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To insist that, or to prescribe how, the
history of graphic design need be taught in any particular way is to
unnecessarily limit the field in both methodology and pedagogy. Since
there is no consensus amongst historians of graphic design on what the
history of graphic design is or what it should be, no scholar studying
the subject should commit to any one way of researching, writing, and
teaching. I suspect that if a scholar were to approach the question of
how to research, write, and teach the history of graphic design, he or
she may begin with a careful consideration of audience. What
constitutes an audience for the history of graphic design? Do multiple
audiences exist? What are the constitutive aspects that make up an
audience member? What are his or her qualifications? And, what
determines the appropriate knowledge base for potential audience
While Dilnot defines design in broad terms, his remark deserves
further consideration in regards to graphic design, since the reality of
graphic design education now requires that the history of graphic
design be taught in conjunction with studio courses. In an interview
with Steven Heller in Design Dialogues, the late Philip Meggs
discussed the importance of the combination of lecture and studio.
Meggs said, "I've always believed the purpose of teaching design history
is to strengthen studio education and professional practice." It is
important to note that Dilnot and Meggs are not saying the same thing.
On the one hand, Dilnot makes an observation about one aspect of the
history of graphic design, that it has influenced the dynamics of studio
instruction. On the other hand, Meggs prescribes the role of the
history of graphic design in service to the general education of the
student of graphic design. In doing so, Meggs assumes that the history
of graphic design, in that it has a "purpose," is the sole domain of
graphic designers. Such a designated direction, no doubt, has had a
profound effect on how the history of graphic design has been taught in
an academic setting.
It is hardly surprising that Meggs came to believe that the sole
intent of the history of graphic design and of historians of graphic
design should be in the service of the graphic design profession, and
hence the ideal audience for the history of graphic design is the
student of graphic design. After all, Meggs was a pioneer of what
Heller calls "the graphic design history movement." And, his The History of Graphic Design
has structured most approaches to the teaching of the subject in the
United States. Despite his exemplary role, the historian of graphic
design may want to advance beyond Meggs’ example.
There is no doubt that at the university or college level, the
history of graphic design is rarely taught apart from an active
(professional) program. I am aware of a single instance where teaching
the history of graphic design was not directly related to graphic design
studio education—a graphic design history seminar that I taught on two
occasions at Northwestern University in the department of art history.
Northwestern does not have a graphic design program, although graphic
design related courses are often taught in both the Medill School of
Journalism and the Kellogg School of Management. The situation at
Northwestern should not be an exception to the rule. Indeed, there
exist multiple audiences for the history of graphic design, some of
whose members are not students of graphic design but who have a vested
interest in its cultural significance.
If the history of graphic design is exclusively taught to students
of graphic design, then such an arrangement bars all other interested
parties from taking such a course. The causal relationship is twofold.
In the first case, such an occurrence is directly related (or can be
correlated) to the fact that many graphic design majors are required to
take the history of graphic design. Because majors are always given
preference when registering for courses, the diversity of students who
make up an audience for the history of graphic design is limited at
best. In the second, and related, case, an audience other than students
of graphic design is less likely to be interested in a history course
structured by the formal elements of past graphic design. For instance,
history of graphic design courses that emphasize chronologies of styles
and the rote memorization of slides is of minor concern, although not
entirely irrelevant, to an audience that values graphic design as a
social and historical phenomenon.
There are many missed opportunities if the teaching of the history of
graphic design ignores the breadth of its significance. For example, I
have very often heard graphic designers remark that the role of the
graphic designer is to "educate" the client on the value of graphic
design. Wouldn't it be an ideal situation if clients came to graphic
designers already familiar with the cultural, social, and political
relevance of graphic design, because of having attended courses on the
history of graphic design? One step towards accomplishing this ideal
would be to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards what constitutes an
audience for the history of graphic design.
Significantly, Dilnot claims that the interrelations "between
history, understanding, and practice is of central importance to design
as a whole." He goes on to state that theoretical and philosophical
questions that plague graphic design practice cannot be "solved in
practice without historical study." A central question for Dilnot is:
"To what extent can history contribute to the understanding of what
design is and what the designer does, and to what extent can history
make that understanding public?" I will go further and ask, what method
of teaching history makes public "what design is and what the designer
does" so as to create an environment where liberally educated audiences
are fully capable of appreciating the deep significance of graphic
design as a cultural, social, and political activity? If anything, this
question should structure, but should not limit, how one might teach
the history of graphic design.
About the Author: Michael J. Golec is Assistant
Professor of Art and Design History in the Department of Art and Design
and the Department of Architecture at Iowa State University.
This essay is part of "Centennial Voices," a series
initiated as part of AIGA's Centennial celebrations to spark
conversations about the past, present and future of design within the
design community and beyond.
Section: Inspiration -
personal essay, graphic design, identity design
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