Creating new design histories
Last week on Eye on Design, designer and educator Aggie Toppins, wrote about teaching design history without hero worship:
Since the 1980s, when graphic design history was still considered “a movement,” it has been common to teach the subject as a progression of styles with objects made by heroically talented people. This promotes connoisseurship, but it does not explain the underlying causes of design or how it related to its audiences. Graphic design emerges from social, technological, economic, and political contexts. It’s important for those who study its history to connect design and designers to these contexts first and foremost.
Early design historians sought to promote graphic design as a profession. They wanted to distinguish it from commercial art or the printing industry. To do this, they created legacy histories with a cast of brilliant characters to inspire future generations.
There’s a been a lot of discussion over the last few years about how to rethink how we teach design history. Johanna Drucker’s book, Graphic Design: A Critical History, get the closest to the kind of history Toppins is interested in. Graphic Design: History in the Writing, an edited collection of texts presents a historiography of graphic design, and provides an excellent primer on just a few of the different ways we can think about graphic design history.
Lately, I’ve found thinking about photography history to be a good model in organizing graphic design history. Photography, like graphic design, has an amorphous history. Like graphic design, photography also continually questions where it fits in the world: is it art or is it science?. To create a unified history of photography, one continually expands their purview so much the definitions start to blur. There are the fine art photographers, the ones we think of when we think of exhibitions in galleries and museums or published in books; there are documentarians or photojournalists, who are out in the field whose work might be found in newspapers and magazines. There are the professional studio photographers who make advertisements, album covers, and portraits, which then, of course, includes another group of professionals who might shoot school portraits and weddings. Then on top of that, there are the infinite number of photographs made by people like you and me: snapshots, candid images with friends, photos from our travels, of food and of cats. The ability to take photos over the last half-century slowly became more accessible and then even more rapidly over the last decade as the cameras in our phones rival those of professional cameras. Everyone, now, is a photographer. To create a single coherent history feels impossible. All of this is photography and historians and curators consider it all.
While a similar history could be applied to graphic design, design historians, educators, and curators rarely look outside the profession to vernacular design, amateur work, underground or DIY creations. The first step, I think, in finding new ways to teach design history begins with opening up what we include. I’m reminded of one of my favorite essays, Lorraine Wild’s Castles Made of Sand:
How about being told in graduate school that correct typography consists of using only one font with one weight change? This would happen despite trips to the library to see great books of the past, many of them typographic mélanges that would cause any of your professors to drop dead. Or what if every “good designer” you knew started projects with the mechanics of the grid, and concepts seemed to be something only advertisers worried about? What if you saw the daily evidence piled up around you that the world operated with thousands of visual codes, but somehow you would not be taken seriously if you used any of them other than the desiccated form that modernism had devolved into? Could you be forgiven, perhaps, for beginning to suspect that what you were being taught was not actually modernism at all, but habit? Or bizarre fraternity rituals?
Wild’s essay became a touchstone as I worked with the University of Nevada Las Vegas at the beginning of the year developing a new design history curriculum for their art program. The goal was to both take a global perspective and, being in a visually rich city like Los Vegas, also local. The two semester curriculum was an attempt to reframe design history not as a series of people or of objects and artifacts, but of social movements, technological changes, and political revolutions. While I can’t share the curriculum we developed publicly yet, I’m proud of what we wrote and proud of how it expands design beyond a Western/European, white history and begins to connect DIY ethics, underground movements, and vernacular design.
The history of design, in the end, is a history of people, which means there is no single history. To think about graphic design history today is to begin to dismantle the professional and disciplinary boundaries that have been built up over the last century. As Ali Qadeer wrote for Frontier earlier this year:
In place of suggestions for a set of design texts we must internalize, I propose graphic designers embrace a discourse of forgetting. The material output of our field tends toward ephemerality anyway—so what better way to celebrate the nature of our practice than making forgetting a core value? Of course, this doesn’t mean bypassing reading and theorizing as crucial aspects of what it means to be a designer, but rather to avoid what design instructor Juliette Cezzar refers to as “substituting hagiography for history itself.” The best kind of design writing is writing that knows it will soon be irrelevant.
I’d argue graphic design, as a discreet and siloed discipline no longer exists, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Where history is often used to define and defend, let’s use design history to open up, to blur, to democratize. We’re all designers now.