Un ricordo di Daniele Baroni

Esattamente trent’anni fa incontravo Daniele Baroni per l’avvio della nuova edizione di Lineagrafica. Reduce dalla migliore stagione di Ottagono, in un momento di grande fervore per quello che si annunciava come un periodo di rifondazione dei saperi della grafica di progetto, Daniele insistette subito sulla necessità imprescindibile di un recupero delle fonti storiche del visual design, in favore di una ricostruzione della disciplina che avesse radici nella storia. “Genesi del design grafico” titolava uno dei suoi primi interventi che si presentavano tutti con quella stessa capacità di sintesi, con quella stessa puntigliosa precisione con la quale era solito lasciar parlare i documenti visivi ritagliati con estrema cura dagli archivi del progetto.

Per Daniele parla, come si è soliti dire, il suo lavoro di studioso e storico del design: ma sempre accanto alla competenza progettuale che era il filtro continuo adottato lungo la sua militanza editoriale. Anche la sua manualistica risente in positivo di questa capacità di connettere il piano del progetto operativo con quello della storia; un approccio che è diventato un modello, tracciato sull’impercettibile confine dove lo storico guarda al progetto e il progettista guarda alla storia.

In questa logica, Daniele non poteva non essere presente tra i primi nel momento in cui abbiamo dato corpo istituzionale al progetto di Corso di laurea in design della comunicazione presso il Politecnico di Milano. Il suo insegnamento era sempre lezione di ponderatezza e di distanza dall’improvvisazione; il suo personalissimo paradigma del rigore si fondava sulla voce dei documenti più che sulle loquacità interpretative; e al fondo lasciava trasparire una non ideologica e controllata passione.

La sua concreta disponibilità e il suo pensiero distaccato, sempre lontano dal chiacchiericcio di maniera, sono le cose che ci mancheranno: sul piano dello stile molto hanno insegnato, marcando una differenza anche negli anni indiscreti dell’apparire.


Milano, 7 marzo 2016

Dear Vanni,

Many thanks for the invitation to contribute to this series of “letters.” As someone new to the field, I very much appreciate the opportunity to join this discussion with such an impressive group of scholars and teachers.

Kjetil is absolutely correct that design historians should be responsible for deciding how designhistory is researched, written, and taught. From my perspective, however, the best way for us to achieve that autonomy is to argue for the value of our work in terms that both respect the scholarly integrity of our discipline and explicitly engage design faculty. I realize that it may seem paradoxical to seek autonomy through increased engagement, but I believe that we should make a concerted effort to demonstrate to our colleagues in design how our research and teaching contribute to the education of design students using terms and concepts from their disciplinary discourses and academic frameworks. In my experience teaching in professionally-oriented, studio-based programs at the Pratt Institute and the University of Illinois at Chicago, design faculty are usually willing to reciprocate this engagement as part of a larger conversation about how to integrate design history more effectively into their curriculum. To be successful, such a conversation will in turn spur designers to think about how their teaching relates to design history and thereby establish an opening for design historians to engage the broader curriculum of the program. By building common ground with designers, I believe that design historians can re-define their position within schools of design so as not only to secure their autonomy as teachers and scholars, but also to establish themselves as key contributors to design education. From that position, we can then advocate more effectively for the humanistic principles that we celebrate. (I recognize that my attitude places the burden for engagement on design historians, but I think that is reasonable since we, unlike designers, can speak the “language” of both design and design history.)

Such a renewed engagement with design schools is also, in my opinion, the best means of strengthening the position of design history within the academy. I agree with others here that the next step in the scholarly development of our discipline is to build more intimate connections with related fields, especially in the humanities. The humanities, however, have rarely been more maligned than now in the US, and, in my opinion, there is little institutional advantage to be gained through a closer alignment with them. Instead, an expanded design field that incorporates design history on its own terms seems to me to offer greater opportunities precisely because it will bring professional training together with the critical reading, writing, and thinking abilities that we cultivate in our courses and the advanced research and analytical skills that we teach in our graduate programs. (I see this as the promise of design studies, even if it has yet to be widely realized as such.)

I know from first-hand experience that our work as scholars does not always fit easily within the academic frameworks favored by designers. However, on the basis of the impressive body of scholarship that our discipline has produced over the past decades, we can now push for a more equitable role in design education that will benefit designers and design historians alike. In particular, we are ideally suited to offer exactly that broader perspective on design that Clive discusses in his letter and to introduce into design schools a more intensive and wide-ranging discussion about the definition(s) and boundaries of design. At a moment when higher education increasingly emphasizes job training and the production of “useful” knowledge, few disciplines are better positioned than ours to articulate the value of the humanities from within a professional field such as design and thereby demonstrate a model of academic organization that truly connects fields and disciplines with a shared subject but divergent methods and aims. Despite the institutional challenges confronting design history, I believe that this is a moment of opportunity, when the particular strengths of our discipline – especially its inherent inter-connectedness with a wide range of other fields – make it well-suited to build bridges within an increasingly fractured academy.

Thanks again for the invitation to join this conversation. I look forward to continuing it here and at other venues.


Dear Vanni

Many thanks for initiating this interesting debate. I will use your five questions to formulate my observations and ideas.

1 Loss of importance of History of Design in Design Schools

As you rightly indicated, the situation in Eastern schools is radically different. Take Turkey for instance, where design history is developing steadily and the requirement for more research and researchers is increasing. The reason is obvious for me: Turkish industry is flourishing, this flourishing industry is becoming globalized, which leads it to compete internationally, and the international market and competition require new, innovative designs. This means a need for new schools and more education, specifically more design and more design education. (I have the feeling that this is also the case in India, China, Taiwan and Korea.) Therefore, I believe, there is a relatively direct correlation between the development of industry and development of design studies. In other words, while the West may have reached a saturation point in terms of design and design publications and public interest may well be shifting towards other issues, the East has only recently discovered the importance of design and placed it first in their list of priorities. Consequently, decreased importance of design history could have a geographical aspect in line with the changing roles of countries in a globalized world.

2 The autonomy of History of Design

I am not entirely sure what we mean by ‘autonomy of the History of Design’. If it means that design history is a discipline and has its own domain, which requires different methods research tools and theoretical frameworks, and has its own field of study, aims and objectives then I agree. In addition, although I agree, I am also aware that there will hardly be a consensus on the boundary,description and definition of what I called its ‘domain’ as well as on the concept of its ‘autonomy’.

When it comes to Design History’s relationship with other ‘histories’, however, I personally encounter a minefield of overlapping territories. Even if we specify and limit it as History of Industrial Design, its connection with social and political history, history of technology, consumption, etc. becomes intrinsic and constitutes the inseparable core of its essence. Therefore, I prefer the term ‘relative autonomy’ as it offers a kind of flexibility and allows more room for maneuver.

3 Teaching History of design

Much was said about that and good remarks were made. As long as the aims of the educational programmes and expected outcomes are well expressed and stated in a given curriculum, the content and the methods of design history can be tailored accordingly. What I would like to emphasize is this: creativity in teaching. We encourage our students to be creative, yet we should be more creative than them when we teach design and when we design the curricula. In the world of action that we live in today, like in a Tarantino film, words like ‘proactive’, ‘effective’ or ‘dynamic’ are insufficient to portray the pace one has to work at when teaching is concerned.

4 The difficulty in appreciating History

This could be a cultural issue and probably derives from the pre-university education system. I believe trends are also important. A few years ago, when dinosaurs were made popular via media, films and toys, museums were packed with children. This, inevitably, also evokes interest in the natural sciences. Similarly, we grew up with great films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra and Doctor Zhivago so we began to read more history, while post-war cinema, documentaries, memorials and films on WW II, have certainly raised historical consciousness in the second half of the 20th Century. Thus, it appears that the ‘Zeitgeist’ of any era (which is also probably highly manipulated and manufactured by various sectors today) is one of the formative factors for determining current interests.

5 Education of Design Historians

There are only a few MA and PhD Design programs running in various universities in Turkey. Since some industrial design departments were established in faculties of architecture in the 1990s, it has become possible to study for a PhD in Design in these faculties, provided that you find the right supervisor. For example, I completed my PhD on design historiography (probably the first of its kind in Turkey) in a faculty of architecture thanks to a supervisor who is a Professor of Art History. Nowadays, we have several young academicians who hold PhDs awarded by well-established universities in countries like the UK, Sweden, Holland and the USA.

Meanwhile, the number of industrial design (ID) departments in Turkey has increased drastically in recent years so that we now have 24 ID departments across the country (though mostly concentrated in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir), and 17 of them were established in the last 10 years. Understandably, parallel to the rise of ID departments, the need for qualified design studio tutors and design historians has also escalated.

Grace Lees-Maffei has indicated the need for a conference on this matter at the end of her message. If her suggestion receives a positive response from those who are participating in this debate, we can organize it under 4T. As you might know, ‘4T’ is shorthand for the Turkish Design History Society, which has organized annual conferences since 2006. In the last two years, we have begun to call this series of conferences ‘5T’, with this year’s conference theme being Gendered Perspectives in Design. For more detail, you can check this website: http://conference5t.yasar.edu.tr/en/.

Kind regards

Dear Vanni Pasca

Thank you for your message and for kindly forward the fascinating messages from colleagues about the purpose and practice of design history.

As Kjetil Fallan pointed out, some of my take on this has recently been published in an article I co-wrote with DJ Huppatz:
Lees-Maffei, G. and D. J. Huppatz. ‘Why Design History? A Multi-National Perspective on the State and Purpose of the Field,’ Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 12, no. 3 (July 2013). http://ahh.sagepub.com/content/early/recent and attached.
There we argue that design history needs to secure its future by working to strengthen its existence as a research subject—there is work to be done in convincing research funding bodies that work in design history should be funded, for example—as well as developing pedagogically. One way to do this is to continue to strive to produce research of the best quality while also working to make links with allied fields. While I agree that design history should not be purely instrumental, I also feel lucky to work with designers in training. My professionalism as a design historian is marked by my dual purpose: delivering the best possible education for my design students and delivering the best possible research outputs for the international design history community and interested students, teachers and researchers from other fields.
The former depends not only on the content with which we as teachers engage students, but also on the skills we teach them. I am tasked with delivering modules not in design history, but in ‘Critical and Cultural Studies’ in which any history I deliver needs to be made explicitly relevant to students’ practice. I am convinced of the value of historical understanding for designers, and for society as a whole, but I don’t think history itself should be the subject of preservationism! My goal as a teacher is to equip my students with a reference library (of contemporary and past designers and designs, and rich texts some of which I included in The Design History Reader) that will intrigue and inspire them, but also to send my graduates out into the design world (or other profession where they can apply what they have learned) equipped with the skills they need to be lifelong learners: a questioning stance, selectivity in gathering information sources, critical analysis, synthesis, skills of argument, ownership of their informed opinions and the ability to express their ideas in clear, convincing writing and speech. All of these skills will be as useful to them as designers, or in whichever other career they may pursue, as their knowledge of Art Nouveau or the Bauhaus.
I do think there is scope for an international seminar or conference on the purpose and practice of design history and I would certainly like to be involved.

With best wishes,

Dear all,
Just to try to take further this very interesting discussion.

  1. The problem of the “loss” of the history of design in studio design programs is also in part a result of the breakdown of the modern design project and the idea of the autonomous design discipline. To put this in perspective, before the 1960s and early 1970s the history of design re a specific discipline would scarcely be taught in design schools–at least one would have had courses in history of art/architecture with some design thrown in. The history of specific fields emerges in 1970s … but already by the 1980s, and certainly today these specific fields are breaking down … they no longer constitute coherent entities and as such it gets harder to “see” their history –while the relevant history would change its identity in many cases, focusing less on the autonomy on the discipline and more on the factors that now bear on these fields (factors that they themselves do not understand but also factors that most “design historians” do not understand–this was partly a point that Victor Margolin made as I recall).
  2. The loss of history is cultural, I would even say is deliberate–politically and economically deliberate. This is not at elite level, where one finds a limited vigor in history now busily re-writing it to confirm to the new inequalities. This is translated, in popular culture, into the success of costume drama’s such as Downton Abbey (aristocracy “upstairs-downstairs” c.1912-1920s) –appearing in the UK just as the coefficient of inequality in that benighted land has gone back to 1927.
  3. So the major problem in schools of design is not just lack of the history of design but lack of historical understanding per se. But this applied also to the history of design itself–which in general shows no interest whatsoever in contributing to historical understanding, above all to the understanding of historical capitalism to which (via industrialization) it owes its phenomenal existence. “Cultural Studies” have here become a kind of alibi for history and economics.
  4. It might be argued that the other reason for the “difficulty” we have with history now is that we have not recognized a shift in the historical paradigm. History as history of design arrived at the fag-end of modernism, almost coincident (to the year-1973!) when we can identify the beginning of all those developments that mark the end of the European “social-democratic” century (and the very brief “American century”!) and the onset of a new “global” world as we call it in which almost none of the assumptions of that prior history are sustained … In fact one can now begin to see that since 1945 we have been living through a long historical watershed in which the artificial becomes the horizon and medium of global economic, technical and symbolic existence. The world we are now moving into therefore breaks as decisively with the C20th as early modernity did with traditional society. To be sure there are illusions of continuity=-“design”–is now even one of them, “modern art” another. But the crucial developments are elsewhere. What is therefore now required is a history–or rather set of histories–that deal with this new condition. We need different histories of the c20th–not least because, as we know, one of the most decisive aspects of the shift since 1945/55 is that to the break with the past that the 1840s represented (“to be modern is know what cannot be done again”: Barthes) we now face the break with the future. There can be no history of now that does begin from that break (first represented by the H-bomb and now by the unsustainable). To put history back into un-sustainment, while recovering design in its capabilities as an agency potentially exceeding its (limited) industrial-capitalist roles, is the task of new history–not the mindless celebration of its coming to be “all” that disfigures a new series of design theory books (most of themselves indicate the necessity for design to be given historical perspective such that those who wish to claim it and operate within it and “as” it, have at least some minimal comprehension of the structures determining its emergence, possibilities and limits.

    Thank you for connecting me in on this debate.

    Best wishes
    Clive Dilnot

Dear friends, in attachment you find some letters of Susan Yalovitch, Vicor Margolin, Kjetil Fallan, Anna Calvera and me.

In November I met in New York Susan and we discussed about History of Design. After that encounter I wrote a letter to some friends. All their letters are here attached. Now I send that letters to you hoping we can go forward with this debate. Anyway I try here to summarize what in my opinion are the main points of the discussion.

  1. I insist that there is a loss of importance of History of Design in Design Schools. Many of us think that it depends upon the hegemony of technical and managerial culture. Fallon says that there is a better situation in Eastern Schools (it would be interesting to have more information about that).
  2. I deeply agree with Fallon about the autonomy of History of Design and against reducing H. of D. only to a tool for projecting (of course it can be useful to designers for their project.).
  3. About Teaching History of design: Historical or Modal way? Or both for graduating students and only Historical for the first courses?
  4. Susan remarks the difficulty in appreciating History from the young people. I insist that there is a loss of importance of History in general in postmodern culture and this influences also our schools.
  5. In AIS/Design (the Italian Society of Design Historians) we are discussing about education of Design Historians. In Italy there aren’t master or Ph.D. for education of Historians of Design.

    Here I have summarized what it seems to me the main points of the discussion but the letters are much richer. I hope we can go on in this discussion.

    Many thanks and hearing from you soon.

    Chairman of AIS/Design
    Vanni Pasca

I’ve enjoyed this conversation very much–thanks, Vanni, for including me.

It wasn’t until this year, thanks to the phd-design list, that I realized that design history was in a period of retrenchment in Britain. I was surprised, because I have the strong impression from attending both NASAD* and CAA** that design history is being offered at more institutions in the US now than ever before, and that as a field it is growing here. (*NASAD = National Ass’n of School of Art and Design, the primary accrediting agency for design programs in the USA; ** CAA = College Art Association, the primary professional organization for artists and art historians in the US)

However, I think the instrumentalist impulse is very strong in the US. Even though I resist the idea that my function is to “serve” the design programs, that’s probably how many of my colleagues and students understand my role. And realistically, if I didn’t “serve” those programs in some way, I would probably be out of a job, since 90% of the people enrolled in my design history courses are design students. So even though I teach my courses to suit my own standards and goals (which are humanistic/historical), I try to acknowledge in the first class period of each semester the fact that many of my students expect my course to help them be better designers in some way. In my graphic design history class, I do this with a PowerPoint slide that literally says “Why will this course be useful to you?” and I list five reasons:

  1. It will give you a stronger grasp of historical chronology;
  2. It may help you clarify your own design philosophy and style, if you’re a designer;
  3. It will help you become a more astute critic of your own and others’ work;
  4. You can mine history for ideas, and make coy references to past design in your own work;
  5. You will get a better sense of how your own work fits into the history of the profession.

In the history of industrial design course, I ask “Why bother?” and (I just realized) list five somewhat different reasons:

  1. According to the first president of the Royal Academy, “The great use of studying our predecessors is to open the mind, to shorten our labour, and to give us the result of the selection made by those great minds of what is grand or beautiful in nature.” In other words, if you’re a designer, you can steal ideas from the past.
  2. You won’t look like an idiot for claiming you’re doing something new, when you aren’t.
  3. You can impress people at cocktail parties by dropping designer names and quoting pithy aphorisms (this is tongue-in-cheek, but also somewhat earnest, and not so different in spirit from Anna’s answer that you need to show that you are educated when you are at a job interview)
  4. You will be a better informed human being, generally, and probably a more thoughtful consumer and designer as well.
  5. You will learn how to do scholarly research, which comes in handy in most professions.

These instrumentalist rationales are not so different from what Clive says in his syllabus, and they would likely work as rejoinders to Susan’s student, who is probably looking for an instrumentalist sort of answer, but who might not be satisfied with Kjetil’s apt point that “Of course designers can benefit from a better knowledge of design history. Most (additional) knowledge would make designers better designers.”

The balance one must strike, I think, is between satisfying the students who want to be “served” with instrumentalist knowledge, and providing a humanistic education that urges students to be more thoughtful cultural critics…because I absolutely agree with Kjetil’s point that “researching, writing, and teaching that history should be done on historians’ terms, not on those of designers (to be).” I’m realizing that the way I’ve been striking that balance is a bit dishonest: on the first day I give my students an instrumentalist rationale for why they should take (and like) my classes, and then I forge ahead by teaching the courses in ways that satisfy my own humanistic goals. Either my students haven’t noticed, or they’ve been finding enough value in the classes (whether instrumental or not) that they haven’t complained.

Anyway, thanks, everyone, for continuing this conversation. It’s been fun hearing from you all. (And Anna, as an aside, I loved your comment about the ISO standards: you’re right, they may be the only standards of “good design” we have left!)


Dear all
How a nice conversation, and how lucky I am tohave been invited to participate!
By now, there are many questions in the fore and so, I don’t know if it is best to answer through only one mail or rather use some more.

Concerning the practical uses of Design History lectures, I enjoyed very much Susan’s surprise on how to answer a student asking why he/she has to know all those old things. Many time ago –by mid nineties– a student put the same question to me. My answer came to me very quickly: I said to him that to know the history of his own profession,a n be able to talk about it fluently and normally, could help him to not look like a football player if sometime somebody interviews him. It was not a “classist” naswer –at last, I hope so!–. In fact, at that time I was already tired and bored of TV’s interviews to football players and sport people –I am stil tired of them and even more bored as far as everyweek all the players says exactly the same whatever the team, the match or the player: just a role?–. IN any case, it was the last time that a student asked about the use of learning history of design, design theory or other theoreticals discourses about design. On the contrary, some years later, just after the first leson of the course, another student came to me to explain that he had decided at that moment to became a “cultivated” man and he asked if reading The Quijote was a good way to start. Of course, I said yes, but I added “you have to laugh in the comic scenes. Perhaps, Susan, that can comfort you a little bit.

This is an introduction to dialogue also with Kjetil and Vanni. If I did understand their words rightly, these anecdotes bring me to another question which makes the role of Design History in the Design Schools even more complicated. To put the question in that way is, as Kjetil pointed at, a very instrumental approach of knowledge and culture; it is true, but it also forces to think about the nature of design and if so, its relationship with cultural standards and the cultural relevance of its outcomes. I am pointing directly to this new way of defining good design and quality standards of design because they are good solutions “culturally relevant”; not just practical comfortable and profitable as normal design has to be. This is a theoretical objective to have in mind when teaching Design History to people who would like to become designers.

When I started teaching Design History, the course have another goal clearly defined: to display the best modern movement proposals, its roots and its heritage, and contemporary best example too; and then, to convince students that they have to like this proposals and appreciate its quality. Discussions were always interesting –I live in the country where Lladró, the company making porcelain figurines, is born–. At that time, the idea of Good Design was clear, universally accepted and it has a style, an orthodoxy and an heterodoxy –in Spain, by 1977, we called the heterodoxy “Disueño”, and the Orthodoxy, Diseño. Disueño refers both to dreams and to sleep. Then, the evolution of Design and of Design History put this idea, and all the Good Design standards, topsy-turvy. Now, almost theoretically, we don’t have anymore a reference of what good applied to design means, and what are the standards of quality beyond the Iso Norms.
Vanni considered that strategical thinking, the mixing of design with management and marketing has turned discourse on design, and the worries design is facing by now. I think this one should be a subject for design history nowadays: to use criticism again and try to cnsider what the dscourse of quality should be in a world here there are trends instead of universal styles, where the challenge is to manage a lot of proposals at the same time. Is it again the idea of mosaic? The same question can be put both on the ethic and the aesthetic domain of design.

My question on the quality basis for current design is made also thinking on the students who don’t pass their exams for quality reasons. A very practical question, nowadays, who needs knowledge to be applied.

I am afraid the mail is too long by now… but I am enjoying very much the conversation!

I am also afraid this reflexion will not satisfy Kjetil and Victor very much. It is still instrumental and done from a Design Schools standing. Does it really concerns History?
I also agree than within Design History the hard weight of the narrative / narratives is driven by history itself: it gaves methods, theory and rigour standards, and also a specific style of writing. But it is to be signaled as a very opportunity for the discipline that so many designers had decided to research and write history as well. They use their practical knowledge to understand designs made by others and generate design theory which rises from their explanations. This is very worth as well: I remember a doctoral dissertation where I was jury. An architect talked about a specific movement of recent past architecture. It was really impressive his hability to classify the buildings he studied by the hole of the stairs…

Good night to every body. It is a conversation to be continued?


Anna Calvera

Caro Vanni; dear Susan; dear colleagues,

The place and role of design history in (design) education seems to be of concern to many these days. The European Academy of Design (EAD) Conference 2013, which will take place in Gothenburg in April, contains a track called “Design history as a tool for better design” (see the CfP here: http://www.craftingthefuture.se/papers/calledpaper7.html). As a firm believer in the intrinsic value of historical studies (be it of design or other phenomena), I am very uncomfortable with this approach to design history, an approach I consider to be highly instrumentalist. Partly as a response to the CfP for this track (convened by three eminent design historians, all based in design schools: Lasse Brunnström, Pekka Korvenmaa and Paul Atkinson), I wrote an essay titled “De-tooling Design History: To What Purpose and for Whom Do We Write?” where I voice my concern that design history might be too heavily depending on design schools and design education, at the risk of being marginalized in conventional university settings (Humanities). I then argue that in order to bolster design history as a solid academic endeavor, and if it is ever to make an impact on the broader field of history (as Victor calls for in the 2009 Design Issues article cited by Vanni), we must improve this balance (this is of course highly colored by my own position in a Faculty of Humanities rather than a design school). The essay will appear in Design and Culture 5(1) (March 2013), and I will also present a version of it at the EAD conference. So what is the role of design history in design education? As I write in the essay, in response to the CfP and the notion of design history as a tool for better design: “Of course designers can benefit from a better knowledge of design history. Most (additional) knowledge would make designers better designers. Just as I prefer a prime minister with at least a working knowledge of political history, I fully agree that design history should form part of the intellectual framework of designers. But researching, writing, and teaching that history should be done on historians’ terms, not on those of designers (to be).”

As to Vanni’s concern that design history’s place in the design schools seems to be threatened, there is another forthcoming study of direct relevance: Grace Lees-Maffei and D.J. Huppatz gave a paper on this issue at the ICDHS conference in Sao Paulo in September, and a longer article version will appear in a special issue (on creative and cultural arts in HE) of the journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education (vol. 12, no. 3, July 2013). They have done a multi-national survey, and argue that in some places – notably the UK – design history and other so-called “contextual studies” (itself a deeply problematic label, in my opinion) are in fact being disintegrated as self-contained departments/courses, but that the teaching of such topics are integrated into studio teaching. Crucially, however, this is not a universal situation – in other places, such as south-east Asia, there seems to be much enthusiasm for the place of design history in design education.

Regarding the structure of design history courses – chronological vs thematic – I do both. My introductory survey course has a conventional chronological structure, and I believe this is necessary for the students to learn the basics (also: my students in this course, mostly art history undergraduates, are used to this structure). As for more advanced courses, however, I favor a more thematic approach. My course “Design Culture: Ten Things” is, as the title implies, completely case-based, where we examine ten objects (one each week) as prisms to understand ten accompanying themes. My new course “Nordic Design since 1900” attempts to combine the two, focusing on key themes, but within a loosely chronological framework. I’d be very interested in hearing your views on and experiences with such different ways of structuring courses.

Sorry for rambling on, but it seemed appropriate to show Vanni that he is onto something here – thanks for including me.

Best wishes,

Dear Vanni and colleagues,

I am delighted to be included in this discussion re: history. And I agree with Vanni when he writes: “Presently I think that the problem is the domination of an absolutized technical thinking, both under the engeneering and the managerial points of view. I think it’s a general problem in present thinking.”

Also when he identifies strategic design as a factor compounding the problem of what histories to teach. I recently interviewed a student who is applying to Parsons MA in Design Studies program that I direct. And after explaining how we view design as a series of capacities, active in shaping and projecting futures, she asked: “Then why do I need to know about Art Nouveau or the Bauhaus or other aspects of design history?” I was momentarily stunned. When I recovered I said that these are the languages from which contemporary practice has evolved, in concert of course with philosophy, history, sociology etc. Still I find myself returning to her question frequently. Does one have to know design history to understand the work of today’s socially engaged practices (to cite just one example)?

I think the answer remains yes. But would appreciate hearing this debated at your next conference. In the meantime, and in closing, I’ve excerpted a passage (pasted in below) from my colleague Clive Dilnot’s syllabus for Discourses in Design as it combines both historiography and history in a way is very interesting. I also think Clive should be involved in these conversations, too, so I’ve cc’ed him on this email and hope that’s ok with him and with you.

Looking forward to future discussion, I send
best regards,

Excerpt from Discourses in Design Studies syllabus:

“In the context of this seminar, whose aim is to introduce students to the range and depth of design studies we will concentrate therefore on comparatively recent studies, contrasting these however with earlier reflections on design seen through the literature on craft, the decorative arts, architecture and drawing. The overall goal of the class is to be to give students sufficient context to the fields that now make up “design studies” such that they can begin to position themselves within the professional arena of design research and design thinking.”