When we were in grade school, a million years ago, our American history books taught us that we were, above all else, citizens. This felt like a mighty weight on our ten year old shoulders—so many rights and responsibilities—but it also felt empowering and something meaty to grow into. We were going to have to do things like be informed and vote in order to maintain a healthy democracy. This was back when democracy was still a shiny word.
Sometime in the 70s, we started to be called consumers. Initially people pushed back against thinking of themselves in these purely economic terms. ("How dare companies define us by what we buy!" cried the citizens.) But with time we citizens have gradually embraced this new identity and our focus has shifted from rights and responsibilities to being savvy and value–seeking procurers of goods and services.
Today most of us readily engage the world through a consumer lens as we evaluate our choices, develop our brand, and broadcast our messages. There is a lot to like too: the easy access to a constant flow of information and options; the opportunity to create one's unique image; connecting with a vast audience; and, most tantalizingly, the endless possibility of it all. Talk about shiny!
Of course we are also aware of the less glittering side to all this consumption. How do we avoid choking on the steady stream of input and stuff? How do we handle the impulse to commodify everything including ourselves? What do we do when the constant rush of exciting possibilities begins to feel relentless and draining?
The pendulum has begun to swing the other way with the emergence of the maker movement. As the name implies, the emphasis is not on consuming, but on creating. For makers, their hands don't simply click a button to get something; rather they choose to engage their bodies and beings. They make things which they then value more because of their investment of time and energy. Through this activity they are able to develop physical skills and know–how and express ourselves through what they do.
Personally we enjoy many aspects of the maker movement, including the fact that it slows things down. This human rate of production allows more time for savoring and fully digesting life's experiences. That said, however, anyone who has raised sheep to gather the wool, hand-dyed it from the plants they harvested, and then spun it into yarn so they could knit a scarf for their baby will tell you, making absolutely everything has its practical limitations.
What's next? The term we'd like to throw into the ring as the next step on the consciousness growth path is designer. From our perspective, the designer is someone who arranges things for a purpose. In this way design can be an approach to everything from what you eat for breakfast and what you do each day, to the arrangement of your home, your career, and your whole life.
What we like about this framing is that it combines the responsibility and empowerment of a citizen with the savvy choice–making of the consumer and the consciousness and abilities of the maker. To be a successful designer, you need to get clear on what you want and take charge of shaping what happens. You want to know your options and get creative about how you put them together in a way that best fits your needs and the situation. Ultimately a good designer combines their know–how and experience with their inspiration and personal preferences. She experiments, then evaluates, and redesigns to her heart's content and delight.
Of course none of us can be defined by one single overarching identity or term. Each of us is too vast for such reduction. We think there is value in recognizing the mindset and assumptions embedded in each of these terms and considering how we can benefit by thinking of ourselves as citizens, consumers, makers, and designers in our life long quest to realize our fullest potential—as human beings.
In what ways does your life reflect the perspective of a citizen, a consumer, a maker, and a designer? Are there areas of your life where you are more one than another?
Next time you face an issue, take a moment to consider it from four different points of view:
What would the citizen–you do?
What could the consumer–you do?
What would the maker–you do?
What could the designer–you do?
What would give you the best results in this particular situation? What seems most doable and the most rewarding?
Here's to the joy of being human,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
Please pass this along to other interested people. Your feedback is much appreciated.
If you find our work useful or inspiring, consider making a gift via PayPal.