This op-ed is one of a three-part series of opinion pieces in which educators address the way design history has traditionally been taught, and how we can push for more representation in the canon. Previously we published a piece by Ruth Sykes of Central Saint Martins and one by YuJune Park and Caspar Lam of Parsons School of Design. The series originally ran in Eye on Design magazine issue #01: Invisible.
This is quite a time for the “unsung.” My inbox and my social media feeds are finally full of monographs, retrospectives, and awards that celebrate the underrepresented, diligently painting back into the picture heroes and heroines who seem to have accidentally fallen out. But the structure is the same: So-and-so is a genius, now acknowledged, because the old gatekeepers have now been usurped. I’m happy that we can finally acknowledge our biases, but I’m also troubled, because we’re still substituting lists of people for the larger narratives that we all contribute to.
Now, rather than five or six “titans,” we have a pantheon of gods and goddesses to choose from and that pantheon looks a little more like us. When we all choose our own heroes and heroines, however, we have even fewer shared stories or references. And without common references, we strip our shiny new historical people of context.
How we make what we make is shaped by where we are in the history of ideas.
To see this in action, go into any design classroom and ask: “What is modernism?” If there are international students, the question is complicated before you even begin to address design; the student from Denmark has a different understanding of modernism than the student from India, Turkey, or Brazil. American students will generally give you a stylistic explanation like “it’s keeping things simple,” as if it is an expression of personal taste. Someone will offer “form follows function,” without knowing where that phrase comes from, what it was responding to, or what its own mostly xenophobic defenses were at the turn of the 20th century.
How we make what we make is shaped by where we are in the history of ideas—how we answer the big questions. How do we see the world? What are the rights and responsibilities of individuals? What do we value as a society? What is our relationship to technology? As designers, we encode these ideas into what we make. When we encode these ideas, to a certain degree, we endorse them. When I make a “clean” layout, for example, I add one more vote for universal meaning and hygienic form; one more vote for a world that believes in progress. But in order to understand what I am saying yes to, I need to know where these ideas are coming from, what they rose in reaction to, and how they’ve been questioned.
We also need a shared understanding of where the machine ends and the human begins in the process of design, and how this has changed over time. It was the invention of the flashbulb, not just individual photographic genius, that made the muckraking images of Jacob Riis possible. Almost all of the technological developments of the last 30 years that have changed our day-to-day lives have to do with communication. We still ride 747s, but the entire structure of how we get information from one brain into another has irreversibly changed. Instead of fully acknowledging how those advancements have changed what we make and how we think, we have lost ourselves in the nostalgia of the pre-digital. Our contemporary communication landscape—even offline—is almost entirely constructed by templates and algorithms. How this all came to be is relevant, crucial even.
It was the invention of the flashbulb, not just individual photographic genius, that made the muckraking images of Jacob Riis possible.
Yet we turn our attention to the biographies of Toulouse Lautrec and Dieter Rams, hoping there are some secrets to genius there that we can use in our own quest to matter within this new paradigm. Meanwhile, we mostly regard postmodernism as a bad dream (“David Carson! Can you believe it?”) and forget to talk about what happened after, and how we got to our present moment. When we add women to our conversation, we don’t discuss their husbands or the family they were born into because it ruins the story of the individual genius in a meritocratic culture.
Don’t get me wrong, teaching history through biography can be a useful tool. In elementary school, kids are introduced to history through characters that they can empathize with, before they develop a database of big-picture events to connect to. As grown-ups, though, we are fully qualified to discuss and debate ideas. And substituting hagiography for history itself is an American obsession that we should consider letting go. It’s connected to our most corrosive idea, one that is currently enjoying a renaissance: that we are a culture of winners and losers, the winners always deserve to win, and the losers deserve their punishment.
If we valued the history of ideas as much as the history of individuals, if we understood design history in its full economic, political, and social contexts, we would also value more the work of the archivist, the moderator, the facilitator, the teacher, and the producer. And when future educators describe our time, what will they say? Will they again make lists of people, and try to make sure their accounting shakes out okay? Or will they say that we all contributed in making this new world, and talk about how all of our contributions—whether in words, pictures, posts, or spreadsheets—mattered in that making?
Juliette Cezzar is a designer, writer, and educator based in New York City.