The Importance of Design History

In my two years of university experience so far, I have begun to get the feeling that many of us go to college or university, and are all eager to learn about… well, simply design itself. Whether it be design principles, methodologies, or even cool tricks to do for layout and effects, we are all excited to learn all of these cool and new things to implement in our own designs. However, one thing that I feel we as design students don’t take the time to appreciate is the importance of the history of visual design, and how knowing that history can make us overall better designers ourselves.

I’m sure that many of us can name a few of the schools of design, such as Bahaus, as well as a few names of famous designers, such as the amazing Paul Rand. Many of us can probably also recognize these different schools of design and the works associated with these famous designers. However, we probably don’t know much more than that. And I say “we” because I’m in that same boat, as well.

So, how exactly can knowing and understanding design history make us better designers? Well, there are two major reasons that I can argue for:

  1. Design history gives us a mentor to look up to.

Many of us go through school trying to find our own design style and voice, and one way in which we do that is through finding internships and looking online for people who’s style we like and can mimic to some extent. We’re essentially searching for a type of mentor figure. So why not look to history for one, as you would, after all, be learning from the best of the best, no? If you take the time to learn about design history, you can receive great insight into not just how these great designers visually designed, but also into their thoughts, philosophies, and methods of solving problems with design and why they made the specific design choices that they made throughout their career.

By now you may be telling yourself, “But they worked in an entirely different medium and/or landscape than we work in now.” And that’s fair. However, that past designer was very concerned about how to organize information within their design and what sort of typography, colors, and layout to use to lead to a certain tone or emotional impact among viewers and readers. Even though these designers were solving problems under the design constraints of their past, their solutions are still capable of solving today’s design problems in any design medium available today.

2. Design history better empowers you to acquire good design taste.

As we go through and observe the work on sites like Dribbble, Behance, and other related portfolio sites, we begin to develop a certain taste for design. The more design that we allow ourselves to look at and explore, the better we generally tend to get at separating good design from bad design. Knowing design history empowers you to have more at your disposal to observe, as well as to recognize what sort of design patterns made those essential designs stand out so much in history. Not only do you get to understand what made such pieces essential, but you also get to understand what made those pieces such powerful catalysts to move the design industry itself forward, and why these pieces are considered timeless — something that is an ever-important quality in your designs with the advent of the Web and its rapidly changing nature.

John Toral is a student in the Digital Media program at Utah Valley University, Orem Utah, studying Interaction & Design. The following article relates to his (ART 1420 course) and is representative of the insights gained throughout that course.

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