About Design History—What, Why, How?

I don’t believe the importance of design history to designers/students can be overstated: we need to know where we have come from. What was different, what was the same; and why. The best design reflects its time and context; this is easiest seen in hindsight. Understanding where style comes from will show the relationship between visual choices and audience, and suggest to the students ways to figure out what are the new choices for today’s audiences and contexts. Students should know about designers, design theories, design practices, anonymous work, how design was received, and as well, how it was produced (methods, technologies).

There is also the issue of visual references. Besides the design works that are direct references to older works (and it’s nice to get the joke), our visual sense of a time period and its culture have come from design and art of the period, perhaps even from works that are iconic of the period. A clearer sense of their position and reason for iconic importance will add to general historical knowledge. Students should also know what are the design clichés, the basis for parodies, the in-jokes of the profession.

It is also true (and frightening) that too many of today’s students have too little general historical knowledge. I have come to realize in my history course that, for example, through the study of war posters I am actually helping students sort out that there were two world wars, when and for what. That the red in Soviet design work has a political rationale, not only that it contrasts well with black (and looks cool). Without the contextual knowledge, when students ‘borrow’ (for legitimate and illegitimate reasons) they will blithely strip style of its politics and come up with empty form.

Departments and curricula that offer history courses are lucky; it depends on resources in teaching personnel, library and image collections. Those who teach in a department with such a resource can build on that knowledge in their students for projects in other design courses. But if formal courses don’t exist, then more explicit historical research can be made part of design projects. I would encourage young design teachers to pursue design history however they can with their students. History can be presented as very focused study (18th century typeface design or traditional book design) or more generally (20th century avant gardes), or topically (war posters), or sweeping (design since industrial revolution). I don’t think it matters, just start reading and looking and showing and talking about it with students.

This forum might be a place for young/new design teachers to share how they have incorporated historical study in their teaching. It could also be a place to find out if they are doing historical research themselves, how they are framing it, and where the research resources are.

Martha Scotford
NC State University

posted by Martha Scotford on April 29, 2004 | comments: 3 | post a comment

Growing a history, making a future.

There is indeed something to be said about the value of design history. More often than not, seemingly more immediate and tangible issues having to do with technology, technique, and market demands overshadow the need for a formal course in design history at some colleges and universities. This is a strange and unfortunate thing considering that most of us Ė educators, practitioners, and students alike Ė acknowledge that our thinking and work methods have their precedents. So why does it feel like we exist in a vacuum? Why does it feel like design education is about cranking? Why arenít we bothering with history? Why arenít we talking about our past?

I realize that time is against us and that funds may not allow for design history resources to be established at our respective institutions. Anyway, how much can we really teach in one semester? Itís all a blur. Iíve become painfully aware of the fact that a considerable portion of my time is spent walking students through the intricacies of software. I should say that I enjoy technology just as much as the next guy but Iím saddened that design history is taking a back seat to the incessant humming of cooling fans and gently pulsating power buttons. Unfortunately, there has been a fundamental shift in priorities. Instead of setting the tone (and isnít setting the tone the real beauty of academia?) design programs act as caterer to the market. This is ironic and antithetical since the market does not care about the intellect. (A look at the classifieds these days makes me wonder whether businesses want well-rounded designers or just another pair of hands.)

The question we must ask ourselves at this juncture is: Can we afford not to have design history in our curriculums? But wait, if the market doesnít care about a designerís intellect, then why bother with history? As an educator, there is something about depth and breadth I cannot ignore. I believe these are the very things that lead to smart, captivating graphic design. In addition to imparting a sense of a time period and its culture, as Martha stated, design history is a fantastic and natural way for students to develop a potent vocabulary Ė language whereby she/he can describe design clearly and with a bit of lyricism to boot.

I like to think that weíre more substantive than our respective desktops. If a design history resource is out of the question, then letís absolutely bring history to our studios whenever and however we can. The more ammunition, the better. The sooner, the better.

Anthony Inciong
Monmouth University

Posted by Anthony Inciong on May 2, 2004 11:49 PM

estudiante perspectivo -- in brief, few undergrad students have the drive to get the education they need to become a "true, critically thinking, conceptually developing" designer. this is especially needed with the quality of design professionals in academia today. it is very rare to find professors that have a thorough background in history and literature - student: who was tschichold? prof: oh ya he influenced typography in the 1920s. student: that's it?

history is important, my point is that even when design history is incorporated into an undergrad curriculum, the quality is 'loose' and mediocre at best.

anthropology is a relatively new field of study and their terminology or language has not yet been unified. almost every different writer has varying terms for every concept. i feel in this day, design needs a universal overhaul in some key areas. so many titles are thrown around: designer, commercial artist, graphic designer, typographer, multi-media,etc all focusing on the same or slightly different area of study/work. there seems to be a need for academia to either produce "layout artists" or "desigers". these two are very different animals. layout artists have the basic skills of the industry applications and are in more of a trade field. designers are completely different, having an advanced handling of almost all technology and specializing in certain arenas but more importantly they are well rounded (i hate that phrase becoming so cliche); thinking and designing critically with a greater conceptual approach.

students today to get any where beyond a layout position in the field need to push themselves to get submersed in design by reading literature, learning history, and opening themselves up to what is currently going happening. who will tell these few eager minds where to access this info? no one - personal responsibility , ie elliot earls

Posted by parke shissler on May 20, 2004 10:40 AM

The lament over design history, or more specifically the lack of awareness and understanding of historical influences, relevant movements, technologies, practices and key players in the formulation and spread of the profession, seems to be more than the griping of a few educators on the periphery -- it's a gathering force for change.

Design's relatively short history could easily be incorporated into the curricula of even the most strictly pragmatic, practical, craft-oriented schools of design. And it should be. And more and more design professors, instructors, teachers and critics seem to agree, if net blogs and discussion groups like this one are any indication. Field-awareness is good for practitioners -- the argument hardly needs to be made anymore.

To me, the most obvious hold-up to incorporating greater historical awareness into design pedagogy is due to the fact that the greater majority of design teachers are at heart art directors, not analytical scholars. It is my impression that design is generally taught by skillful, good designers who are/were successful in the profession -- not necessarily innovative thinkers, lucid writers, or those with the time, inclination, or research skills necessary to build up a formidable knowledge of the history of the subject. Histories of design by Meggs and Heller and the like are great tools, but no substitute for the interactive learning experience between knowledgeable teacher and student.

Posted by Dan Warner on July 13, 2004 10:19 PM