Enough with the Timelines

Some years ago, when Matt Monk got us all together to start a Graphic Design MFA up at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I ended up with the Design History hat. (This hat is now being shared by a number of people at VCFA-- Silas Munro and Ian Lynam and many others.) But in those days, Silas was still mostly a practitioner and Ian hadn't clambered aboard yet, and it was a bizarre thing for me-- a woman-- to be assuming the Fedora of Design History's Father Culture. But of course, that's not why Matt had asked me to do it. He had realized that I was coming to consciousness, that I was no longer teaching out of Meggs, or adhering to timelines--that I was no longer seeing what I had been taught to see, and little else. 

 I remember a strange lecture at VCFA in which I asked the audience to take hold of strings that symbolized well-known teachers of various design methodologies. Each person was instructed to hold on to the string of the teacher that had affected them. Once everyone had grabbed on, I asked them to mash themselves into a line. They shuffled around, stepping over and under taut strings and trying to hold on, but they finally managed a kind of line. This, we realized, was an approximation of the false narrative that is any linear history.

I remember how Silas and I and everyone else in those first few classes kept feeling around for an apt metaphor for a new approach to the stories of the past-- a new way to describe history. He championed the notion of the self-perpetuating "rhizome" that grows from axillary buds, whereas I kept bringing the conversation back to "nodes of relationship," to who knew whom and when. For years, we rhizomed and noded our way along like blindfolded people-- because almost all the design history we'd ever seen was top-down, Western European, white, male and US-focused. I can't believe this was such a short time ago-- only five years or so. Since then, all has changed. No longer is the history of design taught as a monolith. If it is being taught that way to you, quit the class.

Design educators are reexamining all their preconceived notions about what history is, about who gets to be the compiler of the narrative. Until now, few groups have had their say, few have been able to tell their stories of design, kept as it was as the purview of the west. But now we're experiencing a time of great effulgence-- tons of stories, crucial points of view never before regarded as important-- it's a blinding mix-up and such an important time to be a design historian. Who is the expert? How do all the stories fit together? How do they recombine, morph depending on point of view? And a dawning realization-- after attempts at total historical democracy: crowd-editing has its own limitations, and who is to take the reins? It's great when everyone has a say, but everyone must have a say in a balanced way. Who decrees the balance?

In all my time teaching design history, all my feints and stabs at it-- only three ideas have remained constant. The first is that time is not a line. It is our perception of time that is linear. So putting things on timelines is really not the best way to order them for our network-driven brain. The second is that facts are not truth. Facts are deployed in so many ways that obfuscate and muddy. And yet we know truth when we see it, and we miss it when it's gone. And third, teaching history as a sort of firework finale of nodal relationship is the best way to model the stories of making because it mimics the ways we learn about relationship from infancy: that is mama, that is dada, that over there is my sister.

Design history has traditionally played down relationship and played up the cult of the striving individual. He did it on his own, despite intense challenges, facing into the wind, a noble beast of design perfection. But with suicides being on the rise, maybe we can emphasize a bit more relationship and less friendless individual striving.

Nodes and rhizomes have their limitations. I once had a grad student who set out to model the stories of nodal relationship he found in his study of historical African-American designers. We met for our monthly review. He told me he had failed: try as he might, arranging data in different constructs, he could not make "fireworks;" he could not make significant nodes of relationship between these designers, and he felt that his research was flawed.

But as we discussed his findings, we realized that far from failing, he had succeeded hugely. He'd found a truth that a timeline of facts would never have uncovered. He couldn't make nodes of relationship between these people, because there were none--or there were so very few as to make a nodal map impossible. These designers were working alone: Most did not know another African-American designer. They didn't have the support of peers. They bobbed in a vast sea of white designers. Yes, they had relationships with white designers, and yes, he tracked those down. But the overriding feeling of his research was something I'd never associated with design history: a portrait of enforced solitude, of drenching loneliness.

When we teach history, the stories we tell model ways of being in the world. We model who is dominant and who is passive; who is on top and who is kept down, who is bobbing about alone and who is considered the apex of design perfection. In modeling these things, we influence our students' desires for themselves--we influence what they believe success looks like. Teaching design history as superimposed networks of people and relationship, rather than as a linear sampling of individuals, provides context and value to a subject that can devolve into a headcount of the popular. Try nodes and rhizomes: Enough with the timelines.