08 May

Democratisation of Design

The gap between designer and client is blurring.  Today’s cloud software tools put the designer’s tools in reach of everyone.  We’re happy to tinker and adapt, then as we learn and gain more confidence in these new tools, to create and design.  Does that make us designers?


Good design can make the difference between an acceptable product and a product so special that everyone wants it.  And, in today’s highly commoditised world, design is increasingly becoming the major source of differentiation.  Good design is no longer a “nice to have” but is increasingly becoming the product itself.

Technology has shifted design expertise from crafts people and artisans in the 80s, when designers moved onto their Macs and into the computer studio.  Now, as design tools are becoming increasingly inexpensive power is again shifting; design expertise is moving away from the agency and into the hands of everyone.


The Design Democracy

In 1974, Italian designer Enzo Mari put forward the democratisation of design as an alternative to the capitalist paradigm of mass consumption.

Yet, ironically, it is consumption, and differentiation through design, that has made us all more design literate.

Technology is now driving the democratisation of design: we’re no longer negotiating through account managers, creative directors, account directors to get to the designer – we have the tools to design in our own hands.  And, perhaps most importantly, the language of design in our vocabularies.

The digitalisation of production and design offers new possibilities for customisation; putting more power in the hands of consumers and offering them an opportunity to add their own design to products and moving towards batch sizes of one and “mass customisation”.

Crowdsourcing platforms are reaching into the creative domains of designers and changing how business is conducted; giving real power over design and production – and the funding for it – to newbies and start-ups.

The “new industrial revolution” is creating the possibilities, through 3D printing, open-source collaboration, and global collaboration on a personal basis, to narrow the gap between design, production and distribution.

These changes are creating opportunities to shape products and society from the bottom up.


The Gig Economy

But as power shifts away from the big agencies and specialist designers, the dangers are that their talent and knowledge is lost.

While global platforms for freelancers create opportunities and empower individuals to find work and begin careers in design, we are also initiating a “race to the bottom” that devalues design.

This “gig economy” drives down prices, which is good for marketing departments working with increasingly tight budgets, but at what cost?  Do standards fall when design is no longer viewed as a specialism?

Sir Terence Conran has said, “The nearest I have ever come to defining good design is that it is simply 98% common sense.  But what makes the subject interesting is the other two percent, what you may call aesthetics.  Many products are demonstrably good, but those with that extra two percent have a magic ingredient that places them in another category altogether…  When the magic ingredient is present, the whole quality of life is improved.”

Does the democratisation of design mean that we are in danger of losing the two percent through the noise?


Gaining Confidence in Design

It all seems a long way from Enzo Mari’s template.  His provocative vision seems far from premonition when we consider how crowdsourcing is feeding the forces of capitalism and “mass customisation” is driving mass consumption.

But there are some reasons to hope.

In a recent interview with Grasp magazine  in which he discussed city planning, Tim Brown, CEO at design agency IDEO , argued that the democratisation of design offers real opportunities for societal improvement: “This very top-down linear approach that design and planning have generally followed for the last couple of hundred years, struggles or fails when it is put into a situation that is sufficiently complex… what we need are design approaches which are essentially focused on the small scale but which scale up.”

He puts forward a hopeful vision of the democratisation of design in which we “create a higher degree of collaboration or make it easier for people to achieve things together.”

Tim argues: “Everybody has creative talent.  What they lack is the confidence to exploit it.”


Democratic Ideals

So how do we ensure that these new opportunities for creative talents provide scope for people to collaborate in this way and inspire designers to be better?

As with any democratic movement, ultimately, how it is shaped is up to us.

The democratisation of design has put the tools and the language of design in our hands; it is up to each of us to ensure that democracy in the hands of the people is a powerful force for good.


Learning is the best way to develop confidence in your own creative talent.  Platform provides many opportunities to gain skills in the new design tools in your reach; check out our training courses here.