Teaching Design History: Time is Not a Line

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 asked me to do it. He realized that I was coming to consciousness, that I was no longer teaching out of Meggs, or adhering to strict timelines--that I was no longer seeing history in the way I had been taught to see it.

 I remember a strange lecture at VCFA in which I asked the members of the audience to grab a place on a string that symbolized a teacher they'd had. Once we'd all 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 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 from one big book that details the impressive design achievements of white men. If design history is being taught that way to you, drop the class.

Design history 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 great effulgence-- tons of stories, crucial points of view never before regarded as important– it's a rich and confusing 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, how do they change 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? Where is the one in the many? 

In all my time teaching design history, all my feints and stabs at it-- only three ideas have remained constant in my mind.

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. Teaching design as a line of facts is not actually a truthful representation of what has gone before. Facts can be 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, the best way to model our "stories of making" is as a sort of "firework finale" of nodal relationship. This approach avoids getting stuck in a timeline. It mimics the ways we learn about relationship from infancy: that is mama, that is dada, that over there is my sister. Learning about designers in terms of whom they knew and whom they lived with and whom they hated helps students remember much more, much faster than does the endless timeline of unrelated, singular individual achievement.

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 on the rise, perhaps we can reexamine the idea that no one does anything alone; that all design is created in relationship (whether those relationships are heralded or not) and that promoting friendless striving is to promote the very old notion of the "artist as God, lording over his Creation"–a lording not quite in step with the pluralism of the Post-postmodern era. 

Much as I avoid a timeline, I do use them every now and then in the classroom, just for the students who learn more sequentially. Sadly, these timelines do end up looking like clumps of dog hair, what with the circles and arrows. 

Nodes and rhizomes arrange facts differently from timelines, and they allow us to peer in from the side, and look up and down at things, altering our point of view and our conclusions. 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.