Know your history How the thread of history made me a better designer

I was once a really bad designer. There, I said it. I was slow, not very innovative, boring and laborious. I was all of these things until one day it changed, I began to find history interesting.

I’ve never had an interest in history. As a child growing up in Australia’s education system – through primary, secondary and even tertiary levels, history was the subject I found most boring. I loved the sciences and English, practical subjects that would help me in the future. My focus was all about the future during those years – what will I do with my life? How will I get there by the actions I perform tomorrow? What if it doesn’t go as I planned? Little did I know that history was actually the answer to most of my concerns about the future. It wasn’t history that was boring, it was the way it was being taught.

When I met my wife about 8 years ago my career path changed course like I would never have imagined. Among the many interests we shared, history was certainly not one of them, particularly her passion for the middle ages of England; I apologise if the mere mention of such a dry subject just made you yawn. But, like most relationships, couples compromise and we couldn’t always watch re-runs of Seinfeld and Tin Tin like I wanted to each night after work. Believe it or not, there are some interesting historical documentaries and as we learned together about the evolution of manners, the growth of the English language and the birth of modern medicine, one thing struck me – there’s a history of my profession, design, and I knew nothing about it.

The history of design is not something they teach in tertiary design education, or at least it’s not something that I was taught.  The focus was on ‘skilling up’ the students for the workforce or priming them for a career as an academic. What web technology is around the corner? What jobs will exist in 4 years time? What are the components that make good web design? Those I know who were taught the history of design were taught it within the framework of graphic design and it’s evolution from art. I look back now and realise how crazy this is! Why is the history of design not being taught?

Is it because design as a concept (or practice) may be too broad? Perhaps it needs to be understood within the context of its specialties – industrial, graphic and architectural design would all have their own unique reasons for existence no doubt. Or maybe, in the case of digital design, it’s considered ‘new’ or too young to have a history. A bit like comparing Australia’s history as a country with that of, say, the continent of Europe. Perhaps it’s because no one has ever been able to successfully record and link up the historical events that have lead us to the current evolution of design that we practice. The word ‘design’ has a different meaning to almost everyone I talk to, yet we all call ourselves designers.

History aficionados will tell you that the value of studying history is that we learn from our past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future. I would whole-heartedly agree with them. However, in school we tend to view history through a socio-political lens (I believe they call it ‘humanities’). This lens teaches us some valuable lessons in a very ‘remember the facts’ way. We know WWII happened on a particular date/s and it was started by a particular guy. We remember a bullet-point list of what happened, we are shocked that such a time ever existed and we conclude that performing those actions again, in the same way, is not going to to lead to a good outcome.  The whole world of scientific and mathematical understanding uses a similar model of learning. The lessons learned from past events, experiments and discoveries are recorded and used as signposts about what to explore (and what not to explore) next. Someone told me it was called it “Standing on the soldiers of giants,” but no one told me that design is no different. I wish they had, it would have saved me a lot of time. 

If I reflect on my early years as a designer, I learned very quickly that splash pages were a bad idea, using comic sans in anything doesn’t make an art director happy and telling a client they were wrong and they should listen to you because you’re a ‘trained designer’ was definitely the wrong way to go about trying to rationalise a design decision. It’s the classic “learn through failure” method of ‘becoming a better designer’. 

My big design revelation didn’t come from having these experiences though. What happened to me was that I realised that there has been a plethora of designers who have had careers before me and most of them have already failed at trying to solve the same problem as the one I was solving. Sure, technology has changed how we each did it but it’s still essentially the same problem; communication. In 2008, social psychologist Malcolm Gladwell posed an idea in his book Outliers – you need 10,000 hours of experience to become an expert in something. What he failed to elaborate on is that in design, that 10,000 hours of experience doesn’t have to be yours specifically. The answer to becoming a better designer is to understand history and how to interpret the one common denominator across any industry or domain – human behaviour. A bold statement? Well, let me elaborate.

By understanding the events that lead up to other events and the events that follow those (i.e. history), we can start to predict things based on patterns and we get a better and clearer understanding of human behaviour. Essentially what I’m saying is that we’ve already got big data about how humans react to social, political, sporting and economic events on local and global scales. The question isn’t ‘did it happen?’ anymore; it’s about why it happened and how you go about leveraging this knowledge to influence future decisions. Tapping in to this data to solve the big problems of the world isn’t easy.

I don’t know if I have the answer to this question but I do have an insight in to when it all changed for me – I read the book Graphic Design: Referenced, from cover to cover. Suddenly I understood why the visual world was the way it was. I knew artists’ and designers’ names, their work and more importantly, the reasons why they produced the work that they did at the time they did it. Some responded to social events and political pressures. For example, some expressed support for war in posters, others made posters with the opposite sentiment. I understood why cubism superceded abstraction in art. I knew why the rigid, slick, minimalist Modernist movement was a ‘natural response’ to embellishment associated with Art Nouveau and how that affected the buildings we live in today. It also provided me with an explanation for why we’re now seeing a trend toward flat design in digital interfaces. We’ve just exited a period of design history that will be marked as ‘the skeumorphic era’ where we tried to make digital elements look and feel like the real world; buttons that looked like 3D pushable objects to help ease our way in to interacting with a new type of world. This ‘digital movement’ exposes some underlying human responses to the built and social environment which, if you look closely enough, have happened time and time again throughout history (in this case, it’s that we get bored quickly).

Reading Graphic Design: Referenced was a key moment in my design career for three reasons:

  1. It exposed the value of understanding the evolution of human decision making
  2. It made me crave more of it across every knowledge-domain I could get my head around and, most importantly;
  3. It made me sound like I knew what I was talking about.

A new level of design rationale was injected in to my vocabulary. I found myself saying things like, “Well, the brand values of the organisation are similar to those of Modernism in the 1950s so I’ve selected this colour and these shapes to try and communicate the clean, minimalist aesthetic of Modernist architecture and design that I associate with this brand. Here’s some examples from Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn to help illustrate my point.” A week prior to this rationale (and not having read the book) it would’ve sounded something like, “I chose this colour because it looks nice and this line is a bit straighter than the wavy option so I thought it would be good to give them multiple options.” This injection of understanding in to my veins was addictive, I needed more of it.

The book I read explained the world of arts & visual communication but what about other fields? What could I borrow from architecture, maths, science, language & culture. I went non-fiction crazy. I stopped reading books from cover to cover because the connections between events that occurred in one field affected decisions someone else made in another. As someone who never really read at all (let alone read about history), I suddenly had 8 books on the go at once. A paragraph here, an anecdote there, a highlighter that was wearing thin. I was addicted to history and addicted to my ability to create better work and to rationalise those creations; the confidence in my own work increased exponentially. It also made me change focus in my career.

I thought graphic design was what I wanted to do forever. I love the visual world, almost more than anything, but with this new found knowledge and love for history my career went from graphic design to ‘design’. My focus shifted from guiding an eye across a page or screen to guiding human behaviour, anticipating and testing the human response to a change in environment. What does this mean? The challenges got bigger, a little more conceptual. I strongly believe I racked up my 10,000 hours in about 4 years by reading everyone else’s stories from eras gone past. Their stories became my reasons.

Since then, I found the world of design consultancy where I was solving problems for different clients every 2 or 3 weeks. I’ve been really lucky to work with super-experts in all sorts of fields so my work has become my play. Because of this, I understand the psychology behind supermarket design, what sensory cues lead someone to choosing whether or not to swim at a beach that ‘looks a little dirty’, the herd mentality of football club supporters, the importance of the tourism trade in Australia and all that it affects. The list goes on. I still practice graphic design (I’m not sure I could ever give it up) but because of my in-depth and constantly growing understanding of how humans interpret the world those designs are basically bulletproof. The frustrating world of subjective client commentary has dwindled over the years – it’s not about opinion anymore, it’s about science.

If someone had told me that design was a left-brained activity when I was studying I would have laughed. Creativity and the visual world is typically associated with the right-side – intuition, feeling and emotion. But the truth of the matter is that there is a science behind producing artefacts that elicit intuitive, emotional responses. By understanding that science through understanding history, the ‘magic’ and ‘mystery’ of design goes away but the feeling of solving a problem successfully only gets stronger as you get more accurate.

Reflecting back on my ‘lightbulb’ moment in my career (about 5 years ago now) I can’t stress the importance of understanding history to any aspiring or practicing designer enough. Not just the history of whatever industry you’re in (or want to be in) although that would be a great place to start because it will likely be more interesting for you; but to understand the forces that shape the way humans (and therefore society) evolves. Collect as many dots about how and why humans have come to exist in the current state of the world because one day, in some design challenge in some niche industry, those dots will be available for you to connect and a problem will simply solve itself.

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