Interactions Cafe

XVI.5 September + October 2009
Page: 80
Digital Citation

On creation and consumption

Jon Kolko

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While the design of democracy is a wonderful thing, democratic design is less positive. We've heard over and over that "everyone is a designer," and that through a combination of user-generated content, ubiquity of access, and new tools, design has finally made its way out of an ivory tower and into the grasp of the masses. What, exactly, have the masses gotten their grubby paws into? Can one truly claim to be a designer when uploading a picture to Facebook or remixing a video for YouTube? It isn't design; it is something else entirely, masquerading as creativity but offering none of the personal or cultural benefits of actual design. Further, positioning a simple contribution to an experience framework—uploading a picture to a social networking site—as an act of design imparts tremendous damage to the professional act of design.

Design research pioneer Liz Sanders often describes a dichotomy of meaningful creation and mindless consumption, and indicates that most of us go through our day "unbalanced"—consuming loads of information and giant bags of chips, but with no formal outlet for balancing this thoughtless consumption with meaningful creation. It's become commonplace to hear executives talk of their customers' "consumption of digital media," as if the label of "consumer" didn't already have pejorative overtones. One can barely help but imagine a consumer in sweat pants on the couch, furiously consuming pizza, beer, and digital video with an unquenchable appetite.

Cultural consumption—consumption of ideas or media, not of junk food—can be mindless, or it can be managed; it can be moral and immoral. Put another way, one can smartly consume a lot of culture, if there is balance by an opposite action. "Good consumption" is different from "bad consumption," and as the act is culturally embedded, so too is the judgment. Creativity offers an outlet for the balance of consumption, and can be equally qualified as "good," "bad," "healthy," or "mindless." Good design is a creative act of righting the wrong, or improving the social condition.

People remake their physical artifacts to suit their needs; they set their digital thermostats to their favorite temperature, and they produce value for Facebook by writing on each other's walls. And in this way, they are working within the confines of a set of constraints, solving problems, and—as Herb Simon famously said—they are devising "courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." But they are a far cry from being designers. The everyday designers are offering the potential for improvement through their microcreations—the photo on Facebook may make those tagged in it happy, or the blog post may be read again by another user—but the users have implicitly abdicated the larger responsibility of their actions. They may not even know there are larger responsibilities that come with the act of creation!

To call a spade a spade: The act of uploading content to Facebook is an act of consumption. The activity of posting a blog comment is an act of consumption. Tweeting is not a creative activity; it's a common and pedestrian act of consumption. In all cases, users—consumers—are consuming the service offered, and no framing-as-creativity can adequately offset the powerful and long-term emotional drain that comes from a primarily consumptive culture. In the same way that one who consumes too much chocolate becomes fat and unhealthy, the same is true of consumers of digital content—even those who are tricked into the fabrication of "design 2.0" as a creative activity.

Ultimately, this has lasting negative consequences not only for consumers, but also for actual designers. Our role is increasingly equated to a consumptive activity in sheep's clothing, where "anyone can do it". "Why pay top dollar for a website? My son can do it himself, using free templates online."

Ironically, anyone can do it. One is "born a designer" in the same way that one is "born an accountant"; anyone can learn to design. It is the same consumptive culture that offers false creativity at the click of a button that entices us toward design-without-effort as a professional outlet.

In fact, good design is simple.

Although you can tweet about it, it doesn't come at the click of a button. It just takes time, and effort, and practice, and old-fashioned hard work.
        —Jon Kolko

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0500  $10.00

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