Amateur hour

The rise and rise of the amateur is a seemingly unstoppable force in contemporary culture. Whether its blogs, podcasts or any of the other risible techno-neologisms, the media is buzzing with stories about amateurs taking on the professionals - and winning.

In fact, so prevalent is the phenomenon that someone has even coined a dodgy neologism to describe it: pro-am.

Such is the level of interest in amateur media-creation activity that the Institute of Contemporary Arts is hosting a debate, 'The rise of the amateur', on the subject.

The rise of the amateur designer is integral to the phenomenon, driven on by the increasing power of consumer-grade computer hardware and relative low-cost of professional software. When combined with the possibilities for distribution offered by the internet, it may not be entirely hyperbolic to suggest that a sea-change in public perception of design is underway.

Most important of all, however, is the fact that this phenomenon is ongoing at a time when the design industry is already engaged in debate about professional status and accreditation.

On one level amateur design is nothing new. From church fête and community-group posters to dodgy-looking business reports, amateur designers have been cutting and pasting away for aeons. What is new, however, is the fact that amateur design now exists at a level far beyond the distribution it previously enjoyed.

Graphic design is perhaps one of the most accessible forms of creativity as far as the amateur is concerned. Unlike fine art, graphic design does not have a reputation of intellectual impenetrability and unlike with film-making, a skilled amateur can hope to match the production values of a professional.

But ask yourself this: Is there really an army of design savants out there, champing at the bit to have their work acknowledged? Blogging is popular because everyone has an opinion about something, but how many people want to express themselves in graphic images or typography?

The debate about amateur design is somewhat misleading. For a start, creative professionals are not currently coming under direct pressure from amateurs, though there is always some possibility of 'deprofessionalisation' and skilled amateurs depressing fees.

Consider this - there are at least four parts to a designer's skills:
- artistic ability
- software skill
- ability and desire to understand client needs
- visual communicative ability

It's certainly a possibility that a talented amateur could possess one or more of these abilities without training and experience, but the only way to capture all four is through education and work - and then, surely, you are no longer dealing with an amateur.

Secondly, if you lose a client because someone's nephew 'knows a bit about computers', you really are better off without that client.

Moreover, perhaps amateur design should not simply be tolerated - perhaps it should be celebrated. Perhaps professionals could even learn to love the amateurs.

The punk rock rebellion of the late 1970s brought a revolution in design which is still being parsed - and endlessly recycled by professionals - today. Limited not only by a lack of technical skill (and, to be fair, a total disregard for it) but also by the antediluvian technology of the era, punk fanzines and DIY record sleeves created a new aesthetic totally unrelated to the airbrushed style of mainstream publications and records (although not isolated from wider culture, such as the Situationists and Dadaists).

Perhaps the significance of amateur design and any rise in its popularity - real or imagined - lies in the fact that in an increasingly post-material economy greater cultural emphasis is placed on services, of which graphic design is one. Public awareness of branding is higher than it has ever been before and the manufacturing industry has got to the point where, in many cases, the only differentiation between two competing products is in branding and packaging.

Paradoxically, design also shares elements of manufacturing, insofar as designers are actually creating something, no matter how ephemeral, and because design has its roots in the craft industries of previous centuries. Perhaps this in itself is attractive, offering a feeling of connection with labour, something which is surely missing in so many post-material jobs, from call-centres to accountancy.

Meanwhile, the rise of postmodernism has broken down much of our ability to make qualitative judgements on an aesthetic basis. The art world has suffered - or benefited, depending on your point of view - more from this than design because commercial art can always be judged on a commercial basis, but there is no doubt that kitschy images typical of non-designers often resonate with what is going on in the rarefied 'professional' worlds of art and design.

Ultimately, amateur design is an interesting phenomenon and nothing to fear - its not likely to eat into professionals bottom-lines - and at least it encourages people to be creative, something which should translate into a greater appreciation of design in general.

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