What is Design History?

Sunday, October 2nd, 2005

I’ve been working on the diagram I posted last week to try to present it in a more aesthetically pleasing way (I think the old one’s a little confusing) and to make it more immediately relevant to my own students. I’ve also added in some elements that are covered in the course I teach – government regulation, the recycling of ideas and the role of ‘heroes’ or ‘stars’ in the design process. I haven’t added globalisation in there yet – it seems to belong in every section both as a positive and a negative.

The amended diagram as it stands today is below. Click for a bigger version (the colours are a bit washed out in the GIF reduction). Any suggestions on changes/additions greatly received. (If you want a version for your own use, let me know and I’ll take the text out from the top).

I’m also working on a model of my own but for now the Walker model (or my version of it) will do. I’m hoping to get colour versions printed up for the first session with the first years next week in which we ask them to say what they think the course will cover. I think they’ll be surprised to find that ‘design history’ consists of very little ‘history’ – at least in the traditional sense.

All this leads me to answering a question I was asked last week: how would you approach introducing historical and critical studies to a new group of students, most of whom aren’t British and most of whom probably have the idea that it has little, if anything, to do with learning graphic design.

Well first I’d ask them the question: what is ‘historical and critical studies’? Let the students offer up their ideas about what the phrase means. Typical responses I’ve had in the past range from simply ‘theory’, to ‘how design works’. A large number of responses revolve around ‘teaching us how to be critical’ and ‘learning about who the best designers were’ – this being an interesting misinterpretation of the phrase ‘critical studies’.

Asked why they think they are ‘made’ to study H&CS, responses in the past have included ‘to make the course a degree’ and ‘to make us more employable’.

Recent research in the UK* offers a useful set of categories with which to view student responses. It derives four hierarchical categories of student conception with the highest (category A) being students who see an almost unquestionable link between ‘theory’ and practice – to such an extent that the interrelationship is difficult to articulate.

The next category sees a clear relationship, and finds theory interesting, but sees no integration. I’d suggest that this is the fault of the separated design curriculum, which often allows for no integration between the two aspects of history/theory and practice, resulting in the predominance of category B responses that could so easily be category A.

Category C students see a value for theory, but only in terms of adding academic legitimacy (‘it makes the course a proper degree’ being a typical response to my question, distinguishing it from a ‘cutting, sticking, gluing, painting sort of degree’ as one of the respondents to the research put it) or to employability (as another one put it: ‘instead of saying oh you make dresses don’t you? Oh it’s a fashion designer we think, with the honours, the dissertation, she can read and write as well … that little extra academic cherry on the top of the cake’).

The lowest order of response (Category D) sees theory as a distraction from practice, failing to see any value in it whatsoever, and criticising the amount of time spent on it that could be spent on practical work.

An important question arises from this, one I think we’re avoiding: why do students who see no value in H&CS sign up for degrees in the first place? This is not a criticism of the students, but of the system that either signs them up to courses they are likely to be immensely dissatisfied with, or that fails to provide alternatives. Category D students may excel in other areas, but are likely to present themselves to H&CS staff as ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ students, and suffer accordingly. Accepting students on to a course they are likely to fail, or be disaffected with, seems somewhat irresponsible and it would be interesting to look at how courses are marketed and whether H&CS is seen as important enough to be a consideration in offering a place. It’s noticeable that few, if any, design courses seem to involve H&CS staff in the selection process. If courses don’t take H&CS seriously, (even ‘nodding through’ students that fail it) it’s hardly surprising some students don’t either.

This latter point came up in a meeting I had last week with representatives from the AV media industries. They’re planning on ‘validating’ media degrees in the UK that meet industry-stipulated standards in terms of the skills and knowledge given to students. Now, I can hear the complaints from academia already – it’s industry’s job to train its employees, not the tax-payers, and it’s shortsighted of industry not to see the value of academic approaches to the critique and study of its own practices. In other industries, medicine, physics, geography, earth sciences, law etc, it is universities that lead research and understanding. Turning university courses into training workshops risks stagnating the industry as all the innovation would be left in the hands of a few companies – a dangerous situation for consumers, society and industry itself.

However, they had a good point: a lot of students are signing up to media studies degrees thinking they are quick routes into the industry when in fact they’re more like ‘cultural studies’ degrees but given a far more ‘saleable’ badge. It’s mis-selling, and that’s why ‘Category D’ students end up on degrees and dismiss the part of the course that is actually probably the most important.

As I put it in an interview last week, and countless times on this blog, it’s the difference between learning how to ‘do’ graphic design and ‘being’ a graphic designer. I don’t see the point in forcing a student who just wants to learn Photoshop to learn about the ethics surrounding digital manipulation. Nor do I see the point in a student who wants to understand the ethics and practices of the profession and learn Photoshop from being prevented from doing so by having their learning disrupted by students who’d be better off somewhere else.

There should be (and are) courses for both ambitions. The trouble is degrees mis-sell themselves to get ‘bums on seats’, and industry is pressuring degree courses to ditch the thinking for the doing because it can’t be bothered to stump up the cash to train its own damned workforce.

Mmm… I seem to have strayed from the point somewhat. Or have I? Because I see this discussion as being another essential aspect of design history, as shown in the diagram: the role of education, training and industry bodies. It’s a debate which bubbles to the surface every so often, and increasingly so. This year, for example, at least four of my third year students are undertaking dissertations which look at this area.

If industry got its way they’d be told to shut up and learn how to use the Page Curl filter, or something equally ‘useful’.

*Pritchard, T, Heatly, R, Trigwell, K (2005). “How art, media and design students conceive of the relation between the dissertation and practice.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 4(1): 5-15.


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