Their design.

The greatest fun from buying Ikea furniture is the D-I-Y assembling process – the process of unpacking the components, then following carefully the diagrams on the instructional booklet (and perhaps cursing the sometimes confusing illustrations). The D-I-Y brings occasional frustrations such as non-fitting screws, or the redoing of the whole process because of the mix up between front and rear components. The satisfaction comes with that ta-da moment, when the piece of table, chair, sofa, bed, shelf or whatever is erected in front of the eyes.

It makes me feel like I have been part of the Ikea design team and had contributed in my little ways to help bring a piece of furniture to my living environment. Furniture which I will be eventually using.

I suspect I am not the only one who derives pleasure from assembling Ikea furniture. As a graphic designer, I am looking at a changing design landscape. We have a bread and butter client who prefers to provide us with semi-designed files. They house a few people who carry the titles of corporate communications executives. Their job is to “design” first drafts on Indesign/ Illustrator/ Powerpoint before handing them over to us. Our job is hence to clean up the mess and make sure it is good enough for production. What I refer to as “mess” is sometimes unthinkable. For example – a photo montage in Adobe Indesign, an A2 poster in Powerpoint, an A4 2-fold brochure in photoshop with flattened text, a 20-page A4 newsletter in Microsoft Word or a 3-panel leaflet in Microsoft Excel.

I could easily laugh at all this and label them as an absurdity. But look at this from another angle -– these people were exhibiting the same D-I-Y attitude. They were taking a visual identity established by some design agency and completing it with their own design. The corporate typeface and corporate colours were specified correctly, but beyond that comes their own input: ripped-off low-res images from the web (they didn’t know images were copyrighted); occasional Comic Sans (they thought it was cute and personal); drop-shadows, emboss, deboss, frames, and whatever that is available through the plug-ins menu (they said those make the pages look more interesting) and cheesy clip-arts from the 5,000 office clipart CD. Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word were probably the wrong tools to use – just like we occasionally use the wrong-fitting screws for Ikea furniture.

Otherwise, they were satisfying their inner needs to create and be part of the creative process that brings forth the end results. They are paid to do so and probably are highly admired by their fellow colleagues in the same office for being the creative bunch. If they are happy with their own design, I am very certain their colleagues who are also their target audience would find the design satisfactory.

There’s nothing wrong with that. There are too many examples of design being liberated. Walk into a mamak / nyonya / kopitiam restaurant and look at the menu. Zapf Chancery with cheesy borders, comb-bonded, probably done by the owner. Go into a small grocery shop and grab a name card. Condensed Arial with maybe a 3D Embossed effect. Visit a small church – the bulletin is probably churned out by the pastor himself on his inkjet with Century Gothic on a very tight leading, produced entirely on Microsoft Word.

If we just let go of this thing we pride ourselves being – i.e. skilled professional graphic designers – there’s nothing wrong with what we term as bad design. Food can still be ordered from the menu. We can still call the grocery shop owner to reserve a gas tank. We can still refer to the calendar of events for the church.

It’s the same with the web world. We are witnessing (and actually using) their design. From prolific bloggers such as Kenny Sia or Xia Xue or Jeff Ooi, to the 9-year-old neighbour’s kid’s myspace page. These aren’t professionally designed pages that adhere to Tschichold’s or Bringhurst’s typographic manifesto, modernists’ design theories, Brockman’s grids or even Jakob Nielsen’s usability theories.

Everybody is now a designer.

The main catch right now is to provide the masses with the tools for self-expression, and not dictating what we designers think is good on the masses. They want direct participation in the design process – for that is no longer the exclusive privilege of a designer. As Alexandre Joyce aptly puts it: “Changing the world is to design for others to change their own world.”

In the web world, wordpress, blogger, blogdrive, movable type etc had provided millions with the tools and the themes and templates lend the starting points for customizations. Mambo/Joomla provides sophisticated engines for content publishing (used by Aliran, Arabian Business and Kancil Awards). Adobe publishes software for both web and print. Given the ease of use together with the bundled templates, everyone is now a designer. Meanwhile, every consumer who steps into Ikea becomes a highly qualified interior designer. It is a common sight to see people converse and argue about colour scheme, choice of furniture and room arrangements inside Ikea.

Their design vs. ours. Power to the people.