Design History

Essays by Steven Heller
1 718 words9 min read

Despite all its accomplishments, the contemporary design world is afflicted by a deep vacuousness. Most students and many practitioners cannot even list or describe the field’s milestones or pioneers. I refuse to believe that this is true in other creative fields-painting, film, architecture, literature-but arguably the biggest void left by graphic design education programs is a critical awareness of design history. During the three to four years spent in undergraduate art and design school, students are offered many studio courses devoted to technology, technique, form, and even style-they are taught to solve problems in various media and to produce professional work for numerous genres. But ultimately a portfolio is the coveted end product that is given far more importance than an appreciation of history.

As co-chair of SVA’s MFA design program, I’ve found that some (not all) applicants with a graphic design background have little sense of design’s cultural significance. They lack the historical perspective that enhances modern-day professional practice. They view graphic design simply as a means to an end-a professional activity that leads to professional employment. That may be true, but this view limits the depth, and perhaps even the essence, of the educational experience.

I often urge these ‘cultural illiterates’ either to return to undergrad or take continuing-education classes that might bolster their understanding of design as a cultural manifestation. Some have taken the advice, but depending on the quality of the school and its programs, there are significant pedagogical holes that even the best-intentioned teachers have trouble filling.

I am no lock-jawed proponent of the ‘Educational Standards’ movement that seeks to hold students accountable to standardized levels of competence. However, it is critical for design students to be fluent in the language (and idioms) of design beyond the programs and styles du jour. Just as importantly, students must be aware that graphic design history intersects with other cultural, art, and political histories. Design is not produced in a vacuum, and its history must acknowledge influences from outside events, discoveries, and policies. Design history is, in a sense, world history.

As an example, consider the debate over design’s social role and designers’ social responsibility. Though useful for a designer’s self-awareness, this topic seen through the lens of history would lend it dimension and weight. Today’s designers are sometimes blamed for contributing to the wasteful excesses of our globalized capitalist consumer society, but branding and marketing methodologies-often cited as the culprits in present-day problems of conspicuous consumption-are hardly new. They were introduced more than 75 years ago when Ernst Elmo Calkins, a Midwest-born advertising executive who founded an ad firm in New York, developed a product strategy that involved regularly altering graphic styles for advertisements and packages. In the 1920s, this was dubbed ‘styling the goods’, the idea being to push consumers to change their buying habits and thus goose the economy. This confluence of advertising, product design, industrial design, and public relations was key to what eventually became the supreme paradigm of American consumer culture. And in those days-when the U.S. had seemingly endless resources-waste was not a hotly contested issue.


Tracing how Calkins’s ideas developed into the practice of planned obsolescence and the role of design in this process is more than simply fascinating, it provides a meaningful context for understanding today’s issues. Comprehending this history might not change the attitudes of the No Logo adherents-those who consider globalization and the brand ethos to be forces of economic and cultural devastation-but for teachers and students it provides a necessary foundation for intelligent and informed critical perspectives. While design educators’ primary job is not to develop the next generation of social critics, why shouldn’t designers be fluent in a critical language? For that matter, design programs should encourage designers to become critical historians. Even if scholarship is not part of students’ ultimate career goals, this kind of critical thinking will doubtless enhance relations with clients. Just as a thorough knowledge of world history helps diplomats to better understand current events and to more intelligently argue their perspectives, interactions with clients would greatly benefit from designers who are more enlightened and hopefully articulate about their own milieu.

A critical understanding of history is also vital in addressing questions about designers’ relationships to their governments and the social order, a fact crystallized by the war with Iraq. Individual decisions must be made about how (or when) designers contribute to war or anti-war efforts. Designers have created good and bad propaganda in the service of past wars, and the recent military effort was no exception. Understanding the history of both oppositional and official propaganda by analyzing it from the vantage points of politics and esthetics is an invaluable introduction to this practice. By exploring the history of propaganda, students can critically perceive how their own work functions to aid, abet, or critique public policy.

In my own truncated critical history lecture series for MFA students at SVA, I teach one class that focuses on how racial and ethnic stereotypes have been perpetuated in popular arts and mass media since the mid-19th century. The purpose of the class is to expose students to a slice of American and European history that is unfamiliar-to discuss the origin of stereotypes and to explore what remains today of this unfortunate historical legacy. Regrettably, the class isn’t allotted enough time to address some of the peripheral issues-for instance, caricature and cartoon as a means of creating and deflating public myths. While this topic is not related to graphic design in the catholic sense, it is nonetheless an important aspect of design history. And there are dozens of historical sidebars that allow for similar critical analyses about graphic design practice. Sadly, most schools barely touch on design history at all, much less these tangents.

When it comes to the educational fundamentals, the omissions are often egregious: Most design schools do not offer history survey courses that tackle more than a superficial canonical timeline, do not employ dedicated teachers of history and criticism, and do not train educators to teach this curriculum or take critical history into advanced realms of study. Even if there were more trained educators, most schools claim they do not have the finances or underwriting to maintain a dedicated critical history program.

Of course, developing a history curriculum has a lower priority than purchasing up-to-date technology or developing studio courses that have immediate professional applications. There are only so many credits available in any given year and a strict laundry list of graduation requirements prevails. So what currently takes the place of required history classes? There are various ad hoc nods toward history. Hank Richardson at Atlanta’s Portfolio Center, for one, routinely assigns students in his classes a project that involves researching a vintage 20th-century style and then producing design work influenced by that esthetic. The research is meant to go beyond the superficial into a deeper analysis of the time and place in which the styles were produced. During the course of this research, students immerse themselves in the particular methodology and mannerisms that may no doubt lead to further curiosity and investigation.


As valuable as this may be, it is far short of a devoted critical history program. Sure, the student may learn about form by researching and copying important canonical works, but the big picture-design’s influence throughout society and culture-remains a blur.

Some schools do have survey courses that use Philip Meggs’s pioneering A History of Graphic Design as a means of injecting a dose of history for a semester or two, and even a cursory sampling is better than none at all. However, the scattershot method usually results in a dry experience devoid of both passion and insight-names, dates, and places do not make for an exciting or inspiring historical narrative. Meggs’s book (or Richard Hollis’s Graphic Design: A Concise History) is best used as an outline upon which to build more engaging, pragmatic, and thoughtful activities. But the killer constraint is time.

The time allocated for even required design history courses is minimal. One or two semesters is the maximum at even the better schools, and that’s barely enough to get a firm grounding in the European Modern movement, much less the richness of postwar design and a viable survey of type. Besides, when so much material is covered in such a short time, the students end up with only a cursory amount of knowledge and a paucity of insight. To establish a truly engaging curriculum, design history must be critically presented and analyzed. It should be a foundation for understanding theory and practice, not an expendable filler.

Given the political and jurisdictional concerns of most colleges and universities, proposed changes are often deemed radical. But the ideal curriculum would be a required critical history course that is not squirreled away as a footnote to the art history department but instead must run for no less than three years within an undergraduate design program. Make it an academic or studio requirement-the rubric is irrelevant, but the subject demands the attention. The program should be structured to teach the subtleties of the requisite historical facts as well as develop critical thinking abilities. Students should come away from the program knowing how to research and analyze design’s history, how to apply their historical knowledge in critical analyses about contemporary design, how to collect artifacts, and how to write history. They should understand the intertwining, ongoing influences of design, art, politics, culture, and technology. Schools should encourage design students to create not only a portfolio, but a body of scholarship and critical writing.

While most design educators respect history, graphic design education gives lip service to a scholarship that integrates practice with historical comprehension. We teach students to experiment, we teach them to produce, we teach them methods that will get them good jobs. Graphic design education-indeed, graphic design practice-requires an even greater intellectual rigor. Many students are competent designers, and some are better than that, but they must be equally good as thinkers. They must be able to research, analyze, critique, and write. A critical history program would make this the norm for design students, not the exception.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.