The context of cool

MICA-produced handbook on design is student project with popular appeal


You're youngish, technologically literate and a hip shade of expressive. Maybe you run a DJ business or want your baby to wear onesies with political messages or have a yen for creating CD covers, Web sites and business cards that don't look like a drab Kinko's production.

You are cool, you are crafty, and you find corporate branding dodgy. You are exactly who the graphic design graduate students and faculty at Maryland Institute College of Art had in mind when they produced D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself.

If Martha Stewart transmogrified into a passel of inventive 20- and 30-somethings, she might have come up with this design handbook about everyday art, which has chapters on everything from books and blogs to invitations, newsletters, posters, stationery, fliers, press packets and T-shirts.

Ellen Lupton, director of MICA's graphic design master of fine arts program, edited the book, which was largely created by the 17 students in her design studio last year. Published by Princeton Architectural Press last month, D.I.Y.: Design it Yourself is on sale around the country and is something of a rarity - a commercial student project with popular appeal.

"DIY is a movement affecting almost every aspect of life. Everything from how people buy stocks to how people get information about health," said Lupton, the author of a dozen other design-related books and the curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. "It's a huge phenomenon that has to do with the belief many people have that ideas should be free and anybody should be able to make media. ... We did this in that context."

Lupton showed up on the first day of class with a book contract in hand and a healthy dose of faith. The concept was to turn student-produced projects into the substance of the book, showing readers a range of attitudes and sensibilities to stimulate creative ideas.

"It was a dream come true," said Mike Weikert, a former MICA student who teaches there.

Lupton and her English professor twin sister contributed brainy essays - and another faculty member, Jennifer Cole Phillips, wrote a chapter on basic design - but an entire book in that vein wouldn't have made sense, Lupton said.

"It's a young person's book. I'm not going to design a bunch of cool-looking CD covers," Lupton said. "The authenticity comes from the fact that the people designing the book come from our market."

The class split into groups and divvied up the chapters. With Lupton's guidance, they designed the look, the format, the layout. They wrote text, served as models, took photographs and made almost every item pictured - from lost-kitty fliers to invitations crafted from Altoid boxes to edible business-card brownies.

Weikert wrote a chapter on brands, using the real-world case study of Small Roar, a baby-clothing company he started. Zvezdana Rogic embellished shirts by embroidering them with zigzags and butterflies and outlines of countries. Adam Palmer made colorful stickers of vegetables and meats and affixed them to walls, parking meters and mailboxes across the city. Many of the students contributed attitude-laden T-shirts - an assignment they were instructed to wear to the first class meeting.

Then, somehow, they created a front and back cover and pieced it all together. Lupton and several students used the summer to smooth and polish before sending the book to the publisher.

"Given the amount of hands that touched it, it's nothing short of a miracle that it happened and it actually worked," said Weikert, who is credited as "style police" for helping to give the book a consistent look. "I'm still not sure how."

Do-it-yourself, indeed. The term "DIY," which became part of the book's title, is somewhat open to interpretation, but it is loosely tied to punk and anti-consumer groups that embrace the idea of making things versus buying a brand from a corporation.

"We live in a culture that's really all about mass production. There's a sense of loss of ownership over the stuff that surrounds you," said Shoshana Berger, a fan of D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself and the editor-in-chief of ReadyMade, a do-it-yourself magazine with an ecological slant, a hipster following and its own spinoff book. "There's something really lovely about putting a personality stamp on the stuff that surrounds you - being able to have bragging rights when someone comes into your house."

Lupton places the book somewhere in the middle, politically, of what some think of as an anti-branding movement. It is not about burning down the corporation, but it is about engaging consumer culture on one's own terms, she said.

"The rising generation is a generation of producers. My kids are growing up knowing how to make Web sites, shoot videos, edit videos. When I was a kid I watched TV," she said. "There's a world out there full of products and there's a way to make them your own. ... You can be your own storefront, sell your own stuff, be your own brand, be your own event.

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