Design History for High School

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Last Friday I gave a keynote speech at the Design-Ed: Future 2013 conference held at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, focusing on teaching design in pre-K through 12th grade. Many of the attendees taught art and design in these grades. My focus was on how design history might be employed in high school art curricula. Here is an excerpt:

I recently asked a handful of undergrad design students to tell me who invented the Diesel Engine, the Ford automobile, the Dyson vacuum cleaner, Winsor Newton paints and Doc Marten’s boots. The responses were not all that encouraging. Despite the creator’s names hiding in plain sight, most responders had no clue, nor much cared.

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I suppose that each of these products are so much a part of our brand-vernacular that who the inventors really were, not to mention other pertinent historical facts, are distorted by prevaricated brand narratives.

Brands usually have pre-digested stories appended to their respective identities. Corporations pay millions for naming and packaging campaigns that perpetuate Ford and introduce Dyson as household names. Over time, when a brand story is well managed, consumers only embrace the false narratives — fake is truth.

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Kids today seem to be more visually literate than ever before, but nonetheless more gullible and susceptible to brand speak, more willing to accept the false brand fairy tales about the products they own or aspire to own, than they do the real history of, say, automobile mass production.

How do we educate these kids to be more discerning?

I contend that history is the glue that binds our liberal arts education together, and DESIGN HISTORY is the thread that ties or, if you prefer, contextualizes design practices within the larger world — and that means understanding everything from branding to ergonomics to visual style to communications technology and more. History needn’t be a musty closet filled with molding memorabilia. History is filled with large and small revelations — wonderful connections and insightful discoveries. For instance, here’s a factoid:

The real Dr Maertens of “Doc Martens” boot fame invented his revolutionary air cushioned shoe while serving in the Werhmacht in World War II. He needed better shoes to march in and this is another in an array of products — including the T-shirt, Spam and molded plywood — borne of war yet put to peaceful use. Tell me that you don’t find that moderately fascinating!?

If you are following my logic — which confounds me from time to time — this is a preamble for a proposal on teaching design literacy in pre-K through 12– wherein correlating the here-and-now with history is essential.

Hold on . . . Design history classses in K through 12?

It is hard enough getting grad students interested in the history of design, when what they really want to do is create the next big APP — unless, of course, it is an APP that is about the history of design.

So would you like to know how design history can be integrated into a Kindergarten though 12th grade curriculum?

Well, to be honest, it can’t. In fact, forget about teaching design history until 9th grade, or thereabouts — then it will be the gift that keeps on giving.

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Pre- and primary school is where kids must be encouraged to CONCEIVE and MAKE art while being exposed to design, and to learn that creativity and imagination have a exalted place in our social order.

But by the time kids reach high school age they are mature enough to be informed and nourished by what came before. To study history is a process of excavation and building story upon story. In art and design in particular it is a about seeing, rejecting, embracing and changing what once was. History is the engine of creativity.

In high school the design history class should be seamlessly woven into art studio periods. Every assignment should be linked to and reveal an historical parallel. This is common in college design classes where past styles, movements or attitudes are studied and scrutinized and then students interpret what they’ve learned in the studio through drawings, prototyping or what have you. Spanning disciplines is also important. Design production and design history incorporates graphic, package, product, interior, architecture, motion, data, advertising, illustration and more. High school students should receive the full array of design options. And with so many means of production available to anyone with access to the hardware, the range of what can be physically made rather than merely sketched has become an even wider.

For my proposition to make sense, however, it is essential that an art-and-design-literate teacher lead this kind of a class. The combustible mixture of artist / designer / teacher who views art and design as equal is rare. But they do exist.

Leon Friend, chairman Art Department, Abraham LIncoln High School.

Leon Friend.

In fact, I’d like to introduce you to one, who is, as far as I’m concerned, his own chapter in the history of design education and is the model for doing, over 80 years ago, exactly what I am proposing today. Those old guys stole our best ideas.

Leon Friend (above) began teaching in 1930, during the throes of the Great Depression in Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School where he was its first art department chairman.

Abraham Lincoln will never be as famous as the Bauhaus, ULM or Cranbrook — nor is it even especially well known among most New Yorkers, unless you are a Brooklynite. But for over three decades between 1930 and 1969, it was a springboard for scores of artists, photographers and graphic designers. Friend’s curriculum balanced the fine and applied arts and offered more commercial art courses than most art trade schools. He introduced leading contemporary designers and inspired many of his students to become designers, art directors, illustrators, typographers and photographers.

“For most of us with limited economic resources,” explained a former student, Martin Solomon (class of ’48),”the career choice was to drive a cab. Thanks to Mr. Friend, we could earn a living and be challenged by working with type and image.”A partial list of his students include Seymour Chwast, Gene Federico, Jay Maisel, Irving Penn, Alex Steinweiss, Bill Taubin, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Richard Wilde.

He accomplished in a high school that was not devoted exclusively to art studies, what many colleges and universities fail to do even today: Place the applied arts in both an historical and practical context. From the ninth grade his students were taught typography, layout and airbrush techniques while other schools were teaching crafts.

“Graphic Design” was the title of his class was (long before it was common to do so), but defined broadly. Friend’s students drew and painted, designed posters, and composed magazine and book pages. For Friend, graphic design was an inclusive and expressive activity. Friend’s curriculum was more than a departure from the standard, cookie-cutter NY Board of Education pedagogy: it challenged the common assertion that art education was ethereal. His history classes broadened the knowledge of those who took them; his studio classes forced students to solve professional problems; and his guest lecture classes (with Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Lucian Bernhard, Josef Binder, Lynd Ward, Chaim Gross and Moses Soyer) offered an introduction to the masters of commercial and fine art.

The most essential quality of good lettering is: a. decorativeness b. simplicity c. legibility

Friend’s mid-term and final exams (page above) required each student be versed in how and where the intersection of the histories of fine and applied art defined culture. What other high school’s test paper included questions about perspective using E. McKnight Kauffer or A.M. Cassandre posters as visual examples?

Friend wanted his students to have every opportunity to succeed in the real world, and so he founded a quasi-professional extra curricular club called the “Art Squad,” which for its members was more important than any varsity football, basketball or baseball team. Located in Lincoln’s Room 353, Friend gave the Art Squad autonomy under the tutelage of an elected student leader who served for an eighteen-month term.

Friend entered the teaching profession at a time when graphic design was a potential means to escape economic hardship of the Depression and was by necessity an exponent of practical pedagogy or what one alumnus called “the achievement method.” Friend’s practical methods prepared students to enter the profession.

Design is a language — not like French or Spanish — but an Esperanto. While knowing the rudiments of design technique is enough for some, design literacy, which is predicated on historical understanding, is arguably as useful and necessary as any liberal arts foundation.

Admittedly, carving out time for design education seems low on the priority list. But I contend, and I know I am preaching to the choir, that design education is liberal arts education from the back door. In addition to tests of talent and skill, exercising the imagination, appreciation of history and how it plays into art and design practice, design offers lessons in ethics and intellectual property.

Historically, designers accepted a certain amount of routine cannibalizing from other designers. See a good idea or style — take the good idea or style. Only in the past thirty or so years was plagiarism even considered bad manners, no less taboo in design, like this direct appropriation (copy on left, original on right).

Paranormal + Slant, Bauen + Wohnen

Now, design is one of the more ethical professions, so imparting those ethics are a benefit of teaching design at a young age.

To conclude, since design history is woven into a studio environment, it is a lens through which to explain what design has been and will be. Here are a few design tenets that can be taught in high school:

Design is a process of building upon recognizable cultural imagery, while finding ways of transcending time and place.Design is about being playful in all ways. The visual pun is a tool of design allowing the designer to express many messages in one image.Design is an expressive tool. Sure it is in the service of the client, but it can also be the means to make personal or social commentary.Design is about quoting historical precedents in part because such imagery is familiar but also, there is room for irony, and nothing is more mnemonic than an ironic visual.Design is knowing when an idea is good and not good. Sometimes a good idea can be used so many times it is bad – and not in the good sense.Design is knowing when and when not to resort to stereotypes.Design is about busting as many conventions and taboos as possible. Turning comfort on its side.

Additional Resources

  1. The Education of a Graphic Designer by Steven Heller.

  2. Researching Design History: From a Personal Perspective, an instructional design tutorial.