“How design is theorized” by Victor Margolin

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Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History of the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois, Chicago, exclusively wrote this great essay  for the DRP.

Only here at the DRP you can read “never published before” essays from the great design – related minds.

“I have wanted to post some thoughts for quite a while about how design is theorized. What is missing from the tendencies to create design theory is a body of work that studies in depth the work of past theorists. What often occurs is that there is a quest for new universal theories that have no relation to the work that others have done before to consider the same subject.

In fields like sociology or anthropology or psychology, the extended writings of the grand theorists have been studied and researchers in the field have come to some understanding of how those theorists approached the challenge of theorizing their field. Thus, new theorists have contended with those who came before them as part of the process of moving their own ideas forward.We lack such a tradition in design research, in large part because there have been hardly studies of the extended work of the best thinkers in the field. While E.P. Thompson wrote an impressive book about William Morris’ political beliefs, we have barely any literature about anyone else’s thinking. I could cite, for example, among British scholars Bruce Archer, John Chris Jones, Stanley Morison, and Nigel Cross. French scholars include Abraham Moles, while Italians or writers in Italy would take in Tomás Maldonado, Gillo Dorfles, and Andrea Branzi.Victor Papanek is a major American thinker who wrote several books and many articles that are just beginning to be discussed. Of all modern design thinkers, Buckminster Fuller has probably received the most attention. Known as a marathon lecturer, he also write a great deal. I can mention as well Gui Bonsiepe, a graduate of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany, who spent much of his career in Latin America, where he has published numerous books and articles about design.

Current thinkers like Don Norman, who has written numerous books and articles, deserve analysis as well. Among Germans, there are several biographies of Jan Tschichold but no sustained analysis of his total writings. Nor are many scholars who wrote only a limited amount studied.

One problem is translations. Some writers like Siegfried Maser in Germany or Gilbert Simondon in France have not been translated into English; hence they remain invisible to those who do not read these theorists’ original language. Without serious study of the long line of major thinkers who have written extensively about design, we have no basis for creating future theory except to start from scratch each time someone has a new idea.This situation has made it difficult to create a shared process of theorizing design whose equivalent is central to any developed field.

What would be good to see is MA and PhD students writing theses and dissertations about some of these thinkers and more mature scholars publishing articles on their work. As a start, we can consider the body of writing about Lewis Mumford who published extensively on technics as well as architecture. We can also look to architecture where there is a tradition of writing about the field’s thinkers such as Manfredo Tafuri or art history where there are books and articles on Erwin Panofsky and Clement Greenberg among others. To engage the thinkers in a field is a mark of a field’s maturity. We have not seen it yet in design studies or design research, where design itself remains the dominant subject of reflection and this lack of writing has become an obstacle to developing a mature discourse.”

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2 thoughts on ““How design is theorized” by Victor Margolin

  1. Pingback: If you haven’t read this, do so in 2014. | six design hats

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