Mekinda: On design history

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.