The Citizen Designer

Lately I have been thinking about The Citizen Designer and after hearing the great talk by Emma Jenkins at last night’s Digital Lounge I decided to write my thoughts down.

“What? How many thousand pounds for a website? My neighbour’s son can do it for 50 quid!”

As a digital professional this is most likely the first Citizen Designer you’ve run into, but things have changed quite a bit over the last few years. Today the citizen designer is a real threat as well as a real potential.

I guess the definition of a Citizen Designer is anybody who creates anything unique whether it is a knitted shirt using own pattern or  a home brewery using own recipe.

For the purpose of is article I will only look at the digital citizen designer and only those who create something unique. For example:

Farmville: Regular user
Farmville: Citizen Designer
Nintendo Mii: Regular user
Nintendo Mii: Citizen Designer

The Citizen Designer lurks in everybody

Before we only had the neighbour’s socially inept son who didn’t see blondes, brunettes or redheads but only code. Let’s face it: he was never the threat he was made up to be.

But Citizen Designers are increasingly being represented by a wider part of the population and they will continue to gain in numbers as creating digitally becomes even easier.

MySpace has been a leader as it allows users to add their creative input to the interface. With the new MySpace being launched there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to steam ahead as the citizen (website) designers preferred choice.

A few computer games have explored the possibilities of the citizen designer. Second Life was the early lead allowing users to create digital assets and sell them for real money.

My favourite example is Little Big Planet for several reasons:

  • Its low entry level means users can quickly and easily get creative by dressing their sackboys and sackgirls
  • For more advanced users game offers incredible freedom in creating assets for the game
  • And it encourages users of all levels to visit other people’s planets and explore their homemade levels and creations.

I recently pick the game up again and landed on a user generated planet that had completely removed the actual gaming element. Instead its creator had spend what I can only imagine to be a huge amount of time creating the most beautiful, luxurious furniture that you could freely bring home to your own planet.

Truly professional work that I am sure people would have paid for using for example a system like Flattr… Makes me wonder why a payment system, real or virtual, is not in place in Little Big Planet already.

The Citizen Designer hiding in other professions

The ability to digitally create with ease have also opened the doors for a more immediate competitor namely other professionals. Often these people are triggered by a “hang on a minute…” moment when listening to a digital professional who are swimming a bit too far from the truth while explain how uber-incredibly hard it is to create a website, html email or similar.

For example:
A client company wants a forum. They hire a digital agency to create the forum and a community professional to help start the conversation on the forum.

Solution 1:
Agency explains they will first design some flat visuals; get client feedback; amend the visuals; build the forum; deploy the forum; then train the client staff; the write design/development guidelines; hand it over and then charge a massive amount of money.

Solution 2:
However, the communication person thinks: “Hang on a minute…” and proposes that to avoid spending a huge amount of money upfront why not just deploy a Ning, Social Go or one of the many other plug’n’play forums out there. Many of these offer quite substantial re-skinning options and some even the ability to use own domain name.

Client happy (agency probably not).

The communication person was able to confidently suggest a readily available system requiring  very little digital knowledge.

Another example is small start-ups or charities facing huge cost from traditional digital agency as they try to purchase a dynamic web environment, maybe they even have an already thriving facebook group or twitter stream.

Such a small organisation may have have hired a freelance photographer or copywriter who also goes “Hang on a minute…” when hearing about the polished and expensive proposals of the agencies. Instead they may suggest using to launch a quick site using different social channels as means to populate the site. The system would especially play well with a photographer.

And even among digital professionals the Citizen Designer creeps in. For example in the shape of a web designer who learns how easy it actually is to deploy a WordPress CMS system.

And digital professionals can learn from this. It is all about being the lazy web designer and using what is out there on the web.

How to leverage the citizen designer

Why is the power of the Citizen Designers not supported, encouraged and even harnessed yet?

They are everywhere yet very little as gone into supporting them, which I find odd given the clear value of Citizen Designer generated content and assets.

I mentioned the lack of an economy in Little Big Planet. Farmville, the other example does have the economy but does not give the tools and freedom to really encourage citizen designers.

Here are a few ideas of how citizen designers could be supported for the benefit of all:

A straightforward example: Dressing my Chocobo
Square Enix just launched a Facebook game called Chocobo’s Crystal Tower which is about raising big, mostly yellow birds called “Chocobos”.

The game offers people the option to dress their Chocobos without any impact on the actual gameplay. Imagine if the game gave users the ability to design clothing/equipment themselves and share them with fellow Chocobo breeders. Items could be put on sale for Crysta (Square Enix’s virtual currency) at your very own Chocobo shop.

The value to Square Enix would be any transaction of Crysta to other games or real money. The other, potentially bigger, benefit is the ability to offer a much wider selection of items to choose from making the gaming experience richer for all users.

Yes, it would be similar in essence to Second Life but have a much easier entry point as it is Facebook-based and has a much simpler gameplay.

A more complex example: Locative art and geo caching
However, the idea of creating digitally doesn’t have to be limited to sitting in front of PCs. William Gibson’s latest trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History) covers the idea of locative art which is art using augmented reality tied to specific locations, possibly to re-enact a historical event.

Now, combining that idea with Scrawl, an iPhone tool that lets you “draw” in the augmented reality space will give Citizen Designers (Citizen Artists??) the tool to participate.

Finally, mix that with Geo Caching, which is a location based sport where participants use GPS to find defined points in the world. You would end up with a global game of user created treasures for other participants to find. Further more imagine adding the secret brand concept to the game. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Wouldn’t this all fit neatly with the concept of The Game Layer on Top of The World?

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