Critical Historiography: How to Talk to Your Design Student About European Rationalism


The call to move design and its history “beyond the canon” can be heard from industry to the academy, signaling widespread discontent with tired approaches. This reflects a broad cultural desire to topple monuments in the wake of Black Lives Matter, real and ideological wars, climate change, algorithmic injustice, and other crises that bring the ceiling of capitalism’s promises ever lower. While professional designers are familiar with, and often troubled by, history as a roster of exemplars, the contemporary design student may have no such understanding. Undergraduate courses of study in many countries, including the United States, do not require design students to study design history and may not have historians on faculty. The onus falls increasingly on studio educators, who may or may not have training in the area, to teach design in historical contexts. Much debate about the canon takes issue with history’s content—namely, limited representation—but perhaps the more pressing issue is method: how histories construct and are constructed by rationalist logics that uphold genius and create monocultures of design. This paper explores key issues in design historiography that the practicing designer should know and could teach. The author will provide examples from the field and the classroom.


Aggie Toppins
Associate Professor and Chair, Design, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, United States


Presentation Type

Paper Presentation in a Themed Session


Design Education


Design Historiography, Design History, Design Education, Teaching Methods

Digital Media

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