DIY as a political movement

When typing in Google ‘DIY‘, besides the usual Wikipedia search result and (thankfully!) Instructables main page, the rest of the results are about how to do your own interior decoration and fashion accessories -certainly, this is not the most objective nor an absolute indicator, but it is a good thermometer to measure the  ‘feeling’ of a certain topic in a specific moment (if the High Frequency Trading uses google searches as inputs for trading stocks, why shouldn’t I!). If we were to trust on this, we would think of DIY as a shallow subject that only retired hobbyist address (without criticizing the retired hobbyists); but I want to argue the political content of DIY, as a movement and as a statement.

On her article Do-It-Yourself Security, Sarah Lichtman gives a historical and political context to the DIY movement in the US, by explaining how, in the middle of the cold war (50’s and 60’s) the government of the United States started a series of civil defense initiatives, aimed to prepare the society to any kind of attack; so, as a governmental policy, they distributed manuals for do-it-yourself family fallout shelters. This is not only an important fact to take into account when speaking about DIY movements, but is essential to understanding the real context and consequences of them, for they where born and survive always around particular political situations. This doesn’t mean that is a politicized issue, for it is present independent of political tendency (right or left wing, democrats or communists); an example of this is narrated by the cuban artist and designer Ernesto Oroza on a documentary short film made by Vice; here, he explains how, after the United States left Cuba in the 60’s and they entered a severe crisis, Fidel Castro published a manual for fixing your own appliances, self medicating with herbs, popular recipes and other popular knowledge information to empower the population from the bottom -they where making their own Whole Earth Catalogue! He also emphasizes in the direct (and inversely proportional) relation between crisis and creativity and inventiveness (the bigger the crisis, the higher the levels of resourcefulness). This two examples clarify in some level the political context of the modern concept of DIY (understanding, off course, that the essence of DIY is present since the human being started to build its own tools).

To give a more recent and actual example, the Guardian presented a set of two reportages called The Real Big Society (off course, in an ironic allusion to David Cameron’s Big Society), in which they showed how people in Great Britain where finding alternative ways of living, independent either on energy, food or even money. The importance of this program is the way it show the characters, who are not shown as romantics and idealists (as usual), but as real activists, heroes and proof that a really sustainable system can be built within the big unsustainable system. On a documentary on the Peak Oil Crisis, made by the Community Solution organization, the environmental engineer Rachel Bruhnke explains how Cuba, in its  special period, became politically independent, thanks to becoming energetically independent; she says (’46): if you want to be politically independent, you have to be economically independent;and in order to be economically independent, you have to be energy independent. This principle is the same as the one from the people in the UK that have decided today to be economically independent by becoming energy independent, and this is a political statement. In economy, autarky is recognized as the ability to be self-sufficient (different, though close, to autarchy -self controlled), concept which I consider to be they key for understanding DIY as an autarkic action and, therefore, as a political movement.


I think designers, and creatives in general, have to stop fearing the word politics, for it goes way beyond their usual conception; as Alastair Fuad-Luke would say it in his book Design ActivismPolitical in this sense is not a narrow view of political parties and their respective philosophies and beliefs, but is a wider view of the citizen contributing to a broad political dialogue within society, where the question being asked is ‘in what sort of society do we want to live?. But also, it is important to be aware of the political context and consequences of what we make (understanding design as a political act -as Tony Fry would explain it in his book Design as Politics), in order to create a real impact on society. As I have shown (and always do, as a pragmatic optimist), new changes can be made by designing new sustainable low-scale and local systems that can change the big unsustainable system from the inside; or, as the great uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano puts it: this is a vile world, the one we live in, but there is another world, a better one, in the belly of this one (this world is pregnant of a better world)…

Autarchy by FormaFantasma



  1. Many ideas come to my mind when I think in how to move industrial design, sometimes I think that Industrial design in Colombia has to take an step back and considere it as modern art, in that way we will feel freedom to express our selves and become energy independent (love that quote of Rachel Bruhnke).
    Thanks for the referent of Ernesto Oroza!, very nice article Pablo. keep active!

    • calderonp wrote:

      Beware Natalia!
      Considering ‘industrial design’ as a modern art (even as an applied art) can be taken as a blasphemy in some circles in Colombia… some ‘real’ industrial designers (…?) friends may feel offended and disappointed!

  2. JGZ wrote:

    I reckon we don’t need a “step back” we need a step “forward”. As designers we need to start thinking about the design as a political activity and as “independent” activity. Artistic activity and design activity are two separate categories, in the conception and in practice, also two different ways of building society.

    • calderonp wrote:

      The step back is just an expression, off course not literal; take ‘decrecimiento’ as an example.

      I agree that design has to be start being considered as a political activity, and this is partly accomplished by assuming a certain independence and autonomy from other practices.

      Yet I don’t want to think about design (or any other discipline), as a area with fixed borders, but as a field with flexible limits that sometimes has cross-borders with fields as, for example, art.

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