09/18/2021

Design Histories

An introduction to the curriculum and a note on the subject of history

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.James Baldwin

A scene from the 1965 demonstration for gay rights that took place in front of the White House. At the event, the seminal activist Ernestine Eckstein (featured left) carried a sign that read “DENIAL OF EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY IS IMMORAL.”

Ernestine Eckstein typeface created by Nat Piper. The letterforms are based on the ones featured on Ernestine Eckstein’s protest sign that she carried at the 1965 demonstration.

History is Not Behind Us

When we survey the history of visual communication, we are in essence tracing the evolution of graphic innovation. From the first language systems that emerged on the continents of pre-modern Africa and Asia to the first printed books produced in China during the Tang Dynasty, from the genesis of modernism at the turn of the 19th century to the first digital designs that were produced in the eighties, these inventions represent the methods of seeing, thinking, making, and connecting that were, within the context of their time and place, at the forefront of collective human experience. Each subsequent hallmark builds on the ones that came before it. Every new development uses the achievements of the past as its foundation. By studying the history of graphic design and visual communication, not only are we exposed to the ideas, values, and motivations that brought about these developments, we also gain a perspective on how these past innovations inform our present circumstances.

But innovation is a tricky concept. How do we define it? Who gets to claim it? How do we evaluate what is and isn’t innovative? What is the criteria?

Innovation has long been a stand-in for what is coveted most within our capitalist system—the new. Since the beginnings of industrialization and its accompanying spheres of marketing and media, novelty has continually been employed as an effective tool for perpetuating consumerism. But is this real innovation? And what is this innovation in service of? In this continual quest for the new—new approaches, new styles, new technologies— knowing that there are so many pressing issues that face us, is the creativity and perspective of our brightest minds being put to causes worthy of their ingenuity?

As we observe the past and present, we can see that often the work that is the most visible and that is celebrated as the most innovative—and in turn the most legitimate or excellent—is created and used within oppressive systems to generate profits and bolster the power and influence of dominant entities. The repeated visibility of these graphic contributions serves to continually recenter the presence of the clients who commissioned these works in the first place— preeminent industries and corporations—contributing to a capitalist mythology that passes for history.

Yet, there are other examples, other histories that tell a different story. There are graphic works generated outside of prevailing power structures—works created not to sell products or rally a consumer base, but to unite communities, foster culture, spread knowledge, change minds, and even save lives. Knowing that today we have so much to overcome, so many problems to solve and so many past injustices to account for—as we seek out preceding models as points of reference for our contemporary practices, aren’t these the case studies which are the most relevant and most vital? These are the histories which exemplify the ability of graphic communication to empower and transform. Aren’t these the types of innovations that are truly worth investigating?

A Note on History

Our present consciousness is the result of past experiences—ideas, achievements, inventions, struggles, victories, and defeats—many of which were enacted, recorded, and assimilated into our collective history long before our lifetimes. These shared mythologies play a vital role in the formation of our current perceptions. They act as archetypes which legitimize existing systems and perpetuate what is culturally agreed upon to be real and true. These milestones, once chronicled, determine who and what is acknowledged, valued, celebrated, preserved, condemned, and forgotten.

But recorded history is inherently incomplete. It is never full or whole. It is a construct conceived by individuals who, through processes of research, study, and scholarship, are, in the end, fabricating a story. The act of historicizing is, at best, abstract—it’s an interpretation which incorporates montage, simplification, omission, linearity, and outright invention as strategies for facilitating comprehension and resolution. In actuality, there are countless histories, limitless information, and endless occurrences. Human experience is multifarious, infinite, and constant. To capture everything would be impossible. So, the historian picks and chooses, eliminates and excludes to create a digestible and coherent storyline.

These decisions of representation, of who and what is acknowledged or forgotten, are often defined by limitations—of proximity, of understanding, of access, of resources, and of accountability. They are driven by the shortcomings of the storyteller, by their deficits and biases both cultural and personal, conscious and subconscious. No individual is absolute in their capacity or free from the constraints of their cultural perception. Think for a moment of the massive untruths that have, within various points in history, been regarded as fact. Imagine how these falsehoods have impacted the perceptions of the historians and educators who have acted as the record keepers of their time and, in turn, compromised the choices that they have made. What’s more, these judgments of who and what is worthy of visibility have been executed within a system that is anything but neutral. Western capitalism is rooted in competition, dominance, manipulation, and violence. Acts of omission and distortion are often implemented in alignment with the values of this system and are seldom inconsequential. If we acknowledge that, within this system, representation is a key factor of legitimacy, and, in turn, legitimacy is a key factor in determining economic, social, and political significance, it is clear how exclusion can directly translate into inequity, discrimination, and cultural transgression. Through this lens, the seemingly innocuous act of editing or curating has the potential to re-frame the canonization of historical subjects and events into transactions of propaganda and oppression.

When confronting history, how do we account for such unideal and problematic circumstances? How do we separate fact from fiction? How do we differentiate between truth and marketing? History must be approached with an acknowledgment of its boundaries and received with an anticipation of its limitations. No matter how valid an historic account is, we must never forget that there is always another story.

The role of recorded history is powerful, specifically in the field of art and design. The singular contributions that are memorialized through representation— included in a book or taught within a curriculum—establish and promote specific standards of legitimacy, talent, beauty, value, and relevance. Celebrated individuals and their accompanying works become models for present and future endeavor. But these past examples are contextual at best—their elevated positions are most often the result of advantageous positions within a particular system at a particular moment in time. Designers who are most commonly celebrated are by no means representative of the full spectrum of experience or perspectives. The ones who are left out are far from insignificant. The majority of the practitioners who have contributed to the legacy of visual communication are and will remain anonymous. We will never see their contributions or learn about their experiences. Yet, it is this collective body that is the true force that moves our field forward.

By focusing on the role of designers as luminaries and by putting singular works on pedestals, not only do we get an incomplete picture of design, but we also lose sight of what’s truly important—our current experience. Past works are most useful, not as objects of reverence, but as tools to critically examine the values, beliefs, and processes that informed their production. Instead of focusing on individuals, let’s focus on the collective. Instead of canonizing singular works, let’s investigate the systems within which these works were made.

Time is not linear; existence is not singular. The information included in the Design Histories curriculum in no way promotes or legitimizes any one single experience, approach, movement, or body of work, rather, the intent is to create a space to question our current experiences for the sake of understanding how we connect to the many versions of the past, present, and future that exist.