Fallan: On design history

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,