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Design: Is Design History Necessary in Education?

Historic Industrial Design Stamps

It isn't until recent history, less than 100 years, that design has been its own field of study and production. It is even less, that schools have been teaching design, and even less than that, that businesses have seen the relevance and importance of design for their goods and services. In many college design programs, the history of design hasn't been taught or emphasized, probably because there hasn't been much there to teach. However, looking past contemporary design as we know it, there is a plethora of history leading up to this field, which is extremely relevant and important for designers emerging into the workforce to know. After all, how can you validate your designs without context, and how can you have context without history?

Humans are visual creatures. We can consume images and their meanings almost instantly. Before we had language we drew on cave walls. If we didn't understand images, we wouldn't have evolved to create designs the way we do today. Humans have been stylizing and depicting the world around them for millennia. The question becomes "Why?" Why are these images so important to us? We've used them in politics since the age of the Egyptians, we've used them in religion since the time of spiritual cave paintings in Lascaux, France. And we still use similar implementations of design today.

While humans have evolved since those early cave paintings, we still share many, many traits with our ancestors - as any Anthropologist might tell you. The study of history in other contemporary fields is mandatory, for good reason. Having context and a deep understanding of your field makes you better at whatever you want to produce. One must know the rules and the history of why something works in order to deliberately break the rules. The understanding of human interactions with, and the creations of historical art and design is paramount. I was fortunate enough to have many history classes from fashion design history to furniture and architectural design history. Without these I wouldn't know how to evoke specific eras in my designs and art, or why certain type-fonts evoke specific feelings, or even why we humans gravitate toward design at all.

In contemporary business practices, those who aren't implementing design strategies are falling behind and loosing clients/consumers at an increasing rate. How does design history become relevant in this case? Being in the design industry for 10 plus years, I've come to realize no two businesses are the same, just as no two people are the same. Each business has a unique culture, product or service and unique history. Designers should not only learn the history of design, but know how to research the history (however brief) of their clients. It is often in researching and deeply understanding the client's history that my best designs are found, because I've connected with them on a deep level, and made my design extremely relevant for them, and because I've learned why design is so important to us as humans.

When I was studying different aspects of design history, I never thought I'd really need it in the "real world," or would use it in my daily life. I hated history with a passion growing up, but something changed. I found that history, as related to a field I truly cared about became fascinating to me and helped me stitch together a wonderful view of design from various perspectives. Today I lean on history more than ever, from researching client histories, to creating my own posters for things I want people to engage with, to products I design for consumption. I even use design history to throw parties or dress up for them. My designs for clients and their brands are always founded in historical context, and I can create truly innovative designs by consciously knowing what rules to break and for what purpose. History is how any designer can validate his or her own work and remain relevant in a contemporary field.


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