Design Histories Overview

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 a 1965 White House demonstration for gay rights.

An image from the Memphis Sanitation Strike, a public demonstration that took place on February 12, 1968 in Memphis Tennessee in response to the death of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The two men died in an accident as a result of unsafe working conditions perpetuated by a history of racism and inequity in the city of Memphis.

Specimen for Martin typeface designed by Tré Seals and inspired by the letterforms used on the protest signs of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968.

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989, Poster.

Good Girl typeface designed by Marion Bisserier in 2020. The typeface was inspired by the history of feminist activists— the Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger —who have used graphic messaging as a tool for cultural critique.

The Past Is Not Behind Us

The function of visual communication is inherently social and political.

A designer’s contributions, when disseminated through standard channels of media, have the potential to reach considerable audiences and produce significant social impact. Works of graphic design are most often commissioned by dominant entities—businesses, corporations, cultural institutions— to transmit specific values and ideas crafted to generate economic gain and cultural influence. En masse, these works perpetuate the systems and structures that shape our collective experience.

Whether an individual designer is conscious of the consequences of their output is irrelevant, the expression of visual concepts within the public sphere, when repeated over platforms of marketing and advertising, create thought, manipulate perspectives, and, in turn, alter reality.

Because of this transformative capacity latent in the act of design, it is crucial that designers be informed, accountable and intentional in their practice. This entails, among other things, developing a general knowledge of history—a basic comprehension of the movements and events that have formed the framework of contemporary society.

These past milestones—achievements, ideas, innovations, challenges, transgressions, victories, and defeats— once assimilated into our common mythology, serve to legitimize what is culturally agreed upon to be real and true. They determine who and what is acknowledged, valued, celebrated, preserved, condemned, and forgotten.

In other words, the past is not behind us.

The approach of Design Histories is centered on critically examining our collective canon of thought within the sphere of design and beyond. There will be a particular focus on socio- economic systems, technologies, and cultural conventions—all of which contribute to the visual character of a particular design movement or period. We will interrogate the correlation between aesthetics, cultural perceptions of value, and underlying structures of political and economic power.

During the course of the semester, we will investigate the past to more fully comprehend its relationship to the present and future. Time is not linear; existence is not singular. The objective of the class is not to promote or legitimize any one single experience, methodology, movement, or body of work, rather, the intent is to create a space to question our current experiences for the sake of better understanding how we connect to the many versions of the past, present, and future that exist.