Abandoning History

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

A colleague and I are speaking at a conference in London at the end of October (on my birthday in fact). The conference is called ‘New Views’ and our paper, ‘Abandoning History’ is a case study looking at how we teach design history to graphic design students.
It’s shaping up okay and I’ll maybe post some excerpts up here nearer the time. The basic premise is that when graphic design started being taught as a degree subject all that happened to give it ‘academic legitimacy’ was courses imported design history staff to show a few slides of the great and the good, give some lectures on historical aretfacts, and then demand a few essays.
Hardly surprising that this part of the course is traditionally hated by everyone concerned.

So we’re proposing a few things. Firstly, that we abandon the idea of history as canons, heroes and artefacts and instead adopt what I’ve called ‘history-less history’ (or a Marxist view of history to be more precise – though I’ve found using the ‘M’ word seems to turn people off for some reason) which looks at history as a series of causes and effects with particular emphasis on the systems of production and consumption of design. This allows us to bring in social studies, cultural studies, psychology, audience studies, politics and issues that are often ignored: ethics and human ecology.

The second thing we’re proposing is that historical and critical studies is no longer taught by part-timers on hourly contracts, as is so often the case in the UK. The only result of this is that the subject never gets developed, staff have no commitment to their students’ ongoing progress (through no fault of their own) and studio staff and students naturally see it as a completely separate aspect of the course. If it’s so unimportant that staff are paid by the hour and only during term-time, it’s obviously not important at all. Design degrees need full-time H&CS staff who are available to the students at all times and seen in and around the studio. Sadly this rarely happens. No wonder students are still bored stiff with slide shows and ‘survey’ courses that are completely irrelevant to them.

My first draft of the paper was over 9,000 words long and I hadn’t even got to the case study! But there’s a lot to say and a lot of evidence to present. It would make an interesting book, that’s for sure. So last week I cut it down dramatically and it’s around 5,000 words now with the case studies and conclusion to add on. Next week we’re going to interview a few students for some quotations to illustrate our points and then we have to put it to bed, so to speak.

Anyway, last week while I was struggling with how to explain my model for a production-consumption approach to design history I stumbled upon the diagram below. Actually, I’d seen this last year and remembered at the time how I thought it closely resembled what I was trying to do. Then I promptly forgot about it!
Now it’s going in the paper and, as I’ve just spent an hour in OmniGraffle trying to redraw it I thought I’d post it here for those who are interested. Click on the thumbnail to open the full version.
I think it’s rather interesting and it shows the interconnectedness of different aspects of the curriculum. I’m going to try to update it and add some examples (for instance, educating students about how choices about ink and paper have a huge effect on the environment, discussions of the ethics of branding and globalisation etc). I’m going to give a version of this out to first years in a couple of weeks to help explain what we mean by ‘design history’.

Source: ‘Design History and the History of Design’ by John Walker (1989) London: Pluto Press

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