and reinforcing the idea that designers must hone their skills through education. Lupton and her co-conspirators disagree, arguing that when it comes to design, knowledge equals appreciation—whether you’re designing a silly birthday hat or a Fortune 500 company’s letterhead.

“Some of the blogs in the design community have been like, ‘Why would you be feeding amateurs and encouraging amateurs to do their own design?’” Lupton says. “The amateurs are often better than we are. And once you have access to it, because you’re doing it, you have an investment in it. When you have that actual, lived relationship to design, you understand it. Why it costs money, why it takes time.”

But why this recent surge in DIY objects? Niche magazines such as ReadyMade and Make:, once the sole province of indie bookstores, are available at Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters. It’s hard to walk down the street without seeing someone in a custom-made T-shirt, whether it features Che Guevara or a kid’s little league team. All the rock kids are wearing their favorite local band’s homemade buttons. And your grandma’s beloved knitting circle is back in vogue.

“Young people are really accustomed to making media, not just sitting and watching it,” Lupton says. “You have to experience doing things, and I think that the current generation just assumes that.”

Seen from the viewpoint of the artists, the D.I.Y. book and exhibit is a tool of empowerment—an entry-level look at the esoteric world of design. With the inexorable advent of computer technology, Microsoft Publisher, and Photoshop, people are already creating their own design. Why not make it good?

“The kinds of technology that we use now encourage accessibility,” Lupton says. “The tools for making a web site, publishing a book—it’s just not that rarefied, whereas 20 years ago, there were no web sites, and making a book was a huge industrial undertaking. All these things have become more transparent, more accessible, more approachable by everyday people.”

D.I.Y. isn’t an art exhibit in the traditional sense, though it includes a plethora of professional design. It’s uncensored, goofy, and ever-evolving, based on the traffic passing through the Pinkard Gallery (and how many times the penis guy wanders by). As a destination, the exhibit is an excellent, tangible illustration of what the D.I.Y. book is all about—don’t just visit the art show, help make one.

“I think it’s like home-cooking,” Lupton says with an impish grin. “Everybody should know how to make some of their own stuff, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never go to a restaurant. Once you’ve made something yourself, that’s a very empowering and fun and brain-enhancing experience. If all you ever did is eat in restaurants, you wouldn’t respect it.”

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