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Pedagogy Design History page 2

 
 

Design History
It was the early 1980s that the first national conference on Design History was held at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Interest in Design History as an integral part of curriculum was strongly reinforced by the fact that the most notable graphic designers of the past have been well versed in art and design history. Some institutions such as The Museum of Modern Art and Walker Art Center had significant collections, curators and publications devoted to design. There have been few with sufficient interest to educate themselves in the history of design, and for the most part, these individuals were studio instructors or practicing designers. The history of type and printing was well documented with many persons being extremely knowledgeable about the origins and evolution of type, printing and related subjects. There can be little question but what interest in graphic design history sprang directly or indirectly from involvement with type and printing history. However, within the educational context of graphic design, there was a vacuum insofar as design and type history were concerned. At the time, most programs were in advertising design where there was more concern for lettering than for typography and printing production. Alvin Eisenman at Yale during the early 1950s was responsible for the most significant introduction of type and printing history into graphic design curriculum. Graduates from Yale who entered teaching took the historical orientation with them. They incorporated it into their courses, and from there, it spread to other graphic design programs.

With the publication of Philip Meggs’ book, The History of Graphic Design, and following that first conference on design history, numerous books on the subject have now been published about designers, design periods or styles. Many educational programs currently include Design History in some form or another. Sometimes it is a lecture course, other times it is annual lectures or historical research as part of class work. Some teachers show slides in conjunction with studio work.

Students enrolling in graphic design programs are woefully ignorant of the history of type, printing, design, art and contemporary designers. This has been true for as long as I have been teaching. Particularly at universities, administration has been remiss in recognizing the need for Design History, establishing courses or creating faculty lines to instruct in Design History. Recently, my concern has been regarding what form Design History might take in the future. I would not like to see it relate to design as Art History now relates to the fine arts. At most institutions, Art History is totally separate from studio courses with little or no interaction between the two. In some instances, Art History has been removed from the college or school of art and put into the humanities. There are strong indications that a number of design historians and journals are currently following patterns set by art historians. This is happening to some extent because a few art historians have converted from art to design, and they have brought their values and practices with them to the new discipline. The influence of art historians is strongly reflected in the new design journals through emphasis on research, theory or sociological issues rather than on professional practice. Many articles border on the esoteric and have little to contribute to the betterment of graphic design as a profession. For these reasons, there should be a distinction between design history and design orientation.


History vs. Orientation
Design History deals with the evolution of design, the chronological progression of design, designers and their works, theory, philosophies of design, historical context for design within periods and places, relationships between graphic design and the other art or design fields, cultural impact of design, etc. Graphic design history should be taught as separate lecture classes, and there should be an initial overall survey class with several additional specialized courses. The survey course might include other design fields such as industrial, interior, environmental, etc
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Graphic design orientation should be viewed as an integral part of the studio program. Design History deals with evolution, context, influences, personages, etc. While Design Orientation includes some of the same information, it deals more specifically with critical analysis of design work. My experience has been that the introduction of type and design history is most effective when related to or taught in conjunction with studio work. When history is related to studio activities, students have more vested interests in the information, they are more attentive and seem to better retain the information.

I see three principal areas where Design Orientation would greatly enrich the educational experience. The first being at the introductory level when students are working with abstract theoretical exercises. The majority of students working on design exercises do not understand why or what they are doing. The lack of understanding affects their commitment and productivity. The introduction of slides showing practical work by designers, photographers, painters or architects that illustrate the theoretical principles students are exploring is an immense boost to student understanding. With comprehension comes the interest, commitment and productivity.

For instructors to make the best use of resources in the slide libraries will require librarians to adopt somewhat different attitudes and practices than have been traditionally associated with use of visual resources. To encourage faculty to make more use of slides, they should be assisted, even subsidized, to make copies from the library that they keep in their own offices. Most slide librarians want teachers to check out and return slides and this is enough of a hindrance in itself to reduce use of visual information in the studio. The making of slides from materials selected by teachers needs to be facilitated as much as possible in terms of cost, time, and availability. The role of slide librarians and the use of slide libraries needs to be re-examined.

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