Gorman: On design history

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!)