DIY by layers

DIY is everywhere. And while the basic notion of creative self-sufficiency holds great appeal in an age that can feel mass-produced and impersonal, there might come a moment when we (or at least I) will get turned off, saturated to the point of no return with talk of the most intriguing new way to make something. The problem is not that these ideas aren’t innovative; we constantly come across impressive ventures that offer a better way forward. What gets me is when the broader concept of DIY seems to generate more excitement than the actual project at hand, its goals, and how the people at the helm manage to make an impact. Many different labors of love have contributed to the momentum behind DIY. Just look at the growing popularity of the Maker Faire series, which came in June to our own backyard; or ShopBot Tools, headquartered in Durham since 1996; or the tiny personal projects that will never make the news. There are real-world applications in all such ventures, but the buzz about DIY often seems to overshadow them. As for the permeation of the trend, consider the “How to Make Stuff” cover spread on Wired magazine’s DIY-centric April issue, or the fact that in just a two-week period of June, Fast Company issued four articles whose titles included the term “DIY.”

So in the face of a movement that has become pervasive, how do we make sure people focus on the nitty-gritty details, too? Lest DIY fall down the rabbit hole and be seen in hindsight as a fad, it’s time to recall how it can be both useful and extraordinarily powerful, all while still being fun and inspired. After all, if we can’t articulate exactly why an undertaking is so great, we risk becoming lazy makers, creating throwaway projects with no lasting value.

Of course, there is some intrinsic merit in learning by doing; as we’ve said before, making things with your own two hands is pretty vital to being human. But something can be both new and creative without changing the world. And that’s the best place to start discussing the merits of a DIY project -- by asking whether a maker has figured out how to do something better.

Take d.light, a project that changes lives by distributing solar lanterns, increasing the capabilities of entire populations in developing areas (thanks, Martha Nussbaum).

“At d.light, we use the best design principles -- usually reserved for the 10 percent wealthiest -- and apply them to meet the needs of households without access to reliable electricity.”

Talk about turning the world on its head.

There are lots of DIY-related initiatives that break free of existing conventions in constructive ways, but this is a good example of a project that’s been presented to the public skillfully. Because d.light talks about specifics, we can wrap our heads around why it does something better.

The next time someone raves about a DIY idea they saw put into action, ask the same questions that the folks at d.light did: What is the root problem that’s being solved? Whom is being helped? Why is this solution better? Is it efficient? How will this product continue to improve people’s lives after they receive it?

Those aren’t the only questions to ask, but they get us thinking about the inner workings of DIY, not just the sexy surface.