“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” ~ William Morris
Design is at a unique crossroads; in a world of political and social intersections, design is quickly revealing its own skeletal system. People tend to ask now more than ever what is underneath clean logos, underneath the branding that perpetuates corporate wealth, beyond the work that enables cultural embeddedness to products, and those works that amplify a status quo. What is underneath the silicon covering all that bubbling economic growth?
A generation of confusion has made designers question their roots harder than ever. From left field, across many voices, you hear design defined as only business, away from artistic creation, whereas in the actual work of designers, from UX to screenprinting to hand-lettering, there’s a world of real aesthetic contribution. A world where art is an island we trade with, yet also world we choose to ignore. Like many young lives, we are struggling to figure out how to discern what is and what isn’t art, along with what’s good/bad art, and what’s important/unimportant.
And most importantly: What is our center?
To ignore the history of design is as detrimental as ever to the future of design. To study only the contemporaries has merit in practicality, but we as designers must be more than problem solvers looking at the same level everyday. We need to analyze and dig deeper backwards to better see forwards; to really understand the future of design and the tools necessary to construct that future. We must be on the same entrepreneurial plane as every leader of every successful company. We must predict, expect, cover, prepare, and disseminate problems, not just solve them like robots. Only in understand human history can we be prepared to do this.
As the famous economist Joseph Schumpter noted, there’s a “wild spirit” that enables entrepreneurship. This wild spirit should be understood as external to mere market expectations. That is, external to mere business models and credit systems, but of desire, teleology, and full development. It’s understanding human needs, and forward thinking of things external to the mere means-ends model of the market. There’s a heart, and that heart can only be understood with genuine artistry. Or, design is a tool of art waiting to be better understood through a stronger definition of art and .
So why history? The first real step of understanding anything properly and fully is to give it a sense of history. Nothing is eternal, and giving something its development removes any possibility of blind myth, or possibility separating something from a broader context. To study history as a whole is to study the place design lies in relation to the rest of human culture, as opposed to leaving it as only a specialization among many, detached from the ugliness of systemic processes. Design develops with the markets. Good history makes the saints human again. It reveals the world designers are placed in, and our place as designers in this entire world, not just as an industry.
All of our daily objects are designed, from the benign to the deadly. A careful history leads to a practical theory to understand all those objects. It guides us to being more than a paycheck at the end of the week, and sees us as human beings capable of placing a unique hand in the complex role we have to understand for real social change.
Designers amplify, and we are not merely the cogs in the machine, but have a role in revealing the need for production to new places via images. This places a need to both speak up in contexts with the tools at our disposal, and also the bigger responsibility of remaining silent. Understanding the production, moving inversely into the values of production processes, critiquing obvious systems and the impact designers have, reinvigorates our sense of place.
To merely practice mindlessly, without meaning, leads to an irresponsible ignorance that does not question the modes and ways designers can truly affect culture. There must be a reinvigoration of hope and power through design. It must leave itself open to critique not just in individual places, but as a whole. Designers need to lock their jaws on history, re-theorize a stronger sense of place in the world of art, philosophy, and social studies, and place itself as a mode of amplifying the right voices. The only way to do that is with finding out what’s the right tools; those tools are the theories of design.
Without history, we will fail to understand those theories that work best for the needs of our culture. With history, our work can see constructions of hope for voices long ignored. We can be only the empty-headed gentrification taking away basketball courts and homes in San Francisco, or we can be the hope for a stronger community where all can thrive, and all can live fully. That choice will always be ours, and history will be the window for understanding that choice.
Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Also published on Medium.