Democratized Design for a More Inclusive Future
Humans have been designing things for millennia. Whether the goal is to create more efficient tools, tell a story, or simply survive, design has shaped culture across the globe.
Yet the definition of design has changed over time. Since the last century, design has been categorized as a specialized, professional practice often siloed into an aesthetic application or at its worst, labelled as 'decoration'. But that closed definition, which is unfortunately how many companies characterize their design departments, fails to recognize the most important force in the democratization of design: good design can come from anyone.
So What is Design Democratization?
First, it helps to reframe design as a mindset, rather than a process. Design isn’t something done in In Design or Figma or even on a computer at all. It is a way of thinking a process of solving problems creatively. Design makes sense of the complex needs of stakeholders, users, and businesses, and transforms it into an elegant solution. To allow for diverse perspectives in the design process, designers and non-designers need to be included in the collaboration. Facilitating design thinking workshops and user-centered design in an organization also ensures everyone’s voices are heard, resulting in a more inclusive creative process. And by breaking down barriers to entry, new perspectives and approaches create paths to greater innovation.
Set Aside Biases to Fuel Innovation
A frequent critique of design democratization is that it 'waters down' the institution of design. Critics argue that if anyone with two thumbs can become a designer that can lead to a lack of quality control and erode design standards. This is a defensive stance as old as innovation itself. A similar argument was made when computer software began to disrupt traditional hand-crafted design work. And looking back further, fifteenth century abbot Johannes Trithemius wrote that the value of books was being diminished by the ease of the printing press. (Ironically, he used the printing press to distribute this message to the greatest audience possible.)
Affordable Design tools are the Future you can’t ignore
Another key tenet to design democratization is the accessibility of tools that enable good design. We live in a time when such tools are more accessible than ever. Opensource software like Ink scape, GIMP, and Blender allow anyone to realize their ideas without paying for expensive licenses. Figma and Canva, two disruptors in the design industry, offer free-to-start design software, allowing anyone to quickly gain design experience and ramp up their skills at no cost. This openness and affordability of new tools levels the playing field for designers from different socio economic backgrounds, which leads to a greater diversity of ideas.
Designing at the Speed of Technology
With AI tools on the horizon, the design world is in a flurry of debate around the benefits and dangers of automation in the design process. Many AI tools are already employed by designers every day, such as Photoshop’s background removal and photo restoration features. Designers shouldn’t be afraid to embrace AI - it can free them up from 'pixel pushing' grunt work and give more time to focus on big-picture creative ideas. Gone are the days of needing to learn HTML and CSS just to publish an idea to the web. Now, anyone can create a website in an hour or two using platforms like Square space, Wix, or Webflow (which also offers a free version.)
Design Standards are The Key to Excellence
While democratizing design means that more people can participate in the process, organizations must maintain standards for design quality. To manage design decisions at scale requires a strong system of design principles and guidelines. That way, the entire organization’s output is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. For example, creating a centrally managed repository of templates for PowerPoint presentations, web pages, and social media posts helps good design trickle down to every department and frees up design resources to focus on larger, more bespoke problems.
Investing in Design Education is Investing in your Future
Despite the convenience of these new tools, trained designers are still essential for creating high quality, effective designs. Professional designers possess a deep understanding of design principles, color theory, typography, and layout that cannot be easily replicated by non-designers. They are also able to provide a level of creativity, innovation, and critical thinking that is difficult to achieve without specialized training. Thus, it is important to invest in educational opportunities such as design bootcamps, continuing education courses, and apprenticeships that can train designers for more complex projects that require a higher level of expertise and attention to detail.
The democratization of design has brought new opportunities for individuals and businesses, simplifying the process, and improving workflow through technologies such as AI and affordable design tools. Despite concerns that these tools and technologies may diminish design quality or the role of designers within an organization, successful design still requires creativity, problem-solving skills, and vision that’s only gained through training and practice. As the democratization of design continues, we can expect to see more innovative and diverse ideas being brought to life.