Why Understanding Design History Will Make You A Better Designer Today

The context in which you receive information impacts your interpretation of the information. It impacts the opinions you form and it impacts the decisions you make. Studying history is one way you can add context that will impact your understanding of design in a positive way.

I get the sense that many of today’s web designers know little about the history of graphic design. They likely know the names of a few schools of design like the Bauhaus. They probably know some of the more famous people associated graphic design. Odds are they can recognize some works as belonging to a specific school or designer as well. My guess is most don’t know much more than that and I include myself among them.

I decided to gather my thoughts on history in general in an effort to remind myself to learn more about the history of design and hopefully convince you it’s something worth learning as well.

Book vover for Graphic Design: A New History

Why an Understanding of History is Important

History has never been the most popular subject as far as I can tell. Many people associate it with memorizing dates and little more. It shouldn’t be surprising then for web designers to be unaware of design’s history. It’s surprising for me given once upon a time I earned a degree in history and I understand the importance of studying it, but that’s another story.

Design history is an education in what’s considered the best design has offered through the years

The first thing to correct about the perception of history is that it’s all about memorizing dates. The exact date an event occurred in history is far less important than it’s relationship to other events. The relative dates provide context for the events, but the exact date is seldom important.

You study history to understand how one thing at a certain time in a certain place influenced another thing in a different time and place. You study history to understand how one decision affects another, which affects another and how they all led up to some important event.

Does it matter that the Magna Carta was initially signed in 1215 as opposed to 1235? Not really. What’s important is understanding how this document serves as an inspiration and symbol of freedom from oppression and ultimately leads to constitutional law. It’s an important moment in the process of how people govern themselves. It adds context to how we govern ourselves today.

One of the reasons I enjoy studying history is the personal stories. How a letter not delivered led to war or how a difference in calendars helped Napoleon conquer most of Europe. The latter is likely just myth, but it’s a great story nonetheless and the more likely truth is just as interesting.

The stories are more than stories to entertain. They help you feel connected to people across time and help you see how much more similar we are than we sometimes think. It makes your problems feel less important when you know someone 500 or 1,000 years ago dealt with the exact same thing and survived.

The stories also show the mistakes people made. Honest mistakes that had great consequences. You can see wrong turns you might avoid and perhaps better understand where the right turn is located.

On the surface it might be difficult to separate history from memorizing dates. On the surface you might not feel You’ll have a connection with someone who lived thousands of years ago. However, the more you look, the more you realize things aren’t all that different then and now. Human beings are far more similar across time than you might realize. Studying history and hearing the stories of people across time helps you understand what it means to be a human being.

History allows you to observe change over longer periods of time. It helps you appreciate these changes and lets you see patterns that last beyond your own lifespan. It supplies a lot of context to a lot of things.

Reasons for Studying Design History

Why specifically study design history? For the same reasons you would study history in general. For the context and the connection to people who did the same work as you do now.

Alvalyn Lundgren put it together a list of reasons for studying design in preparation for a course she was teaching. You can also find her slide show with a little more detail about each item on her list.

It’s a great list and worthy of a look, but instead of repeating the entire list here, I’ll mention a few of the items along with some expanded thoughts of my own.

To Become a Better Designer

One topic that comes up in design circles is the idea of finding a mentor. Why not look to history for one. Granted you can’t ask direct questions of these mentors, but you would be learning from the best of the best. Many of the most skilled designers not only designed, but also shared thoughts and philosophies about design as well as specific choices they made on projects.

Whenever I talk about learning I mention both theory and practice and how practice is learning from your own experience, while theory is learning from the experience of others. History is the experience of others. You can learn much about design theory studying design history.

You won’t always have the exact same problems as someone who designed for print. That person was concerned with ink and paper. You, working entirely online, aren’t. Still that other designer was concerned with how to organize information and what colors schemes lead to what emotional impact. You can find solutions to today’s problems in history.

To Connect Past, Present, and Future

Hopefully you want to create designs that are timeless. To do that you first need know what stands the test of time and what doesn’t. Design history teaches you the fundamental principles of design that are considered timeless.

Perhaps you’re more interested in keeping up with trends. Trends come and go and then come back again. Very little, if anything, is wholly original. Most of what’s done today is inspired by something that was done in the past.

Watch the pattern in trends over time and you might figure out what’s likely to come next before it actually comes. Trends of the past are retro today. The typical pattern is for something to become popular before growing too popular and then becoming tiresome. A new trend emerges, often in reaction to the previous one, and starts the cycle of popular to tiresome to new trend once again.

Odds are if it was popular once, it can be popular again. We really are a lot more alike across time than we realize. Let the past inspire your present and let it help you understand how to design for a timeless future.

To Acquire Good Taste

You develop taste for design by observing and thinking about design. The more designs you see, the better you can separate good from bad. Design history gives you more to compare, which helps you recognize more patterns and sort designs into good, bad, and not sure. Even if most everything ends up in the not sure pile, you’ve already begun to develop your taste.

The history of anything is usually told through those people considered most important to the subject. Design history is told through the work and ideas of designers considered among the best and those that moved design forward through significant contribution.

Design history is an education in what’s considered good design. The more examples of good design you observe, the more confidence you’ll have in deciding what’s good and bad for yourself. You’ll be able to move more of the “not sures” into either the good pile or bad pile.

Closing Thoughts

I think the importance of history is greatly underestimated. History isn’t about memorizing dates. it’s about understanding relationships in people and events to gain a greater context across time.

Design history is no different. It’s worth studying for the context it brings. It’s worth understanding the longer term patterns and the repetitions in trends.

It’s also worth studying to see the connection you have with designers of the past. They may have worked in a different medium, but they were tasked with solving many of the same problems of communication you have to solve today. Learn from the masters. Learn from the works that have lasted through the years. Find mentors in the best of best.

Last year I wrote a post about Swiss Design, connecting the principles of this school of thought to the current flat design trend. I’ve often thought of writing similar posts about different design schools of thought.

What do you think? Would you like to see more content here on the history of design and specific designers? Let me know in the comments. Thanks.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

9 comments

  1. Enjoyed the article. I definitely would enjoy deeper dives into specific historical events, suggested reads, and even overviews of how current trends tie back to our history. Our design trends aren’t isolated moments but are built upon and guided by upon the movement of the past.

    • Thanks Joshua,

      Good to know someone is interested. I know I am and now I know you are as well. I’ll start digging in to some research and see what I can come up with.

      I agree about things being built upon and guided by the past. History doesn’t get a lot of love, but it provides the context for what we’re doing.

  2. Great read. I completely agree with you about the importance understanding history in relation to other events – too many people get bogged down in the fine details and lose sight of the forest for the trees!

  3. Hey Steven,

    Thanks for this post, I recently started studying some Modern History units and it has been really illuminating, so much so that I plan to do a degree in it as well.

    Actually this post answers another question of mine, (my job is in retail buying) and I was tossing up whether to do a Fashion History course overseas, I like your points on finding a mentor, trend forecasting, and developing good taste (timelessness).

    Thanks for your relatable ‘birds eye view’ on the matter, it has been helpful (now I have a better approach to answering people when they ask me why I’m studying history when I work in merchandising!).

    • Thanks Felicia.

      Back when I was earning a history degree I often found myself having to explain to other people why history. I didn’t have a great answer then. Hopefully I have a better one now.

      Interesting idea to do a fashion history course. I would think it would help people understand current fashion better. Besides everything comes back into fashion again so in learning about fashions past, you’re learning about its future too.

  4. A great article on the The history of Graphic Design, as a business we’ve been in the trade for over 34+ years and has seen vast changes in technology and the ways we now produce things. Experience still comes into play on a daily basis!

    • Thanks. I finally received a book I ordered to help me better understand graphic design history. I already had one, but I wanted a different perspective.

      Hopefully within the next few months I’ll start publishing some posts about design history or perhaps write a series with a few

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