April 25, 2023

Democratizing Design: Why we shouldn't "other" new technology

The notion of democratizing design can be a scary concept for the corporate design world. It involves giving more power to people to do design through templatization and freeware. Thus, there is the risk of endangering the practice of design by enabling those with little to no experience to design projects that are as good as professionals with bachelor’s degrees. While most designers, and perhaps the Swiss canon and history of design, may argue that the practice of design is in danger because of this, the democratization of design is how my personal design story began, and it is how I got to where I am today.

The idea of the democratization of design is not new. It was sparked by the technological revolution and the rise of the personal computer. Before this revolution, art directors and graphic designers were in demand by corporations and businesses as they had special tools and rules of the trade. There were no templates, and schooling in design was in order. Design was seen as an exclusive club to those who knew the rules and canon. In design, technology was seen as a tool, not the trade itself. Alejandro Tapia and Helen Hodgkinson, who wrote “Graphic Design in the Digital Era: The Rhetoric of Hypertext,” described the digital revolution as follows: “Instead, [technology has] been ratified and given new potential within the same framework. The most pertinent analyses of the topic therefore appear to postulate the need to understand the reorganization of reading mechanisms and their possibilities, without creating a new dichotomy between past and present, and between the linear and nonlinear.”

However, with computer manufacturers like HP and Apple, including software on their personal computers, the masses began to understand and make designs with software like PageMaker. Adobe changed the game with their PostScript software and the introduction of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. The digital age enabled designers and less experienced commoners to create and embrace their creativity. The New York school of thought and designers feared their Swiss theories and practices becoming increasingly obsolete. In turn, professional designers started to feel the pressure of their training, and the exclusive club of designers began to fade with the advancement of freeware.

My story starts just three days after the tragic events on September 11th. I was born in Austin, Texas, on September 14th, 2001, into a world filled with more questions than answers. As I entered my early years, in 2003 and 2004, I noticed design-related things. I had a fascination with signs and logos. My mom recalls me calling out road signs and screaming out store names when I saw their bright colors and logos. It was baked in my blood to notice road signs and logotypes and to know where we were going, which was my unique perspective.

Me at a young age standing next to one of my handcrafted signs produced in Microsoft Word

Around 2006, we got a family desktop computer that I could use Microsoft Word to create signs. I often used Word to create posters, worksheets, and everything in between to create graphic works. I didn’t know any theories or canon; I just made things because I felt empowered. I had that app; I had the knack and motivation; I just opened it up and got to it. Using Word was therapeutic for me. I was able to type, use the fun WordArt, and add a cool border around the edge of the page, and I was able to create something that, while not perhaps “a work of art,” blew my mind. I continued to think that I was able to do that. I was able to make that!

A photo taken on my Nintendo DSi in late 2009

As technology continued to develop and during the mobile phone revolution in 2009 and 2010, I got a new Nintendo DSi with a camera app. On this camera app, there were filters, stickers, and a lot of fun features that enabled easy photo editing. I spent hours upon hours creating and manipulating photos on that app. It helped me to continue that love for design by using pre-determined templates and features in easy-to-use software included at no cost on my DSi. With this mindset and as I continued through grade school, I was allowed to create a newspaper in 2011 for my 5th-grade class. Using the tools I’ve self-taught myself in Word and Google Docs, I started a newspaper that combined text, images, and other media to create a comprehensive and functional document that others could digest and read at their own pace.

As I moved to middle school and a more structured environment, I formalized my creativity through a few specific classes that enabled me to hone my creativity more formally. In 2012 and 2013, I was officially introduced to the “tools of the trade” and learned how to use the Adobe Creative Suite in my Newsmedia course. With my “freeware” background, I struggled to use Photoshop and Illustrator, but I was continually pressured to use them by my teachers because they said it was the “industry standard.” Not only did that push me to learn the tools of the trade, but it also pushed me to explore new ways to design. One of those ways was with Canva, a new design software that enabled anyone to create. They had thousands of templates that anyone could use and assets you could adapt from. Canva became a critical design tool in my growing arsenal. Without any theories, methods, or canon backing up my design skills, I continued my quest to explore my creativity and voice in design.

High school came around, and I was able to explore design in a more formalized and industry-minded way. In my first graphics course, we were formally introduced to Photoshop, and I learned how software could support a creative’s method. In these courses, we weren’t taught the canon; we didn’t talk about the history; we just designed. We didn’t learn the principle; instead, we were shown how the software works and how we can make it. I created some successful projects and developed my own design voice in a more formalized setting. As I continued in graphic design courses throughout high school, I learned how and why the software works and why we should use it. There were a few moments in these upper-level courses where we talked about the theories and methods but approached design from more of a commoner's perspective. The classes came to developing graphic design from the perspective of the software that drives it. This enabled me to indirectly explore my voice and creativity in these classes to build my aesthetic, which led to some of my best work being produced. I was able to approach projects with the mindset of creating new ideas and helping others strive for better design. My experience in middle and high school not only taught me the software but didn’t harp or focus on the canon or theories that drive the doctrine of design. It indirectly gave each of us a space to develop our aesthetic and our cultural voices without explicitly telling us to.

This brings up the question: why does my story matter? In an ever-evolving landscape of AI and freeware taking over the design space, and corporations like Adobe who create and support the “industry standard software,” the canon and graphic designers fear their reputation and even livelihood threatened by those who want to make design more straightforward and more accessible. To that, I say calm down and look at my story. Tobias van Schneider said it best: “The more people with access to design, the more opportunities for everyone. Yet, if everybody has access to design, we're making ourselves obsolete as designers. And while the bar has been raised for good design, we’ve simultaneously lowered the value of it.”

I was raised on freeware applications like Microsoft Word and Canva. Look where it got me: an undergraduate design student that’s an Adobe Certified Professional and a comprehensive design thinker with a portfolio to back it up. When we think about freeware and the idea of democratizing design, we should think about the young aspiring designers who can aspire to dream big. We should consider making the design landscape more equitable for everyone—not charging someone a thousand dollars a year to get the “industry standard” software. We should, as a design community, not “other” the freeware and AI applications that threaten our practice as design; we should instead learn to embrace them and cherish them because they can perhaps benefit our scholarship and our practice as a design community. I’m a perfect case study, and I can think of a few friends and acquaintances who have similar stories and that now also design scholars across the country, thanks to the software that made the design more accessible and inspired us to dream big. Schneider agrees, “The democratization of design is threatening only to those who stand still. But it is beautiful for the rest of us who keep pushing forward.” The canon and institution way of thinking continues to tether us to the “old ways of doing things,” hence the resistance to embrace these new technologies. But we, as a new wave of young and modern designers, need not entirely embrace the past but instead embrace the future and the new ideas and tools of the trade that come before us.

In an ever-evolving landscape of AI and freeware taking over the design space, it is important to think about the young aspiring designers who can aspire to dream big. We need to consider making the design landscape more equitable for everyone. We should not "other" the freeware and AI applications that threaten our practice as design; instead, we should embrace them and cherish them because they can benefit our scholarship and our practice as a design community. By doing so, we can inspire the next generation of designers to dream big and create innovative and beautiful designs.

The democratization of design is not something to be feared but embraced. It is a way to level the playing field for aspiring designers who may not have access to high-quality tools or formal training. It is a way to inspire creativity and innovation, and it is something that we should all work together to promote and support. We should not be afraid of change but rather embrace it and use it to create a better and more equitable design industry.