The future is so now. Everywhere you turn, there’s some book, blog post, or conference about “THE FUTURE OF something-or-other” these days. The faster tech progress moves, the more impatient people become for the next new thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with envisioning the future and imagining possibilities for what could be. Meaningful progress depends on it. But there is something deeply wrong when we forget about everything that got us here or, worse yet, have no clue it ever even existed.
Recognizing the value of design history and truly learning from it is a loaded topic. It would take more than a lowly blog post to address topics such as the gaps in design history, the underuse of primary source material in education, and the false idolization of influential figures in design history. What interests me right now is the perception and role of design history in an internet- and social-media-driven world. Two interlinked forces are at work shaping design history — for better and worse:
- The design explosion: As the popularity of design increases (never mind which design we’re talking about) and the demand for designers and design skills grows (never mind specifics, again), what design is has evolved in response to these changes. More diverse voices outside of design are shaping and “curating” conversations about design, new players are redefining the landscapes of design education and practice, and new applications of design are gaining more recognition among the more traditional products and services. However, with so much activity around design, it becomes more challenging to make sense of design and find information about design history that is accurate and useful.
- The digital revolution: There’s no denying the speed and scale of change still happening from the analog-to-digital transition. Design continues to explode because more people know about it, interact with it, and practice it thanks to the unprecedented reach of the Web, the ways we can access it, and the number of places we can share and find information. The whole of design may seem no more than a Google search away on whatever device we want, but much design history still hasn’t migrated from boxes and shelves to digital files on servers and in databases. And what has migrated may be unreliable or incomplete.
Both forces combined have certainly elevated, broadened, and enriched design over the past twenty years or so, but they have also given rise to a growing trend toward “new” and “now.” In the Internet Age, design history is neither of those things. Instead, it is associated with words like “old,” “outdated,” “archaic,” among other unfavorable descriptors. It’s about people from, like, a hundred years ago doing lots of long, hard manual work without computers. And let’s not forget the stuffy old instructors who deliver bone-dry design history lectures and assign dreadfully long readings from super-heavy textbooks. For these reasons, it must be repackaged in the context of quick-fix social media and grabby blog posts and linkbait to become “new” and “now.”
One of the biggest problems hurting design history today is the use of historical design imagery, particularly visual displays of information commonly labelled “infographics” culled from online library, museum, and archive collections, without the correct citation: it’s either missing, incomplete, or the source cited lacks the actual reference. Countless Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Facebook pages, tweets, and other forms of social sharing feature these images with little more than a trite “cool historic infoviz” or “[INFOGRAPHIC] Awesome Victorian data display” to accompany the posts. It may seem harmless, but the compounded reposting creates more distance between the original source and the place it was found (reverse image search is occasionally helpful, but no substitute for correct citation).
The widespread use of historical design imagery as visual fodder for personal mood boards and attention-seeking reduces the value of design history to clip art that can be freely redistributed across the web without regard for provenance or historical context. Works that are out of copyright or in the public domain aren’t necessarily fair game because there are no legal repercussions (as with music videos on YouTube). They are still someone’s creation and it’s worth stating who made them, when, where, and why, not just in the interest of good scholarship but in the interest of helping others learn more about that “cool” discovery.
An event I attended recently at the New York Public Library, Peripheral Landscapes: The Art of Maps, perfectly encapsulated the problem of design history stripped of meaning. The event featured three digital collages constructed entirely from cut-outs of “decorative and non-informational elements that reside along the edges of maps” that are part of the library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. The project was part of the library’s Net Artist in Residence program intended to make the most of their digitized historical collections and infuse them with a little more “new” and “now.” For most of the talk, the artist, Jenny Odell, spoke about her interests in online imagery and particularly Google Maps and Google Street View, and to be fair, most of the work she showed was conceptually interesting. When asked during Q&A if she documented the image sources she used, her response was a plain and simple “no.” Granted, much art contains allusions to its influences but doesn’t often state them directly. In this case, a library-sponsored art project using its own historical map collection to boost public awareness and use, attribution was surprisingly not a requirement — nor an obligation on the artist’s part — if only for the sake of helping viewers identify where the “non-informational element” came from and encouraging them to dig deeper into the map collection.
Making the effort to preserve links to the past across the analog-digital divide is critical to design history’s survival. In the absence of web citation police or a definitive, comprehensive online source of design history across all design fields, the responsibility belongs to everyone to correctly cite historical design imagery they post with the original source and not some derivative source or a linkrot-vulnerable URL. Even if it means doing a bit more homework beyond a Google search.