Respected author, academic and design thinker, Victor Margolin chats with Russell Kennedy, Icograda President 2009-2011, about future directions in design and his forthcoming book on the history of design.
Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author and editor of numerous books and articles on design. During the interview, Victor shared some interesting thoughts on the role of design in society and the immediate need for design advocacy and big picture thinking.
Above: Victor and Russell in Beijing (China). Photograph by Brett Jones.
“Designers have to be much stronger advocates for what they believe should be designed and they have to work harder to persuade those with capital to invest in their projects.”
- Victor Margolin 2010
Russell Kennedy: You are currently working on a book, which is believed to be the definitive book on the history of design. What is the book called and how does it differ form others on the subject?
Victor Margolin: The book is titled ‘World History of Design’ and it is truly a world history with significant attention devoted to all parts of the world. I write a lot about Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Near and Middle East, and the Commonwealth countries. The history of design in these regions has not been well covered in larger histories although books and articles on individual countries do exist in various languages. My intention is to explain how product and graphic design have developed in all parts of the world from the beginning of culture until today. Such a history is necessary because design is not practised internationally and everyone needs to find their own precedents in a widely conceived historical narrative. Although my book will be the first to cover design on a world scale, others will surely follow.
RK: Are the terms graphic design and communication design inter-changeable for you? If not, how do you distinguish between the two?
VM: For many people communication design has supplanted graphic design. The former term arose from a description of the practice while the latter speaks more to a sense of purpose or what graphic design is for.
RK: How has the practise of graphic design/communication design evolved over its short history?
VM: Actually the history of graphic communication begins with the creation of the first alphabets. Thus, it has a long history. In my book, I write about the history of alphabets, the development of printing and the design of typography, the history of public notices and other forms that extend quite far back through history. I am not the first to do this, however. Philip Meggs in his ‘History of Graphic Design’ set a precedent for this broad approach to graphic design history although he did not cover all parts of the world.
RK: How will graphic design/communication design evolve in the future?
VM: Of course, the internet has become quite important. I would like to think, however, that print will remain a significant part of culture. The folks who are proposing Kindles, iPads, and other forms of e-readers don’t seem to have a deep sense of culture that can position these devices within the broader sphere of reading. Technology and techies are driving a lot of cultural change and I am concerned that there is not enough informed discussion of what this means. So a lot of graphic designers are designing for the web, for video games, for computer apps and so forth. However, I believe that a place should remain for more traditional print design with high graphic and typographic standards.
RK: How will Communication Design overlap with other disciplines?
VM: There are already a lot of overlaps through collaboration on complex projects. It is important for the graphic designer to be cognizant of his or her expertise and how to use it within larger interdisciplinary projects. Some designers work successfully across various media themselves but not so many.
RK: Do you see technology blurring the borders between design disciplines? For example, electronic Ink, smart packaging, smart products.
VM: Yes, technology is changing the way designers work and making it possible, using common technologies, to work across disciplines that were once divided by different techniques.
RK: Is there a need for an international forum of design thinking (problem solving through design)?
VM: Yes. There should be more communication between the different groups that have an interest in design. For example, there is a wide gap between design researchers and design practitioners that makes no sense. The Design Research Society, for example, does not meet with any designer associations and likewise the design associations don’t seem to call for more collaboration with researchers. I would like to see a summit, perhaps in Taipei, of design organisations related to research and practice. There is a lot to discuss and researchers and designers would have much to share.
RK: How is our globalised society driving change in communication design?
VM: It is making communication global. What is said or published in one place can instantly be disseminated all over the world. This was the case when a group of Danish cartoons that appeared disrespectful of Islam caused havoc around the world. In another sense, collaboration is now possible among designers in various places and individual designers or design firms are operating global practices where they have projects in many countries.
RK: Are we entering a “design revolution”?
VM: Revolution is not something external. It is created by people. In the design field, there are certainly designers, researchers, and theorists who are calling for large changes in design practice but this does not mean that there is or will be a revolution. I would like to think that most designers would respond to the call for more social and environmental responsibility and that more clients from business, government, and social organisations would develop a greater understanding of how design can help them in socially positive ways.
RK: Will design be the next driving force for social, economic, environmental and cultural development?
VM: Designers have the capacity to change the world because they have the expertise to design it. But the history of design has been one of skewed power relations where clients have had most of the power and designers have responded to their briefs rather than proposing their own projects. Of course, the problem is capital. Someone has to pay for design and that has been the biggest issue in the attempt to foster a more proactive role for designers. Who will pay for the work? I have argued elsewhere that designers have to be much stronger advocates for what they believe should be designed and they have to work harder to persuade those with capital to invest in their projects.
RK: How do we (the design community) get the message out to the broader community about the value of design and its potential to improve the human condition.
VM: First the community has to agree on a message. Thus far, designers have been unable to forge a collective statement about what their profession stands for. This is a considerable undertaking but one worth attempting. There have been numerous manifestos whose authors have argued for strong design positions but none of these have been embraced by an entire profession. It is also the case that designers are separated in different associations so that it would take an extraordinary action to have groups like Icograda, icsid, and IFI agree on a document that stated the purpose and ethics of design. Such a document would not be easy to write because defining design’s purpose while also taking into account how that purpose can be achieved is a complicated matter.
RK: Do you think governments need to be developing formal design policies? Or could/should design be embedded in all aspects of policy?
VM: Design should be embedded in all aspects of public policy. The problem with design policies and design councils is that they isolate design from the rest of life and create the impression that by establishing a design council the question of design’s contribution to society has been addressed.
RK: What are the best methods to deliver government design policy (design centres, promotion agencies or other methods?)
VM: Design centers are fine for promoting trade and cultural ideas but they are limited in their ability to encourage design thinking across a broad range of social activities. More dialogue needs to occur between design associations and government agencies on the topic of how design can be part of lots of other activities.
RK: How do you see the importance of design history from the general public’s perspective.
VM: The history of design is actually central to the history of the world. The public will be attracted to it to the degree that it speaks to their experience. When it is written from a point of view where it seems more relevant to designers than to a wider audience, it is marginalised. But people encounter design every day and design history has to make that evident by dealing with a broad range of objects, systems, and so forth and not just a few designer icons. Design history should include such topics as the history of prosthetics, can openers, weaponry, public signage, automated answering systems, and many other topics. But it rarely does.
RK: Do you see need for dedicated design museums to explain its historical contribution or should traditional museums have a greater focus on design.
VM: Design museums are important but they have to do more than showcase iconic aesthetic objects as most museums do now. When Dianne Pilgrim was the director of the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, she added the title National Design Museum and tried to broaden the museum’s mission by presenting design as part of everyday life. Her first major exhibition was on maps. There is a great need for design museums to explain design to the public and make people aware of how design is part of their everyday life. The largest obstacle to this is that curators tend to showcase privileged objects and exhibit things that are not part of people’s everyday experience.
RK: How do you think design theory, design thinking and design history should be taught?
VM: Design history, theory, and criticism should be taught as integral parts of design practice. The same gap between reflection and practice often exists in design education as it does in professional circles. Those who teach design history and theory don’t necessarily have a strong feel for practice and practitioners who teach history and theory are often not trained in those subjects. There is a need to bring practitioners and researchers together to discuss issues of design education so that curricula can be more integrated then they now are.
RK: In your book, ‘The politics of the Artificial’, you state that, “Design is too important to remain a fragmented subject of study as it is.” What do you mean by this?
VM: I mean that design is a comprehensive phenomenon that touches every aspect of life. It needs to be viewed in the big picture in order to understand its significance.
RK: Does your statement extend from the study of design to the professional practice and the promotion of design?
VM: Yes. Practitioners also need to understand just how integral design is to the conduct of life and what a responsibility they have as professionals. They are shaping the world we live in and often creating its values through the technologies they introduce and projects they complete.
RK: Should the design profession be represented and promoted as a unified voice?
VM: I think there should be more discussion among the design associations about the aims and values of design professionals across the board.
RK: How do professional design organisation (international & regional) and government promotion agencies balance a unified message with the diversity of disciplines?
VM: People come together in diverse fora. At the top of the pyramid are the international meetings of the design associations where summits can take place and pronouncements can be made. These can then ripple down to national, regional, and local design organisations.
RK: What is the best forum to deliver a united design message?
VM: Design associations should think more about what they can contribute to the work of other organisations. For example, ICOGRADA and the other international associations could go to the United Nations or any of its agencies – UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation – with proposals. I think designers and design organisations need to develop propositions, which they can offer to others who might act on them.
RK: As you know Icograda was founded in 1963 as the International Council of Graphic Design Associations. Since then Icograda has evolved with the profession to reflect the multidisciplinary nature of communication design and the broader appreciation of design and design thinking. How do you think Icograda has responded to the changing nature of the profession and how do you think it should position itself going forward?
VM: Icograda has changed a lot since its founding but greater unity among the existing design associations would be helpful, especially when speaking to international bodies like the United Nations or even to individual governments. If the major associations are united, those not in design can hear a single voice. Otherwise, the voices of the individual associations compete and outsiders might rightfully wonder why they are not unified.