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Design History 101. How much do you know?



One of the things I find missing when I'm speaking to designers (especially those that didn't go to uni) is their knowledge of design history and styles of art/design from the past.

I don't expect everyone to be an expert (I just barely know the basics) but its the little things that I assumed would be Design History 101 that graphic designers don't seem to know. An example of this is the ability to pick out work from specific period of time i.e. art-deco or the ability to pick out a certainly style by name i.e. Art Nouveau.

Is it just me or is this not as important as I think it should be?


Senior Member
Well having just graduated from a graphic design course, we weren't taught the history of graphic design. However if i was to do a fine art course then i would be taught the whole history of art.

I think its ridiculous that universities are not teaching this, as i have to research everything off my own back. My lecturers were happy to answer any questions i had, but we were always told to develop our own style and attitude towards design. How are students meant to do this without knowing what has happened before?


Active Member
Berry Burgess: Book of Life, chapter 1.

"Before you can go anywhere, you must first know where you have come from"


Senior Member
I am 1st year student at Bolton and the tutors have now decided to address this issue. We now have a lecture once a week that does cover the history and theory behind design. This is proving to be an important part of my study. The term "Look to the past for the futures answers" is being banded about alot!

We are covering everything from cave paintings from 15,000 BC to the invention of wood block printing in 950 AD by the chinese to Guttenburgs print press and the introduction of it by William Caxton to the UK then on to photography and Fox Talbots invention of negatives allowing photos to be copied over and over ...onto Jules Cheret's Lythoprint in 1898....through to Art Nouvaue, William Morris and Kelmscott Press.... we then jumped forward to 1920s when the term Graphic Design was first coined and have covered DADA, futurism, constructivism and De Stijl leading on to the Bauhuas movement at the Weimar College... then whizzed through Art Deco ..... onto Swiss design, Saul Bass, Armin Hofmann and Josef Muller Brockmann .... then a quick step onto 60's designers such as Wes Wilson, Richard Griffin and Milton Glassier .... the super brands of the 1980s and finally David Carson and Californian New Wave.

Its alot of work but I do feel its is more than worth it !


Active Member
In my course at the University College of Creative Arts in Maidstone a couple of years back we had a weekly session which included elements of design & art history. I don't think it explored the various time periods as extensively as Katie's does above, but it certainly gave us some reference points and included some essays in which we had to go away and research particular designers and styles at a more in-depth level.

I do agree with Paul (twiggy8250) above in that the balance of history taught in art courses compared with design is a big contrast in general. But there are courses out there which seem to be beginning to address this issue (my course was an entirely new one starting in my year).


Senior Member
The great thing about my course is that ALL the tutors are practising Graphic Designers they have there fingers on the pulse so to speak .... I have spoke to other students from other uni's and it seems this is not the case everywhere some uni's have tutors with no history in graphic design which i feel is ridiculous !!! How can they teach a subject they barely grasp themselves???


Senior Member
hmmm well the course i did prides itself on being a "different" style of teaching, focusing more on what design is going to be instead of what it was. Bit weird i must say, but it did mean we were a bit more open to new ideas and ways of presenting graphics.
Agreed, it's not taught enough. There was an interesting article on this subject in a recent edition of Eye magazine.

That aside, I think it's perfectly acceptable for students to be expected to learn and research stuff off their own backs, which includes a basic understanding of design history. You can't learn everything in a 3 or 4 year BA.

On the occasions I'm yanked in to do some teaching I expect the students (especially those in the 3rd year) to know a little whether they've been 'taught' or not. The better students are invariably those who've gone out of their way to read up on it in their own time
Oh i quite agree with you Matt ... students do need to research this themselves but i do feel a few pointers in the right direction by tutors is important. Our tutors dont go very in depth into the history just brief overviews we are then encouraged to research this further by means of essay assignments on the topics.
Matt is right by the third year, (most) students have a rough background knowledge of the history of design, However we never had one lesson in A levels, diploma or degree that even gave us pointers or information about the history of design. Purplegurl seems to have some decent lecturers that have actually realised that students need to be taught this, it seems that not every institution has adopted this idea of teaching graphic history which is shame really.


Active Member
Going back to your original question/statement Lee, I have found some designers fail to have a basic grasp of design styles and how they fit with periods in time, personally as I'm quite interested in architecture I started to research styles of architecture back when I was doing my Art GCSE and A-Level, I think this gave me a good reference point for major design styles. I think even watching a TV programme like Grand Designs can help as it often references points in design history and how different disciplines have linked in the past with architecture, interior design, product design and graphic design.

From the response in this thread it does seem as if even with University design courses the actual content of design history can be a bit hit or miss!


Active Member
For me that's when education works on a general level, rather than giving you all the information and being overloaded with hand outs and having large quantities of information thrown at you, if a course or a particular unit can inspire you to go out and get the information/research for yourself, and really make you passionate about the topic then you're always going to gain more from it.
Loads of handouts? You've never met my lecturers, no matter what was happening lecture, brief, trip, general information there was a handout to accompany it. Along with some form of whimsical trip down memory lane about when Jonathan Barnebrooke was 18.
Purplegurl said:
Yes passionate ... obsessed No ..... Ive gone Swiss Design mad since my lecture on it Josef Muller Brockmann what a hero .... Grids Rule!!!
Ah... I remember when I first read 'The New Typography'. Red and black were pretty much the only colours I used in the second year, and 'serif' was a swear word.