Full Text: Open Debate

Can anyone be a designer?

Joe Duffy

Founder, Duffy & Partners, branding and design consultancy


Andrew Keen

Entrepreneur; chief intelligence officer, AfterTV

Resolved: Anyone can be a designer–and should be.

Duffy: Let’s face it, everyone plays the part of a designer. Design decisions are made by most everyone, everyday–what should I wear today? What kind of car should I buy? What color? Which options? What about the new sofa for the family room? What design style? Which color and fabric? These actually are design decisions that make most Americans believe that design is a fairly easy endeavor.

Along with this, the access to information and the myriad of choices available to everyone today allows people to quite literally design their lives. And, because of this new cultural phenomenon, people in this country are learning much more about design.


This is a good thing. As Americans act more like designers, they learn more about the design process, and in exploring it on their own terms, they gain a greater appreciation for the talent that it takes to practice it at the highest levels. They also achieve a better understanding of its importance in their lives.

Keen: Yes, you’re right. Many Americans do think design is a fairly easy endeavor. My 4 ½ year old daughter thinks she’s a clothes designer. She comes down to breakfast every morning in trousers over dresses, deep purple and electric orange t-shirts, odd shoes, even odder headwear. Can dreadful aesthetics be cute? Yes, if you’re the parent. No, if you’re anyone else.

The consequence of this design democracy is an ugly spectacle of deep purples and electric oranges. It’s a culture of me-me-me: my hideously personalized car, my hideously personalized sofa, my hideously personalized house. It’s that fat woman in the tight dress that only exaggerates her obesity. It’s that loud pick-up truck with the tinted windows and the tastelessly sexualized exhaust pipe.


If we care about maintaining an aesthetic of public space, design should be left to professional designers with rigorous training in form and functionality. Let people pour their uniqueness inwardly, into their own spiritual identities. But don’t let them clutter up the physical world with the me-me-me aesthetic of individualized, amateur design.

Duffy: Perhaps if your daughter develops in her experience of personal design, she won’t turn into my son’s (he’s also a designer) worst nightmare of a client: someone who knows what they want without any appreciation for how to get there. Personal design experience will make people aware of what it takes to unleash design’s power in business and in daily life — namely, working in the right way with a professional to make it happen.

We’re lacking in the basic understanding of design in this country, unlike in Italy or Japan. Why? Our children are not participating in it culturally. The Japanese tea ceremony or the Italian flair for fashion and industrial design are learned at an early age and in neither case is it “all about me.” Have you considered sending your daughter to boarding school in Milan?


Keen: Exactly. Not everyone can become a designer.

I agree with you that good design and a good designer reflects a broader, deeper historical culture. For my daughter to become a fashion designer, she would indeed have to be shipped off to Milan. For my son to design fast stylish motorcars, he would have to grow up in Germany. And I’m guessing that boarding at chez Duffy in his early life enabled your son to become a designer.

North Americans, meanwhile, excel in the design of personalized technology that empower us as individuals. Neither the iPod or the BlackBerry could ever have been designed in Italy or Germany.


So rather than expelling our kids overseas in the vain hope of rewiring their aesthetic senses, I think we should celebrate the global diversity of design traditions. Americans might not be able to design skirts or shoes, but who needs clothes when you have your domestically designed iPod in one (non-existent) pocket and a BlackBerry in the other?

Duffy: Sorry Andrew but I think you’ve missed the point. Your daughter would be well-served at an American fashion design program like Parsons or F.I.T. in New York. Those two schools are among the finest worldwide at graduating the best and the brightest in the fashion world. And, your son couldn’t find a better transportation design curriculum than at the Design Center in Pasadena. After all, BMW’s head of design, Chris Bangle (an American) learned the craft there.

We don’t need to send our children offshore to learn how to be among the best in design, we need to start making it part of our everyday life and more important in our culture. If we do, the broad spectrum of design disciplines will be practiced at the highest level right here at home.


We’ll make design part of everyday life and therefore more important in our culture if the general public gets involved in it and learns to understand its importance. The design “democracy” that you refer to as “an ugly spectacle” is actually the first important step in that process. Will it all be pretty? Hell no… but beauty is only apparent at the top of any human endeavor. All we need is recognition and respect for that beauty and a public that has the desire to strive for it.

By the way, the IPod was designed by Jonathon Ive, an Englishman.

Keen: I’m still not convinced. “Making design part of everyday life” sounds so utopian, so open to ridicule, so Ministry of Truth-ish. It’s the equivalent of saying we want to make “creativity” or “spirituality” or “meaning” central to existence. Please give me two concrete examples of how you would actually make design part of everyday life.


Duffy: Well Andrew, I can give you many more than two examples but this debate seems to be wearing on, so here’s just a couple:

Business — it’s already happening with examples like Target bringing much better designed, affordable products to the masses and succeeding in the marketplace by doing so.

Also, here’s a quote that you might find interesting from the chairman of the largest packaged goods manufacturer in the world:


Design can unlock the technological performance we build into the product and help the consumer see it, touch it. I’m not doing this because I’m a frustrated Liberal Arts major. Good design is serious business.”
–A.G. Lafley, Chairman, Proctor & Gamble

So, example one is to point to successful American business leaders who “get design” as examples of how American business can lead the world in innovation, something this magazine has been doing for quite some time now.

Education — If we can agree that design is an important factor for success in American business, example two would be to introduce it to our children at an an earlier age. How about making it part of a high school curriculum, at the very least, as an elective?

Do either of these sound at all “utopian”?


Keen: Again, both your examples seem to support my argument that design is a sophisticated craft that requires serious training and intellectual engagement.

I strongly agree with your education initiative. I would like professionally trained educators to teach design in schools. Then let’s turn the most talented kids into professional designers. Rather than open-source design, this is a design meritocracy.

On your Target example, bringing better designed products for the “masses” is not the same as turning the masses into designers. I am all in favor of better designed products in Target. I just don’t want the untrained Target customer designing her own products.


I agree too with Lafley’s remark that good design is serious business. So let me end by reversing his wisdom: Bad design is bad business.

Duffy: The broader the participation in design, the more enthusiasm, understanding and demand for great design.

Because I played baseball as a kid I understand, love and follow the game today. That doesn’t mean I’ve ever thought that I could compete with Derek Jeter for the starting shortstop position on the Yankees. Knowing what it takes to play at that level, through active participation, brings respect, admiration and a willingness to pay big bucks to bring my family out to the old ballgame.


Will everyone participate in design? No. But for all those who want to, it should be open to them. Would you want or even appreciate the loft that I created with the help of an architect or the running shoes I customized with a Nike designer’s help on Probably not, but I didn’t do either for you. The many people who participate in any design experience like these want what no one else can have: their own means of expressing who they are and the opportunity to help create the way they want to live their life.

I’m a designer. I’m not after more competitors. I’m simply after broader understanding and appreciation for what designers do and what it can do for others. I believe that this will come from more people getting actively involved in design.

Keen: Joe, you seem like a swell guy, but I’m nervous about the unintended consequences of your generosity as a designer. Take the running shoe you designed for Nike, for example. I’d rather the next-generation Derek Jeters of the world wore the shoe to excel in sports rather than worry about its design. It’s just one more reason for our young athletes to take their eye off the ball.


I am afraid, Joe, that design is neither important nor interesting for the majority of consumers. In the same way as I don’t want to know about the physics of an engine when I drive a car, I don’t want to be bothered by the design aesthetics when I wear my shoes or sit in my new loft. Consumers consume; designers design. End of story.

Duffy: I’m sorry to hear this, Andrew. Sounds like you’ve resigned yourself to a pretty boring existence, void of any creative expression in those areas of your life that have anything to do with design. And yes, I know there are many who feel the same way you do. It’s one of the reasons our world is a pretty dreary place.

On the bright side, I do have confidence that the next generation will be much better at “designing their lives.” To that end, I’d like to offer your daughter a gift certificate to so that she can design those electric orange and purple sneakers that will no doubt help brighten up your life. Just tell me where to send it.

Keen: I am afraid that you are right. I am fearful that as technology increasingly democratizes our cultural life, our kids will be more and more seduced by easy-to-use interfaces for designing their own personalized products. Lego, I understand, is already doing this. And these kids will then grow up thinking of themselves as talented designers who will go on to personalize their houses and even, given the advances in cell research, their own children.

I have to admit that even I am in the market for one really well designed product. That’s a really good pair of sunglasses to protect me from the glare of all the meretricious products in our brave new world of amateur designers.