Balcioglu: On design history

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:

Kind regards