05/03/2022

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 the 1965 demonstration.

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 in the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968.

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.

A Note on History

Our current consciousness is the result of past experiences—achievements, ideas, inventions, challenges, victories, and defeats—the majority 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 contemporary 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, an abstraction—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.

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 experience 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. Instead of celebrating, let’s question instead.

The approach of Design Histories is centered on critical examination. 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 information we touch on 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 better understanding how we connect to the many versions of the past, present, and future that exist.