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: Design decisions are made by most everyone every day. 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? Access to information and a myriad of choices allow people to quite literally design their lives. This is a good thing. As Americans act more like designers, they achieve a better understanding of design’s importance in their lives.

Keen: My 4 ½-year-old daughter thinks she’s a clothes designer. She comes down to breakfast in deep purple and electric orange T-shirts, odd shoes, even odder headwear. Can dreadful aesthetics be cute? Only to a parent. The consequence of your 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. If we care about maintaining an aesthetic of public space, design should be left to professionals. Let people pour their uniqueness inwardly–but don’t let them clutter up the physical world.

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 he wants without any appreciation for how to get there. We’ll make design part of everyday life and therefore more important in our culture if the public gets involved.

Keen: “Make 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.

Duffy: Well, Andrew, it’s already happening. Target is bringing much-better-designed, affordable products to the masses and succeeding in the marketplace by doing so. Does that sound at all utopian?


Keen: Bringing better-designed products to the “masses” is not the same as turning the masses into designers. I’m all in favor of better-designed products at Target. I just don’t want the Target customer designing her own products.

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

Keen: But design is neither important nor interesting for most consumers. Just as I don’t want to know about engine physics when I drive a car, I don’t want to be bothered by aesthetics when I wear my shoes or sit in my new loft.

Duffy: Sounds like you’ve resigned yourself to a pretty boring existence. And yes, I know many feel the same way you do. But I’m confident that the next generation will be much better at designing their lives.

Keen: I am afraid you are right. As technology democratizes cultural life, kids will be more and more seduced by easy-to-use design interfaces. They will grow up thinking of themselves as talented designers and go on to personalize their houses and even, given advances in cell research, their own children.