17 August 2011
In Spring 2008, I began teaching Design History Lab, a sophomore-level course at UT Austin that combines basic web design methods with an introduction to cross-disciplinary design history. The course is taught in two physical spaces, a classroom for history and an adjacent computer lab for web design, and utilizes a trio of Adobe design tools: Adobe® Bridge for image-based research presentations, and Photoshop® and Dreamweaver® for web conceptualization, programming and design.
Graphic design students are certainly more familiar with the idea of using history than with learning it; appropriation is second nature to a design student who has grown up with YouTube, torrents, and Photoshop. Rather than fight this impulse, I created an initial class blog, "designhistorymashup" and a blurb explaining that rather than viewing history as the linear progress of civilizations or chronicles of "great men," we would explore alternative approaches, having short, "tempestuous affairs" with historical designers and movements that allow us to "give birth" to new work." Our mascot was a 1940s comic book hero, "Kid Eternity," who could summon dead heroes from history to help him fight evil. The term "mashup," drawing from web and music, was meant to encourage students to think about the validity of contemporary practice, in which two songs, technologies, or data sources are "mashed" or combined to create something new. The challenge was to encourage students to absorb the ideas of the designers they studied, explore the historical and cultural context in which the ideas emerged, and then take a critical, contemporary position on their subjects.
My initial method was to have students write and present their research on specific designers, culminating in their creation of a website using Dreamweaver's design capabilities, about an aspect (a designer, group of designers, idea) of design history. Rather than simply sampling a style, the websites would, in theory, shed new light on historical subjects. Perhaps predictably, the students' first impulse was to be fans rather than critics. Sophomores did not feel confident or well-versed enough in their subject to take a critical position, and tended to fall back on tried and tested arguments about the importance of particular designers and movements. However, several interesting experiments emerged, including student Angela Wen's witty and irreverent comic book-style account of the monumental battles between design superheroes, and student Joseph Wilborn's intriguing effort to rearrange the design history canon through Google rankings, the most popular shown with the largest typesize. Overall, it seemed in the syllabus that more emphasis could be placed on the way in which a scholarly thesis is constructed. It also occurred to me that this might be played out collaboratively (as in a design studio), by having the students pool their research and then draw different perspectives from the same database, constructing websites that filter and shape the shared knowledge.
For the history research, our key text was Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish's book Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, which purposely avoids the "positivist and celebratory" approach of its giant forebear, Philip Meggs' history, in favor of a contextual and critical account. Printed ephemera of the 19th Century, for example, are considered by Drucker and McVarish in terms of political and cultural changes and technological developments: a poster by Alphonse Mucha provides an opportunity to discuss the suffragette movement and its connection to smoking and the industrialization of the bicycle. I assigned teams of students single works of design from history (like the Mucha poster) and asked them to make joint class presentations connecting the work to a number of other works and influential factors, considering questions like "What technologies made the work possible?" "Who funded it?" and "What were its formal precedents?" They were encouraged to prepare their class presentations in Adobe Bridge, which I like for its capability to rearrange slides on the fly.
Several students achieved a critical perspective on the material; student Lauren Dickens, for example, used the motif of time to examine how design reflected the industrialization of society and how that was manifest in printed ephemera. Student Rachel Brinkman designed a site riffing on the language of Internet advertising to explore how fear was used in advertising history to enforce social norms and sell products.
I taught the most recent Design History Lab in Spring 2010 using the same methods and concepts. Courtney Inge, my teaching assistant, introduced a playful approach to web design and had students continually experimenting and building pages with newly learned code, rather than first learning rules and principles. We empowered students to abandon conventional notions of web design in which concepts are drawn up and then taken to programmers to execute. They thus became more aware of what they could achieve, less unrealistic in their concept designs, and more improvisatory in their approach.
To stress the interdisciplinary array of influences on a work of design and prepare the first iterations of websites, we required students to diagram their connections in Photoshop with at least six nodes. Translating these diagrams to working websites was less a lesson in accurate execution than in playful experimentation, with students adapting their designs to their limited but growing skills at coding.
Knowing the common learning pitfalls ahead of time was particularly helpful in developing websites with a singular focus: student Andyy Moore developed a site applying Freud's concept of the uncanny to 3D digital design in movies, from early Pixar to James Cameron's Avatar. Student Jennifer Choi pulled together an array of examples and wrote extensive captions exploring the theme of Oriental-Occidental borrowing in art, design, and fashion. And student Christine Wu cleverly examined the changing urban context of poster design by superimposing canonical images on street scenes.
I firmly believe that designers should understand some coding basics as well as they understand the basics of print, paper, and production technology. The benefit of using Dreamweaver is that its code editor permits some experimentation while allowing students to instantly view—or troubleshoot— the results. Coupled with Bridge and Photoshop, the classroom is equipped with a set of tools that allows students to quickly visualize their ideas and try out new ways of synthesizing and communicating concepts, in presentations and on mock-up web pages. As Design History Lab progresses, my hope is that its potential will grow as a research platform for new approaches to web design and to visualizing history. If mastery of the Adobe Creative Suite is achieved in the first two years of our four-year program, students could feasibly team up with researchers, and build giant collaborative interactive maps of design history.