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What is Useful History?

A challenge to my “Who Made the Marks?” post by Kenneth Fitzgerald argues that a. the post was calling simply for a who’s who list and that b. history is not merely a list of names and accomplishments, but issues and ideas. Thomas Gleason followed up with a call for “Useful History,” that which excites the spirit and tells us who we are and where we’ve come from, etc. Although my intent in posting was not to create another top ten or “whose your favorite typographer”, I agree with Mr. Gleason that proposing names with scant analysis does not “excite the spirit,” or tell a meaningful story.

So what is “Useful History?” And under this rubric how does graphic design history stand up?

For those who care (and I admit that it is somewhat arcane even within the design field) about history as more than just a collection of style sheets, it is a large topic, easily filling a web forum unto itself - if one had the time and energy). But given the points raised in Fitzgerald’s and Gleason’s responses it is perhaps worth throwing out some personal notions about our history.

History starts as a fundamental need to chronicle and understand context (it can also become a manipulative mythology). Graphic design history can be organized into various contexts: Professional, cultural, social, aesthetic, ethnic, gender. But we are, after all, a profession born of economic prerequisites, which doesn’t necessarily make for a exciting history. Yet the rationales for building the profession from printers to advertising agents to commercial artists, etc. is a necessary foundation to understand.

Mr. Fitzgerald cites Ellen Mazur Thomson’s The Origins of Graphic Design in America (an excellent insightful account of the nuts and bolts of nascent design practice and the trade periodicals that fostered design as separate entity), which offers us an unconventional history insofar as its not about 20th century milestones. The fact is most design histories focus on the 20th century - and especially modernism - because it is when commercial art merged with other arts. Graphic design historians feel more comfortable juxtaposing the profession with the heroic art movements of this era because it makes for a more exciting story. I know this is somewhat simplistic, but isn’t it more inspiring to know that our forbears were the great visual revolutionaries (even though they were also the sho-card writers and jobbing printers as well)?

Our history suffers from at least two major deficiencies. 1. There are very few trained historians who cover this field, which means very few solid theses, papers and books provide in depth analysis of the key intersections between design and technology or design and politics or design and morees or design and stereotypes. There are few publishers who are willing to seriously support such efforts (and few grant foundations that will as well). 2. This means that graphic design history is only cursorily taught in most schools (if there are courses at all), and when they are trained history teachers do not exist. And this incidentally is not a new complaint, it dates back to the first symposium on the subject at RIT, when Massimo Vignelli called for serious design historical study.

Which was all well and good to call for it (and inspired a few people too), but what kind of history was called for?

Compiling the great names and putting them in halls of fame is not history per se, but it starts the ball rolling. Once rolling, however, what do we write about them? How are they integrated into larger stories? Who determines who are the great names? At what point are these names used as portals onto bigger themes? What makes this useful and to whom? And can graphic design history be more than remembrances of figureheads?

I recently proposed in an unrealistic blue-sky-kind-of-way that my school (SVA) institute a parallel three to four year design history track that coincided with the studio classes and intersected as often as appropriate. Actually, this in not as far-fetched as it sounds because it could incorporate liberal arts requirements insofar as reading, analysis, discussion, research, etc. would be required. The integration comes in as students are learning how to practice typography, technology, conceptual problem solving, etc. It could serve to enhance the learning and practical experiences.

Graphic Design History should serve the profession on one hand, and inform other cultural, social, aesthetic histories, on the other. That’s what it should do, but what it will do until there is widespread acceptance of the discipline outside our ghetto, is simply reinforce our professional aspirations. Which, by the way is not a bad thing. Its useful for designers to know the history of style. I don’t disagree that it is like knowing airplane markings, or that much of our facts are useless unless underscoring certain theoretical discourse, but taking these “little steps” is not totally without merit.

For now, perhaps the best contribution we can make to build a substantive graphic design history is identifying those (often) arcane areas that actually do have greater resonance and make sure they are seriously addressed and integrated into our professional and cultural lives.

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ARCHIVE ID 1724 FILED UNDER Design Academics
PUBLISHED ON Jan.16.2004 BY steve heller
Darrel’s comment is:

What was the question? ;o)

That's what it should do, but what it will do until there is widespread acceptance of the discipline outside our ghetto, is simply reinforce our professional aspirations.

Does it really matter outside the profession? I honestly can't say I'm well versed in the history of plumbing, but I'm sure plumbers are.

Perhaps one issue with graphic design is that it's a very temporary medium. Most people consume graphic design not for pleasure, but as consumers. Specific Music/Films/etc. tend to remain as part of our daily lives and mark points to remember in our own personal histories, while graphic design is quickly forgotten. Pick a year in highschool. I bet you can name a film you saw and a handful of albums that defined that year for you. Even as graphic designers, can we remember the typeface trends of that year?

I'm not sure if I'm really going anywhere with this so, I'll just end this post now. ;o)

On Jan.16.2004 at 09:20 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Does it really matter outside the profession?

(Darrel, this is not a comment directly at you). I am constantly saddened by this cry, that nobody besides designers cares. I don't completely disagree with the concern and clearly the general public doesn't give a shit whether we talk about Saul Bass instead of some high-tootin' design theory. But when designers, the ones who are supposed to care about it don't care then it's worrysome. I'll spare you all the complete rant, but what I would like to say on this point is what happens when they do start caring about graphic design, and say we want to know more about your profession? What will we say then? We thought you didn't care, so we stopped trying and now we have nuthin'? It may be utopian wishful thinking, but c'mon, let's not use this they don't care slogan as an excuse to not try harder or to feel mediocre or to do crappy work or, worse, to not care ourselves.

> So what is “Useful History?” And under this rubric how does graphic design history stand up?

Personally, I'm fulfilled with what has been done so far. Granted, I've only been seriously interested by design history the last year and a half (don't ask why I didn't start before). So, like Steve commented on the Who Made the Marks thread, I am just getting over that first tier of… what are we calling it? Aircraft definitions? Whatever. Point being that without that it would be next to impossible to start questioning design history, whether that is good or bad is I guess the question being asked. In general the lack of interest, even within designers, prevents its history to be further developed or researched.

> For those who care [...] about history as more than just a collection of style sheets, it is a large topic, easily filling a web forum unto itself - if one had the time and energy).

Yes, more design blogs!

On Jan.16.2004 at 11:04 AM
Paul’s comment is:

One way to contextualize graphic design history to increase its "usefulness" might be to track the evolution of the relationship between content/function and style/form, and how this tug-of-war relates directly to production technologies. This could be as much a history of commerce and economics as it would be of design. (And questions of "who cares?" would surely become less noisome.)

For example, I'm pretty sure Aldus Manutius either invented or popularized Italic type in the 1500s. Fitting more words on the page is certainly a useful, money-saving advantage of Italics, but was this what was driving his thinking, or were the influences acting on him more stylistic? Did the pages saved by setting the book in italics mean lighter books that could be distributed more easily? Did the Dante editions that he published in this manner contribute significantly to the acceptance of the Italian vernacular in writing and have measurable social impact? I'm stretching here, I know, but my point is that the more a history of design can be shown to be a true cultural history, and not just "remembrances of figureheads", the more useful it will be. Both to ourselves and to the greater understanding of what graphic design is and does.

Does anybody remember that PBS show Connections? It showed the linkages between apparently disparate historical events in a very informative/entertaining way. Apply that sort of thinking to a survey of design and I'm sure you'd wind up with a quite different, more broadly interesting history.

On Jan.16.2004 at 11:16 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

But when designers, the ones who are supposed to care about it don't care then it's worrysome.

I agree with that. Certainly any industry should be self-aware of its own history. In college, we didn't have design history per se, but we had plenty of art history and our design professors were quite good at making sure that graphic design history was a part of all our design classes. Is this not the case in a lot of art schools?

On Jan.16.2004 at 11:25 AM
Tan’s comment is:

History without thorough context is not meaningless, but devoid of real value. By context, I refer to all the things you've mentioned, as well as first-hand accounts from clients, employees, family members. All the facets of relationships, professional as well as personal, that influenced the person to create the work.

The best example I can think of this is Ken Burn's PBS series of Frank Lloyd Wright. I've never seen a more comprehensive portrayal of the man and his work. It makes you understand his work, even if you don't know squat about architecture.

As to the issue about who cares outside our profession -- I don't agree w/ the insinuation. Designers aren't insular freaks of nature. This is not theoretical math or some obscure discipline that's unattainable by the common mass. It's a matter of finding relevance to the history and profession. The PBS series NOVA does an amazing job of humanizing brainiac physicists and mathmeticians, making you care about their obscure, cryptic line of work. If Hawking can sell millions of copies of A Brief History of Time, then why can't Phaidon do the same with a Heller book?

On Jan.16.2004 at 11:40 AM
brook’s comment is:

i think a lot of young designers are getting into the profession for the wrong reason. or maybe not for the wrong reasons, but for not really knowing what they are getting into. i'm sure most of us were actually guilty of this. my point is that there aren't many people saying, "I really like studying history, and the history of visual communications is what I want to spend the next four years studying." they may come to this conclusion at some point later in their career, though. as a profession, graphic design has a lot of different interests, education levels, skill levels, theories, etc. many students set out to just get a two year degree and think that graphic design is just knowing the software. it can be (and is) more than that, but not to them. they just have a way to get a job that they think is kinda cool. hey i make pictures and get paid for it! kinda like art class! i think that is fine, but it is that which frustrates the people who really care about the whys and hows and whens of their life. how do we get more people to care? maybe it's too easy to be a "designer."

On Jan.16.2004 at 01:48 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I really have to get going, but Brook makes a good comment here, which brings up an interest in the mechanisms of development in the individual's mind for design. As a type of "history", it might be useful to articulate biographically certain "stages" of development of conceptual processes. From a collection of such biographies, we might discover universal laws of development. If it is true, as I think is the case, that the development of a designer's mind is a logical progression of stages of cognitive abiilty (as in Piaget), then perhaps we can do a better job of understanding what students need in order to develop.

On Jan.16.2004 at 02:30 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Mr. Heller:

It keeps getting better and better.

I'll take full credit for the NAME CALLING.

While I don't take it personally. I will take all of the blame.

By the way, how did you know Airline Identity was

my favorite area of Corporate Identity?

Without being to Philosophical

Seriously, when I first began to learn and research Design History, approximately 1974.

I learned via Style. Whom did what.

The only way to learn Design History, because nothing was written.

One had to research Design and Advertising Annuals. Schools weren't much help.

As a kid in the 1960s my mother had Top Value

Stamp Books. (Rockwell Covers)At the same time, we had Saturday Evening Post,Colliers, Esquire, Look, Life, Time.

That was my education as a child. Looking at the

Illustrations and Imagining it must be fun to paint all those pictures.

Alas, how I became aware of the Artist during a

given era.

None of my teachers on the Collegiate Level uttered one word in reference to a Design Luminare.

I'm not sure if they were aware of the existance

of their history as Visual Communicators.

As PAUL RAND stated. He learned Design. Not by

taking classes. He learned Design by looking at

Magazines. Such as Gebrauchsgaphik and other

Design Periodicals of his time.

An Educated Guess informs me most people learn

the names of Luminaries first and commence

research according to their interest.

The slide shows College and/or University Art Historians showed to teach Pre-Columbian Art, Baroque, Fauvism, Classism, Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Pointalism, Cubism, Futurism, Realism and Super-Realism.

Were they not teaching Style over substance and content?

I posses total recall. With a touch of alzheimers.

Little was dicussed in reference to the Impressionist movement itself. Other than being able to identify the work of Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Mary Cassette, Eduard Manet, Claude Monet.

Through personal research of Art History I learned of the dispute between Ingre and Delacroix.

Dispute on the level of PAC and BIGGIE and

Nas and Jay Z.

Ingre an Academician. Notwithstanding, one of the Worlds finest Drauftsman. Did not want Delacroix

to become a member of the Academy.

Delacroix an Expressionist whom work was several light years more DYNAMIC than Ingre in composition and content. Was shunned by the Academy because of Ingre.

Long story short, Delacroix finally became a member of the Academy. Frankly, because Ingre

realized he was doing the Academy a GRAVE

DISSERVICE by not having Delacroix as a member.

Suffice to say. Ingre was extremely JEALOUS of

Delacroix because of the Character and Dynamism

of his work.

One of the things I incorporate when I share my knowledge with students about Design and Design History.

There is more than one way to learn a subject.

Some will learn via personal research.

Some will learn via contact with other people.

Some will learn in the classroom.

Some will learn via film and video.

However each individual learns. The larger picture

of the missing Design History DNA is left to HISTORIANS.

Gestalt and Theoretical Issues are rarely discussed in the classroom.

One should not think Gestalt and Theory will

necessarily be discussed among trades-people

with no sense of HISTORY.

Suffice it to say if there were more Steven Heller's Phillip Meggs, Armin Vit's and Brand Channels.

Design History would be as second nature as

discussing the newest Haute Couture House and

Line. As well, car manufaturer of the year.

In discussions of athleticism. Fudamentals and History, Theory of the game are rarely dicussed.

Everyone talks about Dr. J's Dunking ability.

Larry Bird and Michael Jordan's shooting ability.

Each individual Designer must find within him/herself the ware-with-all and conviction

to research, learn, and inspire the next generation of Designers to grasp the rings and

turn the throttle of our ever evolving Design

History and Culture.

Wim Crouwell, stated in a recent interview with Print Magazine 2003


should not GO TO BED TOGETHER.

Saul Bass, was once asked his theory of Design.

Bass stated, he viewed Design as a CRAFT. And

always spelled Design with a little "d"

PAUL RAND, tried to raise Graphic Design to an

Art Form. Although, a Plastic Art.

William Addison Dwiggins, coined the phrase

Graphic Design to encompass, Printing, Type Design, Advertising, Illustration and Symbionics. To include, Semantics and Semiotics.

On Jan.16.2004 at 02:34 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

I think a lot of the issues that Steven raises overlap with the arguments in Jessica Helfand and Bill Drenttel's AIGA talk, as well as some of the other discussions on this site over the last few days. It seems like a sizeable proportion of practicing designers are resistant or opposed to the idea of design as a discipline worthy of academic inquiry. If we can't agree on this within our own ranks—and don't get me wrong, both sides of the debate have their merits—we can't very well expect a lot of institutional support from universities and the marketplace.

On Jan.16.2004 at 02:41 PM
marian’s comment is:

Like Armin, I have only recently become interested in design history--mostly as I've become more involved in this site, realized how little I actually know, and realized how that has hampered me in both writing and responding to posts.

I would love to take a 4-year course of integrated design history as described by Steve Heller. LOVE to.

I suspect that that the professionalism of our industry is tied to the study of design history and critical writing. I think that the more it is written about, documented, ctiiqued and integrated with social history and other disciplines, the more we will be taken seriously as professionals.

I also agree with Tan, that it is not an arcane subject. In fact, I find that writing on design gets a surprising amount of attention--or perhaps not so surprising, as design visually defines our culture, and people love culture. I think most people really relate to design because historically, it relates to them. We've all absorbed it since we were able to see and recognize, we just didn't know what it was.

A while ago I went to the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Given, essentially, a backstage pass, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of graphic design artefacts that were a part of everyday historical life on the prairies (and they were all hidden in drawers or otherwise neglected in back rooms). I started mentally planning books and exhibitions--it was extremely exciting, and I was (and am) convinced that the material would be of great interest to the public. But ... I quickly became daunted by the amount of work I would have to do to do justice to such a thing beyond an empty pictographic show and tell. Yes, the history ... Not only would I need a firm grounding in the history of graphic design, but also I'd need to collaborate with social historians, art historians and probably specialists in Canadian Prairie history. I was overwhelmed.

But I really believe that projects like this are important, that people will do them increasingly, and that 50 years from now writing and commentary about the history and context of graphic design will be as common as it is about architecture today. And I for one, want to be right in there.

On Jan.16.2004 at 04:53 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Design history can be useful in several ways.

In the case of design students design history can be useful for getting them to (figuratively) eat their vegetables. Can't get them to consider the world outside their narrow interests seriously? Show them the world of designers who were better and more important than they are. (It's a start.) Can't get them to engage in any philosophical consideration of their work? Introduce them to the philosophical considerations of great designers. They have an unbelievably limited visual vocabulary? Introduce them to a range of images that are of high quality and are clearly directly applicable to the field they're already interested in. Can't get past the "I like chocolate; you like vanilla; who are you to question my work" bullshit? Show them a world of people for whom form was not arbitrary.

I've normally taught design history to rooms full of graphic design students. Last semester I drove down to Loyola Marymount once a week to teach to a class with only two graphic design students. (I won't know for a week and a half what proportion of the spring class will be non-graphic designers.) So why should students with a wide range of majors be interested? I suspect that most were just curious but they all did enough worthwhile work to convince me that they found at least something compelling in it.

Some made direct connections to their fields (a journalism student wrote one of her papers about the various designers of Rolling Stone and a film production student wrote about Saul Bass) but they found wide interest in the subject. I can't give any specific insights into their motivation but here's how I see it:

Design history answers some of the question "Why do things look the way they do?" which is arguably as interesting and basic as the questions that other subjects start to answer.

Design history is one window into a wider cultural and political history (for instance, the same industrial revolution that encouraged the objects that Morris and Ruskin objected to allowed trains to transport troops, allowing a sort of widespread police control unheard of before.)

Design history is one route into considering the stuff around us and what it means. It is one look at how people explain their position in a changing world.

While graphic design history should not just be a hagiography, none of this would be possible without some basic knowledge. I'm afraid the tendency to accept advice like Kenneth's in the stupidest possible manner has resulted in grade school history often being transformed from a semi-silly exercise in moral instruction (the Great Americans built a Democracy out of wilderness) into another (nasty imperialist White Guys always hurt the peaceful other.) I've seen too much of the same tendency in graphic design histories. Since it's mainly graphic design students who are subjected to graphic design history I'm worried about a tendency to subject them to "useful histories" that are not useful to graphic designers.

On Jan.16.2004 at 06:45 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I don't have much time right now but I did want to say that history is extremely important, and graphic design history can serve many purposes--for one, as Gunnar says, why things look like they do, and two, how design interacts with the world and why its important and will continue to be. You can only talk so much about the value of design, but its important to get people to realize that yes, it matters, at an early age so we aren't constantly questioning that.

I studied history in college with the specific intention of becoming a designer. How that worked I don't really know, but somehow...it did. And I'm eternally grateful for it.

On Jan.16.2004 at 09:06 PM
Aizan’s comment is:

I presume that there's a hoary mess of reasons why design history might be useful to designers and people of other disciplines, so my question is what some of these needs are.

Looking through the above posts, to start with, there is a need for direction. For some reason or another, we get designer's block or frustrated or dissatisfied. You need some new ideas, and if you can't find an answer in yourself or your friends just then, there's a much larger past to think about. Design history will consider new concerns as necessary, it's really up to us. So what's on your mind? What's going on in your life? This is the most important question, and provides the context for all others.

There's lots of people who study media and communications and stuff like that, so obviously they are also interested in the history of graphic design. What are some of their questions, and what of our needs to they satisfy? Would all the history they write (acknowledging that disciplinary lines are disintegrating, somewhat, and will continue) be useful to students of graphic design? Maybe not all, as far as you can imagine, but who cares when you get what you need? Teachers must feel out what topics students are interested in, or should know to prepare for the marketplace.

So anyhow, same question, but directed toward teachers: what do your students need to have thought about, or in the case of post-school necessity, at least have a passing familiarity with to later develop, to be a passable to great designer?

On Jan.16.2004 at 11:14 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Mr. Fitzgerald-

Instead of emphasizing Genius Practitioners, design might make inroads into the cultural conciousness by studying its activity, then choosing individuals who illustrate it. I recommend Ellen Mazur Thomson's The Origins of Graphic Design in America

Thomson’s work did much to revamp the common histories of the origins of design in America. As an impressively scholarly work, it asked an objective question: how did the “profession” evolve? This is an answerable question. Look at trade journals and such. It answers the question objectively but from the viewpoint that graphic design is indeed a profession, and in doing so it loses much of it’s evocative potential. The question of the origins of the “profession” is rather trivial to designers who want to know something of what it means to design; what is the human activity of “designing” visuals above and beyond what has manifested in the economic system? What are we doing, fundamentally, as designers besides creating a space for visual artists in the economy? Not that the emergence of a profession hasn’t influenced design itself. But designers remain unconvinced of the appropriateness of defining themselves solely in terms of economy and job creation.

Thomson’s work to do justice to women pioneers is admirable. But this drive toward simply doing justice to everyone is a push toward a trivializing and overwhelming sense of history. To follow the logic through, Thomson would have to begin “doing justice” to everything and everyone who ever had anything to do with the origins of design. Every such history implicitly calls for a “complete history of the world”. The only thing that keeps her from doing this is that she has limited herself to the “profession”, she can’t escape this bias; some bias is always inevitable. The danger is that in doing such an “objective” history, not much critical thought is engaged with its actually subjective, interpretative nature.

Kenneth, I enjoyed your Quietude article very much by the way. I’m doing my best to respond to your and the others’ call for thought. Whether the way I go about this will lead to any effect or not, who knows. I appreciate guidance; its tough being a savage!


And I think the whole problem (to be honest I didn't think of it as a problem until you brought this up) stems from the fact that we haven't figured out how to even describe our activity.

Armin is right on here.

How the hell are we supposed to study it if we haven't even defined it?

Well we have defined it, but not from a useful perspective, as human beings. We’ve defined the professional, systemic activity very well, I think. We haven’t come to terms with the human activity of design.

As a side note, possibly ignorant and inconsequential, isn't architecture the same way? With monograph, after monograph of famous architects?

Architecture does have a lot of monographs, but monographs are not evil in and of themselves. Architecture has an even more established profession--look at the AIA standards book. It also has a much richer critical discourse. I might even add that architecture’s books are better designed, strangely. You go to Barnes and Noble and you see this respectable looking shelf of Architecture books. Right next to it is the graphic design section, screaming with colors and lame titles. It looks like a novelty shop.

I don’t think we should worship Architecture any more than we should worship design heroes. We can establish ourselves, if not as equal or superior to architecture, at least as something other than a black sheep. If graphic design could achieve a serious level of criticism (and I mean whole books with sustained argumentation, not just tons of anthologies), we may even find grounds for a productive dialogue with our sister discipline, which may shed more light on the human activity of design.


I honestly can't say I'm well versed in the history of plumbing, but I'm sure plumbers are.

I would imagine that the average plumber actually isn’t. That’s the strange thing about design; for some reason it feels the need to justify its existence. Plumbers don’t have that problem. It is a possibility that design’s current existence is not incredibly authentic, as plumbing is. Our “profession” professes a societal awareness which it largely lacks. Plumbers don’t have to profess such a thing, but design is so related to the arts that it must. We are in bad faith…for as long as we lie to ourselves we will resort to a superficial rationalization-away of our problems. When we have truly rationalized design (as in facing and overcoming the challenges of rampant insincerity), we will no longer feel so insecure about our status, because we will have realized the true nature of our activity and in that we will have completely justified ourselves.


Yes, more design blogs!

That would be great. I mentioned already how it has taken me a couple of years to find this site. We need to expand our network. I wonder if Armin might consider sharing, as a contribution to the design community, the ins and outs of running a blog. How do you set up a site as complex as this one, exactly? What problems have you run into? What are the minimum requirements on a moderator’s time? What might other blogs focus on, alternatively? You should write a how-to manual, seriously, and sell the idea to others who are in a position to do something like this…teachers or writers in particular. Show them what a great asset it can be to the cause. I’m imagining a nice little pdf e-book or something.

Mr. Swanson-

I agree that many “useful” histories turn out to be not so useful. A feminist approach like Thomson’s is not irresponsible, but isn’t evocative. More radical feminist, or Marxist, or other agendas might be questionable, given the authority of the teacher. But I’m questioning your method of teaching students history individually based on what they need. How does your interpretation of their needs, and how do the specific content and biases that you happen to include in your teaching, not affect them in a similar authoritative manner? From what I remember of your writings I know you aren’t ignorant and you are probably a very responsible educator. But most teachers of design, if not totally ignorant, might not be as perceptive to the needs of the students. In such a case, nothing is very useful.

In a truer process of education, where truth isn’t distorted by the power structures of teacher/student relations, I see no problem with anyone having a strong bias. It even seems necessary in order to encourage argumentation and learning on both sides. Since bias seems inevitable, it seems the structures of education situations must change accordingly.

I wouldn’t say, as you seem to, that the use-value of a history is based on its ability to perpetuate current norms in the profession.

On Jan.17.2004 at 07:36 AM
Jason’s comment is:

Design history functions on many levels, but for purposes of brevity I'll address academia. My focus here does not limit design history's expanse.

One design history class I experienced had the greatest hits. These are the movers and shakers of design, these are the Bauhaus greats, these are the DADA characters, this is what they did, and they knew these other movers and shakers. Sometimes they even taught somebody new who became a mover and shaker! As a 200 level class, it sensitized incoming students to design. The instructor related the work and designers to form, style, technology, world war, nationalism, religion, World's Fairs, Westward expansion, industry, economy, politics, artistic media, architecture, industrial design, engineering, manufacturing, etc. He made relationships in as many directions as possible.

Despite context and curricula, design history seems very separate from art history. Perhaps its because academics by nature are compartmentalized, but even when art history lectures arise, I rarely see any design history discussions or topics in the programs. Themes such as cultural invigoration come up, and the lectures are loaded with topics except design. Only at icograda or AIGA conferences will design history something come up.

Is design history as specialized as the history of Nepalese ornamentation? Maybe not, but design history has its own place, and its a lonely place. That's okay. Or is it? I don't have an answer, but all of this leads me to a connection. While Steve has addressed Useful History and Mark Makers as themes, I recognize a call to arms. Somebody else did this in the 1990s, but not specifically for design history as Steve's doing. Rick Poynor made a call for design writing -- design journalism. (And he probably is still crusading.) Rick believed that not enough critics exist, calling more designers to take up the pen and/or put fingers to keyboard. No matter the specialization of design history -- and little attention it receives outside our tidy design solar system -- we need people to continue examining, documenting, and analyzing design as it has been done and will be done. How and what we research is part of the problem, but we need more design historians doing it. We must expand. When more talented and passionate people look at design history with a critical eye, that will be a useful thing.

On Jan.17.2004 at 09:53 AM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

The crusade for design history is also a crusade for design literacy - in and out of the profession. I write on popular culture (which includes graphic design then and now) for mainstream periodicals, and of course, the language and references I use must not be so insular or arcane as to exclude the non-designer. Actually, its both fun and difficult to do this because as designers we come to the field with a certain set of shared references. Some of which could and should be understood by "everyone" others are simply our own.

Graphic design history is different from other histories (despite its references to them) because it is NOT a codified discipline. The fact is, we make it up as we go along. We decide individually or in packs (i.e. at schools, conferences, symposia) what is important and then some of us go out an analyze it. In lieu of a bona fide historical profession this is probably the best way to amass the materials we need to form historical data bases.

I am reminded of my first introduction to Russian Constructivism. It wasn't in my Western or Modern art class in college, but through graphic design produced by the English designer David King (who has also written books and catalogs on Russian graphics as well as designed books, magazines, and posters in a synthesized/interpreted constructivist style). Then Paula Scher introduced something similar into her work (actually constructivism cum victoriana), and shortly after other designers incorporated constructivist (along with other "ists") styles into theirs. It was this adoption and co-option of historical style that made me interested in learning (and indeed uncovering the origins) of revolutionary Soviet work - and what influenced it. There were a few books out on Lissitsky and Rodchenko (David King designed the covers of some), but it was before the outpouring of other historical works on the subject, now a genre unto itself.

All this is to say that we build historial heirarchies in graphic design based on individual discoveries and rediscoveries, and not always as seriouis scholarship. For example, after I mounted an exhibit of W.A. Dwiggins' type and ornament at the ITC Gallery in the eighties more designers became interested, some even tried to copy the work. I did not discover Dwiggins, but I perhaps made his work re-accessible, and I believe he was embraced by contemporary designers who had not known the name or the contribution.

It is easy to say that design history should be more about theory, or more about politics, or whatever, but until there is a REAL methodology (one that is taught somewhere) I believe we benefit from the tinkerers - those who follow their noses, find little caches of information, and build them into bodies of insight that can be shared and perpetuated. These are all "little steps" towards a viable end. And you know what, everybody can do their share.

I'm re

On Jan.17.2004 at 12:53 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Mr. Gleason (or Tom? Please call me Gunnar.)

I agree that many “useful” histories turn out to be not so useful. A feminist approach like Thomson’s is not irresponsible, but isn’t evocative. More radical feminist, or Marxist, or other agendas might be questionable, given the authority of the teacher.

I'm not particularly proprietary about the phrases "graphic design" or "design history" but I would argue that to be design history something needs to be about design in some meaningful way. Many feminist and Marxist (and, for that matter, other) "design histories" I've seen start with a premise and shoehorn design into it. I'd argue that such practice is not worthwhile history nor design history at all. I'm pretty loose about what constitutes design history but simply using design as a foil isn't it.

But I’m questioning your method of teaching students history individually based on what they need. How does your interpretation of their needs, and how do the specific content and biases that you happen to include in your teaching, not affect them in a similar authoritative manner? From what I remember of your writings I know you aren’t ignorant and you are probably a very responsible educator. But most teachers of design, if not totally ignorant, might not be as perceptive to the needs of the students. In such a case, nothing is very useful.

You won't find me defending the general level of design education or of design educators. I have the pleasure of knowing the instigators of this conversation and they are the exceptions rather than the rule. (Even though I almost make it a policy to disagree with at least part of anything Steve or Kenneth says, I assume they know how much I admire their work.)

I, of course, don't teach students according to what they need. I teach them according to what I think they might need. A weak alternative, indeed, but the best I can muster.

In a truer process of education, where truth isn’t distorted by the power structures of teacher/student relations, I see no problem with anyone having a strong bias. It even seems necessary in order to encourage argumentation and learning on both sides. Since bias seems inevitable, it seems the structures of education situations must change accordingly.

I have many strong biases but I'm afraid that my strongest is toward factual truth and fairness. Even if I thought that an overtly ideological design history wouldn't quickly wear thin for my students and for me, it seems to be my job to explain why people did what they did in as clear and full manner as possible. This leaves me explaining why someone would want to be a fascist, the appeal of the Nazi party, the good news and bad about Marxist-Leninism, and the psychological goals of multinational corporations. I occasionally announce my views. I often don't have to. (Would stating my basic opposition to genocide or racially-based murder surprise anyone or change anything? Considering that my current teaching is at a Jesuit school I doubt my moral statements on these themes are required.)

I am, of course, aware that any choice I make sets up authority-based judgments. I can't stop that but I spend a lot of time warning against it. I explain why my choice of devoting the semester to 20th century modernist graphic design and its antecedents (often explained through examples in other areas like architecture, technology, and movies) makes sense in some context but is ultimately arbitrary, value-driven, and woefully incomplete. I also encourage them to think about other points of view on the subject and try to fairly consistently offer tools to poke holes in my point of view.

I wouldn’t say, as you seem to, that the use-value of a history is based on its ability to perpetuate current norms in the profession.

I'd say that most graphic design students want to understand the norms (and probably most want to perpetuate them in some sense.) When teaching non-designers I'm not sure that perpetuating much of anything to do with the graphic design business.

It is not my job to specifically defend or extend a mode of business but since that mode of business is part of my subject it is my job to explain it as best I can. It is my job to point out the flaws and ironies in the various points of view related to design but also to state the views fairly in a way the students can come to terms with.

On Jan.17.2004 at 03:09 PM
rob’s comment is:

As unrealistic as it seems, design history would greatly benefit if it incorporated design theory. A designer in a four year program needs to be able to analyze design for no other reason than to be able to then analyze their own work. I'm not sure that having an in-depth understanding of history is necessary though. That doesn't mean that i don't see it's value, but i feel that if were talking about context then we should look at it from the point of view of a design student seeking to acquire useful knowledge that can immediately be focused into their own work. Essentially, design theory is based on the analysis of past work that effectively communicated. Besides gestalt which is based on psychology, theory isn't carved in stone, it's just a collection of observations of the past. I recently took my first design history class. It was nothing more than slides and a teacher hailing each designer as "the most important of our time". It offered a linear view of history that was superficial and (like many people have commented already) mostly based on style. At no time was a real analysis of the work offered, or any discussion about the work held. I know history really isn't debatable, but the work is. What a design said 3 decades ago is very different than what it says now. So why can't design history be more than just a collection of dates? I guess that would involve designers recognizing what the achievements of the past were. At times that can be as abstract as trying to describe the color blue to someone. Are our achievements economic? Are they based in communication? If they are, is there anyway for us to judge what has successfully communicated in the past? Our are achievements strictly visual? Perhaps because of the revolutionary trend in our profession the fact that styles constantly rebel against each other is all that's really there. I don't know. From my view, design is a language, and at the very least we should attempt to understand the etymology of our cliches.

On Jan.18.2004 at 10:21 AM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

Rob says: As unrealistic as it seems, design history would greatly benefit if it incorporated design theory.

Its not unrealistic. Returning again to the idea that our history is not codified and neither is our method of teaching it, a viable course of study (and scholarship) includes theory, practice, philosophy, ideology, even taste (and mores). Hey, supposedly market testing and focus group pseudo-science is rooted in gestalt psychology, among other ologies.

The failure of Rob's class to address his needs as a designer is the fault of a medicore teacher (or at least one that has been charged with giving you a few key examples and either doesn't have the time or the insight to go further).

But suggesting that history is not important or even irrelevant in fundamental design education or in the development of literacy (or learning language) is wrong.

Since our history (and theory) pedagogy is not writ in stone its possible to mold courses that cover the milestones (and millstones) while explaining the conditions under which certain significant works, styles, and schools exist.

Also remember, as pointed out at the outset of this discussion, graphic design is temporary - ephemeral. Not everything stands the test of time (or of the moments). For instance, the only reason anyone would be the least bit interested in Andy Warhols derivative illustrations for ads and book covers (produced during the fifties) is the fact that he became America's most famous Pop Artist (and one of America's most significant late 20th century artists). Otherwise, his ink blotch drawings (even the most visible ones on Interiors magazine covers and shoe company ads) would have as much interest today as the work of David Stone Martin (a good jazz album designer) from whom he borrowed, but who is arguably minor (and a derivator of Ben Shahn) in the scheme of things. Actually Rob, history can be debated because the objects that comprise history are debatable.

Sorry for that little hobby horse , but again I want to stress that graphic design history deserves major consideration by the profession and schools, not just because its fun to look at old stuff, but to excite and inspire - and help make us more literate. Graphic design is not without cultural and artistic merit and value. But I think I've said that before.

On Jan.18.2004 at 10:50 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> But suggesting that history is not important or even irrelevant in fundamental design education or in the development of literacy (or learning language) is wrong.

I'll have to second that motion. I so wish I had had even what you had Rob [nothing more than slides and a teacher hailing each designer as "the most important of our time"]. While it may seem incomplete to you (with all reason) it is essential that at least that is taught at schools. Granted, I studied design in Mexico, so I had less of a chance of learning about design history in the US or Europe. But hell, I don't know how graphic design started in Mexico, I can't name more than maybe a dozen prominent graphic designers from Mexico. Now, I'm realistic and know for sure that I would have complained and bitched about it if I had been given a design class history because I was there to make stuff, not sit in a classroom and listen to some teacher go on and on about movements and isms and ists. So, while today I regret not having that education I can see why college curricula are hesitant to have more design history classes because sudents are looking to create a job-getting portfolio after those four years are up not a body of knoweldge about history… This is competely a generalization, I know, I don't mean to imply this to be always the case.

On Jan.18.2004 at 11:07 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> I wonder if Armin might consider sharing, as a contribution to the design community, the ins and outs of running a blog.


Just kidding, it might not be a bad idea Tom. Aside from a e-PDF you mention, I might also write about it in my memoirs.

On Jan.18.2004 at 11:10 AM
rob’s comment is:

Just out of curiosity, do you guys think that a history of art should be required for design students? Someone above had said that art and design shouldn't mix, even though each has a history of playing off each other.

I took a class called seminar in art. The first semester dealt with modernism and the second with postmodernism. I know that's not exactly a complete history, but the class stressed the personal views and theories of artists, connections with their time period, and sometimes a completely non-linear look at the general concerns of art. Discussions were held each class concerning the reading from the night before, as well as slides and presentations by students. I understand that art has a longer history than design, and fields like architecture are more engaged in criticism, but couldn't a format like this be used in a design history class? I think this is where the conversation has been heading already, with the need to incorporate (as Steven put it) "theory, practice, philosophy, ideology, even taste (and mores)."

Even though, a history of design class could easily be bypassed if important designers, theories etc. were being mentioned in our normal design classes. What a normal design class is is up for debate, but right now the separation between theory and practice doesn't seem right. Really, from my own own experience i don't feel that design education as a whole is designed very well. I know this is supposed to be about history, but really it could be about how design education fails to offer a complete and interconnected look at our field.

On Jan.18.2004 at 12:17 PM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

First of all a really good graphic design history class should be an adjunct to studio classes. They needn't or shouldn't be separate, though they are. That's another rant.

Second, design history should intersect with art history (as well as media studies, etc.). This could make for a huge course, but I'm aware of communications programs that do a good job of combining art, applied art, media, and propaganda into one track (i.e. Hunter College in NYC). Of course, art history and design history are turfs and turf war in academe is infamous. Don't get me (or anyone else) started on that one.

Teaching graphic design, eh? Well, Armin had better devote an entire blog to that subject. I will offer only one tib-bit. TEACH TYPOGRAPHY!! And this is a history issue as well. But 50% of the students I interview coming from undergrad schools (art or colleges) are not really type literate. Again, this is another blogs'-worth.

On Jan.18.2004 at 12:34 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Steve, just out of curiosity, what do you mean by type literate? Is it people not knowing when, as an example, Helvetica was created or by whom? Or is it more in the sense of knowing how to use type?

> Again, this is another blogs'-worth.

In either case, and not as a smart ass retort, there is already Typographica, Typophile and New Series. Which do an amazing job in providing historical references in terms of typography.

On Jan.18.2004 at 03:51 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Steven Heller should be commended in his huge efforts to simply bring names, dates, and stories to our attention. From the conversations here he seems to be doing this so that more sophisticated discourse can arise from this broad base of knowledge.

But he hasn’t mentioned (probably because, as he said, he doesn’t want to get into a discussion of “turf wars”) in all of his commitment to professionalism, that professionalism itself has kept these discourses (the scholarly exploration of design issues, the journalistic approach to design history, and general design criticism) from interacting in a beneficial way. His work, in itself, can never lead to anything much more complex, because as he has said, the requirements of his type of work don’t allow it. At the same time, the academic elitism of “scholars” prevents them from acknowledging Mr. Heller’s role in bringing many of these issues to light. Scholarship thus misses the opportunity to give “ordinary readers” a chance to access this work and appreciate its relevance to what is going on in “their world”, where Steven Heller is the main man.

(I'm just an observer, not involved in professional politics, so all of this is speculation rather than knowledge...)

Which leads one to think that there is more at work here than sincere “communication oriented to mutual understanding“. Sure, not everyone can mention everyone, but in many cases, someone is not even allowed to mention a certain someone else (even putting aside personal conflicts, eventually, as these systems develop).

It would not be appropriate for Steven Heller to mention the complex arguments on history made by scholars (which generally aren’t all that complex beyond the vocabulary and formal requirements used to argue them), because since he recognizes that his audience is full of ordinary people, he is probably reluctant to even mention a set of ideas that he would inevitably have to simplify and bow down to as if he or his audience couldn’t really participate in that conversation. Well respected people begin to look silly when they make serious challenges to, say, Derrida, and their readers start to go and read the postmodernist literature and find that these well-respected people are “nobodies” (from the elitist perspective). So, for example, journalists and critics don’t criticize the theory. We criticize McCoy’s Cranbrook school, bracketing off the issue of whether any of us really understand Derrida. While Cranbrook was trying to open up discourse by participating in something which they had no real “right” to participate in, thus making postmodern discourse accessible to the design profession, design journalism, with its inability to discuss deep issues, and design theory, with its self-imposed separation from practice, were cutting their own oxygen, as well as the Cranbrook school’s.

And it is generally not appropriate for scholars to admit they have been influenced by design journalism. I’m guessing that Mr. Heller is hardly ever, or never, mentioned in DesignIssues, but I haven’t verified it. This does not mean that Design Issues is not worth reading.

If a community of journalists, students, designers, and savages such as this one were try to discuss the “esoteric” issues, we may be able to eventually break down some of these barriers, get rid of the hero worship, and have some serious, meaningful, productive conversation. If not, we can at least accomplish these goals within our own little sphere.

I think that one of the reasons for the “Quaalude interlude” in graphic design thinking is that the last generation of theorists generally subscribed to a particular elitist concept of design theory. They assumed that

1) theory can’t improve design, and

2) that theory is necessary mainly in order to give Graphic Design an intellectual status equal to architecture, and to improve its “perceived” value.

This is not the purpose of theory! Theory is about more than looking smart to impress people. Looking smart to impress people is to treat them as if they are objects to be manipulated, not people to communicate with and develop mutual understanding.

I am not sure I understand Mr. Heller’s remark that graphic design history is not a codified discipline. He almost seems to want some school to teach a methodology, and this methodology should gradually become used by everyone. This is not only unlikely; it would be short-sighted. Attempts to freeze methodologies have led to the schism in design thinking that I have described above. Of course, a certain middle way is necessary.


Steven Heller

Returning again to the idea that our history is not codified and neither is our method of teaching it, a viable course of study (and scholarship) includes theory, practice, philosophy, ideology, even taste (and mores).

Maybe you in fact think it is a good thing that history is not codified? Wouldn't it be bad if any of these things weren't viable due to codification?

I would be interested to know what you have in mind when you talk about such a methodology. I'm not very familiar with historical methodology. Isn't the traditional, objective approach already commonly applied to design history? What, more specifically, would constitute an acceptable methodology beyond that?

On Jan.18.2004 at 06:17 PM
steve heller’s comment is:

Tom, actually, I've never felt estranged from scholars in related fields. I've been invited to various symposia about popular culture (including one at New York's New School next month devoted to FEAR). In fact, I've written for Design Issues on many occassions. I do, however, tend to pursue historical themes in a more popular way (i.e. journalistically, annecdotally, and dare I say, even vicariously) than some scholars I know. Actually, I do not reject theory as an integral part of historical pursuit, even the linguistic theories that were adopted by schools like Cranbrook in the late 80s and 90s. Nonetheless I decided a long time ago that the language and jargon of these theories was somewhat exclusionary and choose not to adopt them as my language. Nonetheless I enjoy reading Kathy McCoy on these matters and have published her work in various books and publications.

That said, in the blue sky scheme of things I would like to see a basic, core methodology proposed for addressing design history. And yes, I'd like to see it taught at some level. Then I'd like to see it challenged. I don't subscribe to rigid proceedures, but I do believe there should be something to rebel against.

Frankly, some of the challenges in these posts have offered alternatives, which is good. But I often feel that those who are looking for different ways of developing history are, for the sake of rebellion, too willing to reject certain existing approaches.

Tom asks me: Isn't the traditional, objective approach already commonly applied to design history? What, more specifically, would constitute an acceptable methodology beyond that?

At the moment it is a very subjective approach, which is fine to a certain extent. But what I'm calling for is a field PERIOD. A class, a program, a series of seminars devoted to refined ways of teaching and studying graphic design history. There are none. There have been attempts (and I even directed ten years of history symposia in an attempt to focus attention). But there is no school - not SVA, Cranbrook, RIT, Yale, Chicago - that has a dedicated graphic design history program.

All I"m saying is: Wouldn't that be nice?

Wouldn't it be great to have a real laboratory where there stuff you're talking about and I'm talking about, and others have voiced concerns over, could be tackled. Wouldn't it be great if there was a graphic design history journal (or website journal) that collected the findings, and debated the results. Not even Design Issues does that, although it makes other important contributions.

We talk about what things might, should, could, would, etc. I continue to do what I think works best (for me), and pursue the his- "stories" that I find most compelling. But when I say "codify," maybe what I mean is there should be a concerted effort to have a fluid institute or academic program that is devoted to "critical history."

I agree, students should study everything. BUT There is only so many months in the year and only so many semesters before hitting the real world.

Anyway, one day someone will initiate something like the thing I'm talking about and then we can invite lots of related disciplines to the party.

On Jan.18.2004 at 07:37 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Steve Heller wrote:

Teaching graphic design, eh? Well, Armin had better devote an entire blog to that subject. I will offer only one tib-bit. TEACH TYPOGRAPHY!! And this is a history issue as well. But 50% of the students I interview coming from undergrad schools (art or colleges) are not really type literate.

Well, this is only his story (sorry, bad pun).

Design is a multi-disciplinary activity and typography, while one of the more distinctive areas of our practice, is part of a larger nexus of activity. And much of that activity is as smoke. For example: art direction.

I've long felt that art direction can only be taught as an apprenticeship, mainly due to its required knowledge of typography, illustration, photography, fashion, psychotherapy, marketing, language, copywriting, and so forth. That, right there, is a lifetime of study.

As an art director/designer who's practice used to focus exclusively in the music industry (before its demise), I would constantly find myself having long discussions with artists about makeup, hair, or the pros and cons of pleated vs. flat front pants. A gloriously obscure set of topics, granted, but of great importance in my daily functioning. And something that absolutely no accredited teacher could show me in the course of a semester.

I used to feel the same way as Steven, Tom Gleason and Rob do in the potential for a comprehensive Design Theory. In fact, I even cornered poor Steven Heller at his first Modernism and Eclecticism Symposium with such a suggestion (how long ago was that? and how insufferable was I?). But with time, experience, and an open heart it gradually dawned on me that Theory needs an example to draw from. Thus, History.

The desire for a more complete Design History is only a couple decades old. Steven Heller dates it to a 1984 symposium at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I was there at the time and the head of the Design Department, Roger Remington (author of the Lester Beall monograph) used to hand out a single list of names, nothing else -- only names, of designers that we should know about. And this was one of the people at the forefront of Design History!

Since then, we've had a remarkable number of books published on Graphic Design History -- contrary to what's been suggested here. Hell! I've got shelves of them. Only thing is, I also include things like biographies of Diana Vreeland, monographs on Rei Kawakubo or Alexandar Girard and the collected essays of Lester Bangs. At the same time, Graphic Design and not Graphic Design.

Kenneth Fitzgerald mentioned Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces -- a seminal work and the kind of Design History I would love to read. Problem is, there are so few authors out there with the ability to write this.

Yet, I think we're well on our way to creating a basic, cohesive history of Graphic Design: Paul Rand, Goudy, Lester Beall, Peter Saville...

As for creating an accredited program, I have concerns. In numerous art history and comparative literature departments, academics are churning out reams of badly written, impenetrable jargon. A dedicated graphic design history program would be nice, but given academia's proclivity; I predict hundreds of associate professors, publishing volumes of jargonized claptrap, ignored by practicing designers.

which brings me to something Tom Gleason wrote:

Maybe school isn’t the place for such “impractical” thinking. I told my teacher that I wanted to be a professor, and he said I’d have to work at a firm for a few years if I wanted to teach anything practical (forgetting that I’ve had my own sign making/design business for 5 years or so, which is no “firm” but I’ve already realized a better purpose for myself). I told him that I don’t necessarily want to teach “practical” things. I’m hoping someday I’ll find a school that will value a kind of practicality that is not yet seen as practical.

Your teachers were right, for the wrong reason. Design is a practice that occurs in the world. People need it, people make it, people use it. To profess without a wide range of real world experience limits your and your students' perspective -- not only the business/practical aspects, but the phenomenological (the touch of paper, the layering of ink, etc.) and the passionate (arguments with clients, convincing clients, "touching someone's heart"). I'm thinking specifically of the last, evocative line in Susan Sontag's On Photography where she asks for an 'erotics' of Photography over a hermenutics.

In other words, theoretical writing doesn't have enough blood on the floor and Theory won't save the world.

On Jan.18.2004 at 08:29 PM
Steve heller’s comment is:

BTW, just FYI:


Every couple of years Social Research the Journal of The New School in NYC has a thematic conference. A few years back it was Food (and boy was it fascinating to hear scholars, philosophers, artists, and others talk about food. I learned that Fava beans long caused mental illness in boys under 13 on the same morning that I gave a talk about food packages and imagery). In Feb the subject is FEAR. Sadly timely. It too promises to be that "nexus" bringing together many disciplines (including a keynote by Vice President Gore) looking at the political, social, cultural, and artistic manifestations.

This is a good model for how different histories fuse into a critical mass.

On Jan.18.2004 at 09:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

11 comments on the same thread. On design history. On Sunday. Wow.

On Jan.18.2004 at 10:19 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Please pardon my ignorance. I forgot that I have eight actual issues of DesignIssues and I see that you are in not one but two of them!

I�m not so familiar with the journal as a whole, because I can’t afford the back issues. The only design library accessible to me is the one I can afford on a savage’s salary and a credit line that no respectable bank should have trusted me with. I thought getting an adjunct teaching position at a community college would bring me a sweet chunk of change (or at least some coffee money), but apparently people with more education get those first. What the heck are you supposed to do with a BA, anyway? I needed to get the F outta school, but in doing so I didn’t get the F in BFA.

Well, seeing you and Victore in Design Issues is all the F�in proof I need. BTW, Mr. Victore came to our school a couple years ago and he didn’t need to say it (well he actually did, I think, several times in fact) but you could see it in his eyes: our school sucked. He cracked me up.

My impression of the journal, I realized, came from the anthologies, which don’t include your work.

Parts of my criticism still stand, though. I’m wondering how you can discuss historical methodology without using a certain amount of theoretical jargon. As Johanna Drucker said, I think, theory-speak is not so difficult once you get used to it (like all language). And I think it is really necessary for people to be exposed to it, since it does open doors to more complex thinking. To exclude theory-speak because it is exclusionary is even worse; theory-speak tends to be exclusionary because it is complex (difficult, but not inaccessible to the uneducated…I have four years of learning how to use a tech pen in a hand-scrawled and digital world and I can still, believe it or not, enjoy thinking very much, more and more). You are being exclusionary because it is difficult. There is a difference there, methodologically speaking..

I’m not saying you don’t understand these theories, which I’m sure you do. And you may even be an exception to all this, since you’ve put some of these works in popular anthologies, which shows that you must believe in the ability of your audience to understand and appreciate them. And, I guess, there is nothing really wrong with choosing an easily accessible writing style for writing history. But theory is the language of thought, necessarily abstract, and necessary for discussions of historical methodology, which I�m imagining can be nothing but abstract. So how can you not, at some point, adopt this “exclusionary” language?

How do you discuss methodology? I haven’t attended any of your symposia on it, so I don’t know. You keep speaking of a basic, core methodology without any reference to what this would be like. I have no idea of what a “core methodology” is, and I would like you to describe one for me. Have you written about it? “Doing history” is impossible for me because I don’t have this. I and many others have no interest in becoming historians because we have no idea what it entails. And if the methodology turns out to be “just follow your nose”, then what is the point of making such a big deal about it, dreaming of it, etc.? You’ve got me thinking that there is something big I should know before I start. But if that isn’t the case, what purpose does your imagined program serve other than to exclude a poor guy like me from the joys and rewards of a career in history? Yeah, a laboratory would be nice, for you. I’d love to get paid to do this stuff. Somehow I feel that I’m going to be paying to do it, though.

You of all people would have, in the course of time, developed a methodology, and discussion of it is the purpose of this post, assuming that it is useful. Are you afraid it will be torn apart before it has a chance to be established? Is such a fragile methodology even worth establishing? And what is keeping the field from being created? These are all very pragmatic questions.

This reminds me of school. I told them I want to break the rules. They told me I don’t know the rules. I asked them what the rules were. They said we weren’t there yet, walk before you run. So I walked along, a carrot dangling in my face. Meanwhile I was giving them all my money. Finally one day I realized that I did get that carrot!

Yes I did. It was on a slide James Victore showed of a snowman. I realized my own teachers didn’t plan on teaching me anything.. I had to find some rules, I wanted to learn. And school was no place for it. And that’s how I ended up talking to myself, or rather, virtually talking to crystalline typographic traces of people who were spatially and temporally estranged from me. For me, estrangement is a way of life.

Sure, this is all for the sake of rebellion. But I’m only rebelling against the lack of communication in a supposedly communicative field. I’m tired of a profession that doesn’t have its crap together telling me to get mine together. I’m sick of the fact that people come out of school dumber and less inquisitive than when they went in. I’m disgusted with the fact that the more I think about design, the less I’m considered a designer.

Phew… nothing personal, Mr. Heller. I know you’re on the right side. You of all people have given me the materials to think with.

A journal that collects the findings and debates the results. Why is that so difficult. What are current publications missing in this area? Debate?

What, in your view, is the most important contribution that Design Issues makes? What are its faults? Anyone? Anyone can answer any of my questions BTW.

Theory might not save the world, but design without it might very well destroy it.

M. Kingsley- Do I have to work in the design field or just anywhere. I prefer janitorial work. Seriously. Is this no good? It’s pretty seriously real-world.

On Jan.19.2004 at 04:31 AM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

Tom: You are clearly passionate about this and forgive me if I have not communicated clearly enough.

I'd like answer all your questions but for brevity sake, let's just say I choose not to write using theoretical jargon because it is not my language. I speak a little French and understand some German but these are not my native tongues, so why burden my readers with them? I have one preference you have another.

Johanna Drucker gave the talk on theory you referenced at one of the symposia I directed. It was great. It opened doors and windows for some, including me. She clearly and accessibly (though NOT easily) addressed the need for theoretical language within the academic realm. But more than language she shed light on how these theories could be incorporated and made useful for students and professionals who would probably never invoke them in their daily life. She's a real teacher and excellent mind.

When used to illuminate ideas such theories are important. When used to obscure muddled thinking they are worthless. I read a lot of phony theorizing by those who cut n' paste complex-sounding ideas onto simple practices. I also read and have listened to those who use such things to build understanding. Veronique Vienne teaches a class on "seeing" in the MFA I cochair in which she combines semiotics, structuralism, situationalism, etc. together with practice (see her syllabus in Teaching Graphic Design - Allworth Press). She's fantastic. The whole idea of her class is that there are indeed levels of manipulation that we as designers must see through (but may also have to practice).

So, back to your other question: What is the methodology I speak of? Hey, that takes a lot of time to explain (well), and perhaps an off-line discussion would be better. It is the subject for a book I've been working on so I don't want to give away the store before the movie is made. What I'm trying to get across is that design history has been seat-of-the-pants for many years now and requires more discipline, which is not meant to exclude.

I'll tell you what does exclude, however, is the fact that criticism and history is NOT a well paying endeavor. And this has just a little bit to do with how seriously design is taken as a field with a critical history. Catch-22? Perhaps. But given my understanding, with one notable exception of Victor Margolin, there are few serious academics who have found the way to be satisfactorily recompensed for doing this. Most of us do other work within the field to support our "habit."

I don't mean to be glib. But when I speak of courses or laboratories I know that this requires real leadership to make it happen (if it can happen). Its not so easy to start a journal (i've edited them), its not so easy to build a course of study (there is a lot of red tape). But things do get done. Roger Remington helped create a substantive graphic design history archive, one of the most important we have. And while it seems to be standing on its own feet, if not for Remington it could NOT have happened. There are other attempts that have failed because the forces behind them have disappated owing to little funds and turf wars.

Anyway, Tom., build something that reflects how you want things to go. I'm serious, our conversation on this post is fine to a point, but it comes down to work and the results that come from it.

On Jan.19.2004 at 07:05 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Thanks. When do you plan on publishing your methodology book?

Hmm...people always tell me I'm not "working"...what is this "work" they speak of...

On Jan.19.2004 at 08:27 AM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

Tom: the book is on the sked for the next year or so.

Remember Maynard G. Krebs' famous line: Work? Oh come now.

On Jan.19.2004 at 09:15 AM
M. Kingsley’s comment is:

Do I have to work in the design field or just anywhere. I prefer janitorial work. Seriously. Is this no good? It’s pretty seriously real-world.

If you prefer janitorial work to design, then why hang out on a design website?

On Jan.19.2004 at 09:39 AM
Aizan’s comment is:

M/C Journal have just posted their 'Text' issue, edited by Catriona Mills and Matt Soar. Lots of history, theory, and criticism! I've only read a couple, but so far they've been very accessible, even to me.

On Jan.19.2004 at 02:38 PM
freelix’s comment is:


yes, I'd like to see it taught at some level. Then I'd like to see it challenged. I don't subscribe to rigid proceedures, but I do believe there should be something to rebel against.

Nothing like a good history challenge to stir it up. I remember a certain admirable illustrator who went into a rant on the history of illustration (Brad Holland, Santa Fe in 01) which ended with Michealangelo's Sistine Chapel. It tweaked a few. Then came "the best of all time". Urgh. Just start handing out trophies already.

The problem with teaching graphic design history outside of New York is, well, that you cant(I tried). Most Southern types aint too fond a book learnin. Yes, I'm one.

On Jan.19.2004 at 03:16 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

“The problem with teaching graphic design history outside of New York is, well, that you can’t

I've managed in a couple of places in Los Angeles, the western edge of the Sacramento Valley, and in northern Minnesota. At least I thought that’s what I was doing.

If you want a start on methodology, I suggest heeding the words of Otto-Karl Werkmeister. He’s now at Northwestern but I had the good fortune to have him as a teacher when I was an art history student at UCLA just shy of thirty years ago. It happened to be an early medieval class but it could have been any art history class. After a short indication of his lack of interest in connoisseurship he said “These are things made by people. Let’s talk about why they made them.” (He clearly considered that the sponsors of the work were a vital part of all of that, BTW.)

On Jan.19.2004 at 05:49 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

M Kingsley- I think I love design too much to exploit it. One of my teachers once told me that I take design too seriously. That's when I knew for sure that leaving school was the right thing to do.

On Jan.19.2004 at 06:34 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Tom -

You gotta break a few eggs to make an omlete!

On Jan.19.2004 at 08:37 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

contrary to the way it seems, this discussion is far from over.

I think it's a real shame that many of our teachers and leaders use their influence to cut conversation short. Mr. Heller did it here more tactfully than most, but he did do it, in effect.

A teacher who I'm sure Mr. Heller knows, who recently published a pretty successful book, recently came to our school. I won't mention his name since I don't think he's here to defend himself.

Anyway, this designer has started on what looks like it will be a pretty successful writing career. I just want to point out that his book is mainly theoretical. It deals with history and method in relation to history, in what turns out to be a really practical book for designers. It's a nice combination.

The point is that theory was the source of value for both his book and his talks. Many design writers are like this: they utilize a certain level of theory to make a name for themselves. Unfortunately I sometimes think that this is the only reason that they use theory, and once they establish some power like that, they want to cut off discussion.

For the students, what could have been a great introduction to basic theoretical concerns turned into a joke when I asked him about the relationship between theory and practice. He said a lot of good stuff about this, but then, as if he didn't want to be seen as uncool, or even more absurdly, as if he thought that there was TOO much thinking going on in the design world, he told us that getting too involved with theory would be like (and used "jerkoff" hand motion).

The students at my school know me for my "thinking too much" (even if it was fairly obvious my design work was always top-notch because of it.) And instead of seeing this writer as he was, a successful, cool guy engaged with similar concerns as me (in fact his historical narrative almost mirrored the one I presented to my peers at an AIGA meeting), they saw him as "putting me in my place". I got a lot of abuse afterwards because to my peers, apparently an authority on design had called what I do useless. I'm not sure any of them will be able to engage with the historical-theoretical part of his work because of this.

He seemed like a cool guy. He may or may not have really meant what he said in regard to theory. But still...just looking at his book should tell anyone that he is either interested in theoretical matters or else he is jargon-slanging phoney. I would like to think that he's interested, and that he just didn't fully consider the consequences of his statement.

On Jan.19.2004 at 10:43 PM
Steve Heller’s comment is:

Tom: Yes, I cut off the discussion at this juncture.

Your fervent belief in the importance of theory is admirable, and I'd love to read your syllabus showing how you integrate this into your classes. I'd also be interested to know how your students use what they are taught.

But I believe we're at something of a stalemate.

I have no idea who the author of this book might be, but I'd be hesitant to accept the accusation that espousing theory was his springboard to fame or noteriety. If the book is good, it seems like a lot of work for little return, if fame is the end product.

You are right, theory is important. I used to devour Roland Barthes when I was in school and his ideas truly helped me view the material (and designed) world quite differently than if I was left to my own resources. Conversely, I needed a sherpa guide to get me through Foucault and Derrida (in fact, my professor was neither sherpa nor guide, or a very good teacher, which made the process unduly difficult).

In Preston McLanahan's film about Paul Rand, he has Rand (who was no slouch when it came to being well versed in philosophy and theory) telling a story about a guy who requested some of his (Rand's) work for a museum exhibit that was to contain "fine art" and "graphic design." Rand relates asking the curator why is your art "fine" and mine isn't? "Let's just say yours is "fine" and mine is "fine" and we'll be "fine."

Its fine to push a cirriculum rooted in theory, but I'd like to know what theories we are talking about and how they illuminate and/or excite the design process. I'd also like to know which theories actually speak to our processes or are artificially superimposed. Knowing theory and teaching it require very different skills.

In history some of the acknowledged "masters" did not expound theories, they built practices. This does not mean that they didn't use theory as an armature. If so, then historical analysis can reveal what those armatures were and how they expand into "doing."

Tom, its too bad that "a great introduction to basic theoretical concerns turned into a joke when I asked him about the relationship between theory and practice," no one should show disrespect to another, even in a debate, and especially in front of the host's students. But everyone has priorities and when asked how I integrate theory and practice, I too respectfully downplay one and emphasize the other, given the strenght of my knowledge, understanding, and experience.

This conversation is not over by a long shot, but perhaps voices other than my own will bring fresher insights to this particular post.

On Jan.20.2004 at 05:54 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

just FYI, Derrida: The Movie came out on video yesterday.

On Jan.20.2004 at 09:59 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

You know, strange things happen when you're a savage. Strange and exciting.

Yesterday I got a bunch of Emigre magazines in the mail. This is a new thing for me. Since I went to a "Swiss-modernist" school, I had never seen an actual Emigre magazine before. I think my school did have a few, but you never actually saw or touched them. Sad.

Anyway, it just so happens that the two "biggie size" issues I got in the mail yesterday were issues #30 and #31! That's right, the Cult of the Ugly returns. How exciting 1994 must have been; when I was jumping off rocks in my backyard practicing to become a movie stuntman, hoards of people, including the likes of Andrew Blauvelt (in particular) and our own Gunnar Swanson were sticking Steven Heller with the same challenges that I am now. The situation is a little different but the dynamic is basically the same. Mr. Heller, it seems, hasn't changed much at all.

However, there is something about the general environment that has changed since 1994: Everyone has pretty much given up arguing. He's not budging. He just keeps doing his thing like a good politician, giving lip service to a belief in intellectual progress while discreetly stamping out any movements toward it. It becomes a simple matter of housekeeping once you establish a hero-worshipping, pseudo-critical environment and install yourself as the leader. Oh yes, he's tricky. He's a professional.

Why did it seem so important to challenge him back then, but not anymore? He willingly set himself up to be beaten down. Design criticism flourished as Steven Heller offered himself as a martyr to design thinking. But little did the postmodernists realize the deep truth of their claims about reality. The Cult of the Ugly debate was hyper-real. It was hopped up on simulacrum. There was no real argument, no real debate. It was even better than the real thing. All the wit, the outrage, the suspicion, and the fury of a real professional debate. But there would be no real human consequence. Nothing would change. Opinions remain the same. It was entertainment.

I suggest we reinstate real communication as the design of the goal.

I suggest we reinstate humanity as the goal of design.

(The postmodernists were far more progressive, you could almost mistake them for the great Modernists of old. Now most of those postmodern pundits have turned into the 21st century's "cranky old men", unwilling to be faced with anything but good old hyperreality.)

On Jan.21.2004 at 02:48 AM
rob’s comment is:

Concerning theory...

Above i had said "Essentially, design theory is based on the analysis of past work that effectively communicated." Following that idea, theory is nothing but the breaking down of something else in hopes of copying it's results. It is a way of documenting history, but it in no way directs or dictates history. Because of this, we shouldn't assume that theory is complete, or in other words, teaching the theory of theory is the first step in a designers journey.

This brings us to Steven's post about Veronique Vienne class on "seeing". I've never understood why schools don't have a class devoted to the analysis of art/design. Analysis might be a word that sounds too close to theory, but analysis opens up the possibility to self interpretation (of a pieces meaning and structure). The theory of theory would have to focus on the physical (using your eyes) because that is the only common tool between all design movements and styles.

Maybe if this seems to base it's because we need to go back to our roots. Yes that involves learning about past achievements of designers, but it also involves searching for the root of all design. Design history classes can easily overwhelm a designer that is already unsure about their skills. Throwing out achievement after achievement with little explanation or common link could be mind boggling. I experienced this a long time ago when the design community on the internet exploded. I would look at 20 new sites a day linked from design portals and become frustrated as hell that i couldn't understand them and that i wasn't doing the same kind of work. Even though that was fuel for me to push forward, i also fell into a lot of stylistic dead-ends trying just to keep up.

So the theory of theory, the art of seeing, analyzing and understanding design, whatever you want to call it, it should be the way we approach theory.

On Jan.21.2004 at 06:28 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

However, there is something about the general environment that has changed since 1994: Everyone has pretty much given up arguing.


On Jan.21.2004 at 09:44 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:


I know, you and a few others are still at it. I should have qualified the statment (I almost did); Maybe it should have read "pretty much everyone has given up" instead of "everyone has pretty much given up".

Don't forget, you make similar absolute statements in your article 'Quietude': "anyone hoping for waves is waiting for someone else to make them." And you go on to bring up Poynor. No biggie. I figured that the nature of a blog should be to continue challenging and refining our thinking (although I'm really not sure that's what I see going on here). So I left it a bit unrefined.

When I pressed the "post" button this morning, I immediately thought, "crap..". If I was going to try to write an (admittedly propagandistic and possibly rude) "useful history" of the quest for design thinking, I should have worked harder on getting things right and not offending anyone. But then I thought again. No, I'm seriously tired of all this. Tired of the rhetoric and the self-limitation of Graphic Design. Tired of schools that I have to call "a good choice" just because they don't totally suck in every way.

Look, I'm a savage. I know people don't take me seriously. I'm not allowed to have an opinion if I don't have an MFA and teach my own handmade cirriculum. I'm practically useless because I'm not making money. I don't care.

Everything I say is raw. I don't know how to prepare it and package it for you, so that you can enjoy the nice little simulation of professional argument.

I'm just thinking, and I'm finding out that a supposedly creative profession is incredibly insecure about throwing anything new on the brainstorming table. They prefer to stay with the typical semblance of variety, feigning a reluctance to allow for the "edgy" style, which is not as much "edgy" as it is a stupid simulation of possibility.

I'd like people to join me in a collective process of thinking. Not just a bunch of people who think on their own, or sort of pretend to think together using so many cliches, never getting out to the fresh air of real thought, but a bunch of people who'll actually talk to each other.

I'll be a savage until I find a place like that.

On Jan.21.2004 at 11:13 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Following that idea, theory is nothing but the breaking down of something else in hopes of copying it's results.

This is what I'm wondering. Have we really gone through history just making new words for the same old things? "there is no history which leads from slavery to freedom, but there is a history which leads from the slingshot to the megaton bomb," said Adorno. Is theory just the concentration of power into words? Does it have any substance? This is a question to be considered.

Rob sees theory as the study of successful past works, in order to copy their results. But this doesn't seem to be the case. The theorists of 1994 and today are interested in moving forward, not replicating the past. Is this just the necessary rhetoric?

It's important to note that Design, as a real-world confluence of so many issues in philosophical debate, is in a prime position to contribute to general knowledge about the nature of human rationality.

Because of this, we shouldn't assume that theory is complete, or in other words, teaching the theory of theory is the first step in a designers journey.

I think I agree. But what exactly do we mean by "theory of theory"?

This brings us to Steven's post about Veronique Vienne class on "seeing". I've never understood why schools don't have a class devoted to the analysis of art/design.

I never understood that either.

Analysis might be a word that sounds too close to theory, but analysis opens up the possibility to self interpretation (of a pieces meaning and structure).

Maybe theory is composed of analysis and synthesis. We have seen much synthetic work done in design theory, as designers have tried to incorporate literary and linguistic theories into their thoughts on design. We have not seen much analysis, on the other hand. In other words, we have been able to broaden the meaning of "design", but we haven't been able to sufficiently understand the structure of design, which would mean to pick "design" itself apart, analyze it, and figure out what distinctions we can make.

The theory of theory would have to focus on the physical (using your eyes) because that is the only common tool between all design movements and styles.

I disagree. the theory of theory needs to be dealt with on a very abstract level, because the nature of "design" is abstract. The "hegemony of vision" has reduced our ability to consider anything but style. We have gone from a time when style meant something, when style was was either overtly or inadvertently ideological, to a time where we can't even recognize the existence of our dominant ideology because we are so seduced by form. The hegemony of vision has blinded us to the fact that "design" is primarily a mental process.

Maybe if this seems to base it's because we need to go back to our roots.

We need to discuss, debate, and learn together. You figure out what's wrong with what I'm saying, and we'll be participating in a real process of learning. What can others offer? When we argue, we must make at least an attempt to argue without the intrusion of coercive forces. We all have biases, because we all have our own background. It takes an openness to fuse our separate horizons. This means to at least temporarily (during the argument) to allow our given assumptions about design to become problematic. Question our "roots".

Yes that involves learning about past achievements of designers, but it also involves searching for the root of all design.

That sounds great to me. But I'm seeing all these people arguing for intellectual progress in design, and almost no attempt to act on it. Certainly the call for thought in itself is important. But what are we doing beyond that?

I would look at 20 new sites a day linked from design portals and become frustrated as hell that i couldn't understand them and that i wasn't doing the same kind of work. Even though that was fuel for me to push forward, i also fell into a lot of stylistic dead-ends trying just to keep up.

This is the seduction of the visual. In a stylistic environment devoid of any real thinking, you are left to respond only stylistically. There is no Reason other than novelty.

So the theory of theory...it should be the way we approach theory.

I agree. And my theory of theory is that undistorted communication will lead us to understand better what we do, and out of this understanding and further communication will naturally come the needed progress (which may not have much to do with style).

On Jan.21.2004 at 03:33 PM
rob’s comment is:


Thank you for your replies and opinions. I feel that from reading your posts thus far and briefly visiting your site we are in search of a similar goal. I do have to disagree with you though in some regards.

"I disagree. the theory of theory needs to be dealt with on a very abstract level, because the nature of "design" is abstract."

Most of the ideas i've posted so far have come from an essay i wrote about a year ago concerning style. I agree with you one hundred percent that we have become "seduced by form" but as i'll explain, this is not what i meant by "focusing on the physical." Since what i had written before states it well i'm going to post part of the essay i mentioned below.

The Symmetry Of Style

Design is most effective when experienced. That's what everything in the world boils down too. When we experience something it connects to us on multiple levels, affecting all of our senses in a way that is personal and reflexive. When we learn something, and truly learn it, we are more likely to remember the experience than the raw information. Even if the experience is one based on previous experiences, it still resonates with deeper than trying to learn something in a strictly verbal / logical way. Design is a form of learning. We communicate a message that hopefully people will remember. It only makes sense than that our messages will be stronger if the user links them to some experience. The experiences we communicate in design are visual ones. This the base from which all design works.

If this is the case, then why is style so prevalent in design? Are things so simple that they all can be communicated with a similar experience? In some-cases, yes. This is especially true when your branding a company. This shouldn't be true though for other things. Look at the dominating styles of the past. Modernism is an easy target, so lets start there.

In general, modernism offered a new experience for viewers. It mirrored industries rise and assimilation into everyday life, and startled people with it's uniqueness. Within the different movements there were other goals, and they can all be analyzed in a similar way. The end result though, was that modernism began to be used for everything. People liked the way it felt, and how adaptable and generic it could be. Modernism eventually stopped being experienced, except in the sense that people recalled previous experiences with it. What it was communicating was very different at that point. The experience, watered down by over use, couldn't even be experienced by the designers themselves, and communication became rule bound, and ineffective.

The first mistake of modernism was that it was based on a learnable finite theory. We create theories all the time, but we seldom realize were slaves to them until they don't work anymore. This is the problem with style, and how it evolves. Effective design doesn't communicate an experience, it is an experience. Only when a designer is completely honest about the way s/he sees and reacts to something can s/he recognize when something is effective. Theory can't exist in good design, because no theory could ever be so complete to account for every thing we could possibly experience. Also, theory is based on the analysis's of past work that effectively communicated an experience. Theory is nothing but the breaking down of something else in hopes of copying it's results. In design, where things are broken down visually, things are copied visually. When a designer stops experiencing something for themselves, then it becomes a style. The style is based on different theories, that have proven effective in the past. These theories consist of visual cues, that are rearranged, and cleverly mangled to suit the designer.

So what is the solution? One is to be honest with yourself. If you don't have the power of self analysis and self criticism then your chances of falling into a style are dramatically increased. Another is to make sure you are experiencing the things around you, instead of glossing over, or assuming something. The last is to understand in terms of experience. The human brain makes connections in a very different way than our eyes or ears. It's physical (it has to be) but it's so complex that even describing what exactly an "experience" is is impossible.

So the theory of theory starts with experience.

I once had a math teacher who told me this concerning the importance of writing out math problems; writing creates a direct experience, it is a way of making the abstract concrete. He further went on to say that since math is mostly done in our heads, there for, extremely abstract, writing it down, linking it with an act, and maybe in the process connecting with something that can't be explained, is important. The linking of a message with an experience (in design a visual one) is the base. Everything stems from it. The only other thing that i've learned over the years that is equally important is the human desire for tension, but i've posted way too much already.

On Jan.21.2004 at 06:26 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I'm thinking about why I've been doing this in spite of the fact that I will mostly be ignored. It's nothing new to me. And if there is someone out there with a voice to use, they may steal some of my ideas. So what? That's the point. The only way we can bridge these massive gaps in design discourse is to talk more. I've been trying here to get us to intersubjectively "disclose" new worlds for exploration. That's all that is necessary at this level, really. Then a grad student or scholar should come along and find some order in it, make a thesis out of it, and relate it to existent human discourse. After that, we, who have disclosed these possibilities, will find meaning and sense (or disagreement, but at least common ground) in the work of the academics. Both parties benefit, and discourse will become more inclusive.

What is the point of communication tools such as this blog if we don't put them into proper use?

I really hope that grad students read this stuff. So many of them, I hear, don't have a clue what their thesis will be until the last minute. And the theses I've seen usually amount to the equivalent of grade school science fair projects.

No, my work isn't acceptable. I don't write theses yet. But if someone has the gumption to take on the project of bringing the work of Habermas into the discourse on design, I say go for it. We need someone to analyze the constraints on communication within the design field, the effects of extremism in academicism as well as professionalism, and establish a communicative basis for design rationality. We need people to start more blogs, and include everyone in design thinking. We need to realize the extent to which the purpose of design has been prescribed to us. We need someone to help bridge the gaps between the histories given to us by Mr. Heller and others, practice, and design theory (we need to bring this broad collection of design history into conversation with the work of people like Clive Dilnot, and the fairly large "other" design-historical discourses such as the one stemming from the work of Pevsner). Mr. Heller's anthologies have given us clues as to where to go, theoretically, but I believe he has said he's going to leave it up to us to take it further. Does anyone out there have the guts to try? Do we really not care?

Rob, thanks for participating, I am just seeing your next post and will get back to you soon.

On Jan.21.2004 at 07:07 PM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

Don't forget, you make similar absolute statements in your article 'Quietude': "anyone hoping for waves is waiting for someone else to make them." And you go on to bring up Poynor. No biggie. I figured that the nature of a blog should be to continue challenging and refining our thinking (although I'm really not sure that's what I see going on here). So I left it a bit unrefined.

True. Sorry.

On Jan.21.2004 at 10:35 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:


You disagree that the theory of theory needs to be dealt with on a very abstract level. Well maybe it’s a combination. There needs to be some empirical support for theory, but I still think thought about thought is going to be fairly abstract.

Your essay talks about design in a different sense. You’re talking about the product, “I made this design”. You’re talking about the experience of it. I’m usually talking about the process, the activity of designing. I think it’s two separate questions, really, and if we’re going to theorize design we have to make more distinctions. Your work is related to the receiver’s end of aesthetics and communication theory, mine is related to more to “rationality” or a reconstruction of the designer’s creative processes. You are moving in the “process” direction when you start talking about style, and how theory is used to rip off style and make it useless. You are leaning toward an intuitive design approach.

Then you say that a lack of analytical powers will increase your chances of falling into a style. So I think you have an idea that theory can be taken for granted, but also that it can be pushed forward. And I imagine “pushing forward” for you means to analyze something other than the visual, “copy” (I like to think theory is a “reconstruction”, since it is an interpretation, not a direct copy) something about what works in the design other than the visual.

I think your last paragraph is very difficult to follow, and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it brings up the following issues: How can you resolve an intuitive design approach with your promotion of analytical powers? How do visual processes relate to mental processes?

How can we be more precise when we talk about design if design has such a broad meaning?

In a way, you could say that discussion like this makes the abstract concrete. I don’t believe people who say they’ve already considered all of these issues, because I don’t see any WORK.

I’m still not sure how to talk about linking a message with an experience. It seems to be a very relative process, since no signifiers have any absolute meaning…

On Jan.22.2004 at 01:13 PM
graham’s comment is:

tom-here's some things you might want to check out if you're interested (and you haven't already-some are really obvious, but you never know);

eye magazine

idea magazine (japan)

dotdotdot magazine

form & zweck

robin kinross-modern typography/anthony froshaug/fellow readers/unjustified texts

john chris jones-designing designing/www.softopia.demon.co.uk

arnold schoenberg-style and idea

andrey tarkovsky-sculpting in time

john ralston saul-voltaires bastards

e. m. cioran-a short history of decay (and anything else)

walter benjamin-the arcades project

gaston bachelard-the poetics of space

wittgenstein-philosophical investigations/tractatus

william gibson-pattern recognition

theodor adorno

george steiner-language and silence

robert graves-the white goddess

paul feyerabend-against method

'I think it’s two separate questions, really, and if we’re going to theorize design we have to make more distinctions.'


On Jan.22.2004 at 02:04 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Graham, thanks very much for that list. There's a lot of stuff on there that I haven't really considered.

'I think it’s two separate questions, really, and if we’re going to theorize design we have to make more distinctions.'


Well, since the history of design doesn't distinguish between the object and the act, there has never really been a history of the design process, or a history of our idea of design.

There are so many different aspects to explore; to get all mystical about it is worthless, even dangerous, if you're going to press it forward. Before you know it you have an innocent little confusion turning into million-dollar logo fraud.

On Jan.22.2004 at 03:26 PM
graham’s comment is:


i think that it is very difficult to separate the two (the thought and the act)-in, fact, i've always been interested in a more analytical understanding of the unity of things. dualism is useful as a starting point but rarely gets deeper than the either/or state, and in terms of design (for me, at least) it's rarely about one choice as heirarchically superior to another, or in opposition to another. experience, activity and process, are fundamentally one and the same thing-but yes, without understanding (to an extent) they are all but useless. i like unresolved things, but perhaps a step towards your ideas here-'How can you resolve an intuitive design approach with your promotion of analytical powers? How do visual processes relate to mental processes?

How can we be more precise when we talk about design if design has such a broad meaning? ' might be to do with a collaborative effort at thinking through these things.

it's funny-one of my main frustrations with design writing/history/theory is that i've never seen a study of a single piece of work that goes into the depth i'd like-taking into account the things you're talking about, a rich and broad study of thought process, the act, the process and the making-which is kind of a mirror image of some the things you've been talking about.

but i'm a romantic/mystic at heart, and once you get down to the quantum level of design things can seem charmed, strange; and certainly nothing to do with a logo (but maybe something to do with logos-definitely to do with nous) and everything to do with how you felt at that moment on that day, and how that affected those around you, and so on; so-perhaps a philosophy (a unified theory?) of design needn't have anything to do with design. although you should definitely check john chris jones.

On Jan.22.2004 at 03:56 PM
John Calvelli’s comment is:

It's funny, at this point in this long discussion on "Useful History", has turned into a talk on the theory of theory. That sounds like something I used to like. Now I am more comfortable with "useful theory." Which brings me to my contribution to the initial discussion.

I've found it useful, in my teaching of graphic design history, to use the terms "meaning" and "value" as key concepts to understand visual communication. I consider visual communication from the beginning - prehistory - and include large swaths of what is typically called fine art, leading to a diverse range of more recent works of design and sometimes "art."

The meaning/value paradigm can be very useful to use. For me, an emphasis on value is what differentiates design from fine art, where both share communication of some meaning. By analyzing a range of work using each of these terms allows us, to some degree, to encounter the work under its original conditions of production. It also has direct bearing on what all of us, as graphic designers, always do (hopefully): create messages or meanings that have value or utility for a client and audience.

In fact, in my studio classes I recently started to encourage all of my students to create creative briefs. If we consider the creative brief to be composed of 6 components (what is the project? who is the client/audience? what is the core message? what is the hoped for outcome? what is the graphic strategy?), we can see that two of these questions, regarding core message and hoped-for outcome, are directly related to, respectively, meaning and value.

What can be more useful that to study exemplary works from the past and present and analyze them according to a designers' creative brief?

On Jan.22.2004 at 05:59 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:


I can understand what you're saying about the difficulty of separating these things. In another discussion I argued that thinking and doing are inseparable, but here I'm saying that the product and the process are different. Mainly what I'm trying to distinguish between is the viewer's interaction with the work and the process that the designer uses to create it. I think these are important considerations, and can lead to more insights in both directions. I do understand what you're saying though, because in the making of a design, there is a constant experience feedback loop; and in experiencing the design, there is a creation of subjective meaning on the part of the viewer.

I share your non-dual principles. I noticed you liked the Lucent logo because it is Zen-like. What I am calling Neomodernism is in fact very inspired by Buddhism, particularly the 2nd century logician Nagarjuna. He was concerned with resolving the dichotomy between absolutism and relativism (which I see as the central philosophical problem today in the debate between modernism and postmodernism). My contribution to the "empty" WordIt is a homage to the Heart Sutra (the core text in the development of "Emptiness" philosophy), impermanence (birth and death of seasons), existential experience of such change (spring growth, oppressive heat, beauty in death, crystalization of the soul) and less directly, Nagarjuna. It is simultaneously modern and postmodern in its approach, so it is a neo-modern work, although the goal of my theories is not to create or define a stylistic approach.

I think the reason you haven't seen the kind of writing on design that you are talking about is that design history and theory is so young. We don't have the intellectual material to work with to create such a thing at this point. So we need to both develop design from the inside and open up its view to the outside (the whole world of discourse that it has been ignoring in its insularity). We are probably like 100 years behind architecture, which I think does have such studies, and this is why we would even be aware of a lack.

I'm a romantic/mystic at heart as well. But to create poetry, we need critics. We need the analysts to expose all of this new material for synthesis. Poetry dies in a time of cliche and crystallization of thought. Particularly in design, this has been the cause of our sense of the meaninglessness of our work even in the face of all its newness.

Your idea of the focus of Design as on the Logos (or nous) rather than corporate logos is interesting and poetic! I feel a very similar sense of Design, as something very broad and intrinsic to nature, something very connected to Rationality although I haven't been able to figure out how to make this connection yet, for myself, in a satisfactory way.

I like John Chris Jones, but I haven't met him. I think his exploratory writing inspired by Cage influenced me quite a bit. At the same time, he did try to analyze things. His work is a great example of the need for both analysis and synthesis, a non-fear of mysticism (but I wish he wouldn't totally fall into it, since his writing loses accessibility), and a really productive and inspiring career.

On Jan.22.2004 at 07:41 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:


It is odd that this History discussion turned into "theory of theory". But when we begin to talk about a "useful history" we are inevitably invoking the history of philosophy of history, from Nietzsche on. And of course, to bring up the question of whether a history SHOULD be useful or subjective in any way is to bring up criticism of all historical methods that came even before. Is history moving towards a goal? Is it just random, unconnected events to be catalogued? What does it mean to us? Is history dead? Is it all interpretation? Is history possible? What part do we take in "creating" or "designing" history, as opposed to discovering it? These are all theoretical concerns, and how could we not, if we're really trying to explore, end up thinking about the nature of theory?

It's interesting that you are concerned with value/meaning in history AND that you start your history in prehistory, like Meggs. I personally agree with this approach, since it gives design a very human root, not just a professional one. My teacher Dr. Labuz thinks that Meggs didn't need to go that far back; that the history of visual communication is not the history of graphic design. Both have good points. But I'm afraid it's all too clear that the tendency to define ourselves in terms of the profession prevents our growth as human beings, particularly while in school. Gunnar Swansons article on Graphic Design as a Liberal Art is a great one along this line.

It seems to most of us that design is more than business, although it doesn't lack value when separated from business. I think we may disagree here, because I dont understand how art separates from design on the meaning/value distinction.

My understanding is that the history of most art is inseparable from design. It is only recently that art has become autonomous.

I think it's good that you are making your students write, but pardon me (being a savage and certainly having no teaching experience): This writing is still too business-oriented! They need to develop a love for the human ability to design, not just a love of successful business practices or persuasive design. Business does fine on its own, it will flow into them of its own power. School is a place to find a human voice and a love for learning!

Your method is better than most, though, i think. Do you find that the students are curious? I've heard from teachers I know that the students just don't care, so it's hard to teach them anything.

On Jan.22.2004 at 08:15 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Tom Gleason confusingly wrote:

It is only recently that art has become autonomous.

You obviously do not go to galleries in New York.

Joseph Kosuth

Jorge Pardo

Donald Moffett


Lawrence Wiener

Ed Ruscha

Lari Pittman

Barbara Kruger

Rodney Graham

Archie Rand

General Idea

Felix Gonzales-Torres

Marcel Duchamp

a quick baker's dozen of artists who...

...work as designers

...used to work as designers

...integrate design as part of their work

...appropriate design into their work

...create artist multiples which are designed

...critique design

...make no distinction between practices - only venues


You said:

'I don’t believe people who say they’ve already considered all of these issues, because I don’t see any WORK.

Well, this is a start.

On Jan.23.2004 at 12:11 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

a quick baker's dozen of artists who...

...work as designers

well...let me try to think of what I meant by autonomous. Most great works of art in the past were commissioned by the church or wealthy people, and before this century, the history of art and design were all the same thing. I don't really know much about Art that was done for Art's sake before the late 19th and early 20th century. To the extent that design has been done for design's sake, it too is an autonomous art. But for the most part, it has been the non-autonomous remnants of "art" after art left the scene and went out to explore itself. Andrew Blauvelt argues for autonomy for design in his recent Emigre 64 article, where autonomy means a "separation from social demands which limit graphic design to its most marketable features."

John's description seemed to me to be in the way of a developing autonomy, by identifying design with its market value.

On Jan.23.2004 at 12:45 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

But...Is it possible to distinguish design from art? If art is just "Art/Design" gone autonomous, then if design follows, doesn't it just become the same as autonomous art?

I don't think so. Just because the history of art included design until the 19th century, that doesn't mean that historians made proper distinctions, which are up to us to make. Much of what we consider "design" (as far as stylistic experimentation goes...) today might indeed be "art", and many people don't differentiate the two. I think you've had this discussion before. But where is the territory of "design" outside of the marketplace? If we were to forget business and keep being designers, what would we be doing? Just art? If we'd just be doing art, then 1)design is art's slow little brother, 2)designers are art whores, and 3) there is nothing to talk about, just do what the client says and occasionally think up some BS to make him give you more. I think that most designers have a sense that Design has a value in itself, as art does, but different. By going autonomous, we can develop this value and enrich ourselves.

This is obviously a huge area to explore, and it's wide open. A study that explores all of these issues and opens up a specific area for design to explore itself would be very important in developing autonomy.

Art may constantly seep into design. Some designers might like this, because it allows them to do what they really wanted to do before they sold out. But it's no good for Art, because it will again lose the autonomy it sought.

Art seeping into design allows designers who are actually failed artists to play around at art. But in the excitment of new styles happening in design, Design itself gets lost. I know I haven't made a case for what Design is here... all i can say is that it is leaning towards the mind, cognition, rationality. For example, Albers made art, he "designed" color theories. Or maybe not.

Whether or not design is capable of autonomy is not quite as important as the point that we NEED to explore this possibility, because our souls can't afford to conclude already that we, the supposed "shapers" of culture, are cogs in the machine, and that design is epiphenomenal. Design, to us, implies a degree of freedom. As Perez-Gomez mentioned to me in a brief e-mail, which stuck with me-- even if it is impossible to fix the problems of modernity, we need to have a "utopian vector".

On Jan.23.2004 at 01:55 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I guess I need to qualify the idea that art and design were considered the same before the 19th century. Bradford R. Collins' article "The Poster as Art: Jules Cheret and the Struggle for the Equality of the Arts in Late Nineteenth Century France" anthologied in Design History, An Anthology edited by Dennis Doordan, brings up the issue of the heirarchy of the arts in this time. Fine art was at the top, then the decorative or applied arts, and then the popular arts for mass consumption at the bottom. This shows that they were not equal, but were categories in the history of art. This issue should be explored... still, i think there was a process of these arts going autonomous.

I'm wondering if accomplished historians might ever peek in here and offer us clues.As a savage, though, I value my naivete. The only way to access these discourses is through our own backgrounds; learning should not be confined to institutions. If we want an autonomous design, we'll have to create it from the ground up.

On Jan.23.2004 at 02:30 AM
John Calvelli’s comment is:

A few comments to respond to issues that I touched on - outside of the discussion "Useful History - but interesting nonetheless.

The resolution, to me, of the art/design question is that art is simply design for museums and galleries - a subset of design. Visual communication as design has a longer history, the 18-19th century separation (see "The Invention of Art," recently published by U or Chicago Press) of art and design is a recent phenonema, one that is always being challenged - by early modernism or by some of the artists Kingsley referred to (the problem with most of the artists listed, however, is that I don't think that many challenge the dominant paradigm of the fine art system. Most of those listed would not consider themselves designers, which is unfortunate. If they would, and if their work would reflect a committment to design, I think it would be a lot more helpful for our society and culture.

I'm not a great believer in the valorization of "autonomy." Kings are autonomous, and saints maybe. Most of us are already implicated in a network of social relations. Much of what passes for autonomy is actually a desire for fame, power, or riches. Rather, solve the problems of the world with resonant meaning and useful value. And appreciate, but not valorize, the excess.

On Jan.23.2004 at 11:05 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:


Thanks for posting. If our goal is to solve the problems of the world, it is telling that one of our main jobs is to reinforce the perception of integrity, stability, and cleanliness of big corporations. How to make them look that way must be a pretty big problem in the world. Somehow I’m not sure that this is the real way to go about solving anything.

On Jan.23.2004 at 07:16 PM
John Calvelli’s comment is:


I actually didn't mean to sound idealistic: "solve the problems of the world" does seem that way, doesn't it? It might sound a little tacky and naive. I was thinking just broadly. Design is about solving problems, yes? Any problem we encounter is a "problem in the world". Clients are representatives of those problems, asking us to solve them. How do we proceed?

Being an educator, I'm interested in preparing students to succeed in using the tools of design. I'll teach them that. But I use every opportunity to expand the problem they encounter in order to respond fully to add value to the world, not simply their clients.

I teach corporate or brand identity, and my students learn how to reinforce "the perception of integrity, stabilty, and cleanliness of big corporations." Didn't Leonardo learn how to represent Mary, St. Anne, and the Christ child in a way that reinforced the perception of the sancitity of the Catholic Church? Was he compromised by that? Is our world worth less for it? (I am making an assumption here that Leonardo painted it on commission from a client, like an contemporary illustrator might have, and that it wasn't simply a spontaneous expression of his religious and artistic soul.)

I have no illusions about individual studio practice, and the kind of myths it can and does often perpetuate. However, one has to place design practice in the macro social and economic conditions it operates within. As educators, we have the opportunity to teach to the big picture. Our students will let the chips fall where they may. It all resides in what we, and they, consider to be the value of our lives.

On Jan.24.2004 at 12:28 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Didn't Leonardo learn how to represent Mary, St. Anne, and the Christ child in a way that reinforced the perception of the sancitity of the Catholic Church?

You know, that's a good point. The reason I am trying to press these conversations is to find views like these, which complicate things into oblivion. Being confused is good for the learning process.

I don't think DaVinci got paid for his sketchbooks, which I consider his most amazing achievement. We all have to get paid somehow, right? So paint. Make a logo, if you have to. But the sketchbooks made him a genius, both historically and literally.

On Jan.24.2004 at 12:46 AM