The History of Graphic Design and Its Audiences

Filed Under: Inspiration , history , Article , education , Voice

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 members?

In his 1984 article, “The State of Design History, Part I,” the historian and theorist Clive Dilnot observes that design history was introduced into design curricula because of its perceived "important pedagogic role" in studio instruction.

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.

Limited diversity and interest in the lecture hall results in a reduction of potential audiences for graphic design as a historical subject that addresses its cultural, social, and political value.

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.