Clive Dilnot begins his essay "The State of Design History, Part I" by arguing that any discussion of the present and future roles of design cannot be conducted without reference to and knowledge of the history of design. All designs are influenced by what came before. They may be attempting to incorporate elements of earlier styles of design or reacting against certain forms, while also being influenced by other social, economic, political, or physical phenomena around them. The role of the design historian is thus to explain how different kinds of design both developed and were used. His/her job is not to try and explain away the past by collapsing different designers and their styles into large sweeping movements, but to explain the complicated developments in design. Through maintaining these differences, the design historian will also maintain a differentiation between design the practice and the designs, or the concrete results, which are produced by the practice. When the details of design (the practice) is separated from the designed product, as occurs when one creates large categories, which include many different examples of designed phenomena, the activity and particularity of the act of design are lost. Indeed, Dilnot claims that the field of design as a whole can only be understood is one explains, and makes credible, the particularities of the different varieties of design. Otherwise designers could simply be misconstrued as simply being individuals who "imbue products with added desirability." (page 214)
Dilnot also suggests that the field of design history, while an emerging area of study which has and is gaining recognition in a number of countries, does overlap with other preexisting historical fields. These include art history, the history of technology, and the histories of business and the economy. He suggests that the best means of assessing and identifying any significant differences and similarities is to survey the work which has been done in the field of design history. Similarly, an overview of the work done in the field can help to explain why the field has taken so long to develop in comparison to other historical areas of study. Dilnot partially explains this lack of concentration upon the study of design as being a result of the particularly North American popular belief that cultural and physical objects and images are separate. Thus, discouraged from being self-reflexive design, like technology, has been slow to pursue any philosophical analysis of itself. In addition, lacking professional organizations and the belief that it was indeed a field which was separate from manufacturing, design had until recent decades been seen as having little value when compared to other aspects of the production of goods.
Writing from a British perspective, Dilnot claims that before the Second World War there were, apart from architecture, only a few topics of study being pursued by historians which could be included as part of the history of design. One was the history of the decorative arts, consisting largely of the study of the monumental decoration and architecture of great houses. Another was the emphasis placed upon design by Nikolaus Pevsner in his 1936 Pioneers of Modern Design, in which Pevsner argued that the forms furthered by design, the creation of which are rooted in history, have an effect upon society. History also showed, for Pevsner, how society relates and related to the field and products of design. In addition, developments in the printing movement and typeface design during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an international typographic movement develop by the 1920s, as well as great interest within the movement for the history of typography. However, Dilnot also notes that, as in the other cases of early design history, the history of typography was largely pursued by those involved in the field of design, and was typically conducted in order to answer particular problems posed by designers or to justify or explain unique developments within the field. Prior to the 1960s it was not studied as a field for its own sake. Rather, once problems of the field had been answered through the help of historical research, interest in that research tended to fade. This, according to Dilnot, prompts the question of: "What is implied by the current simultaneous rise of a need for history on all design fronts?" (page 218), a question which he believes can be answered by examining the apparent absence of any significant interest in the history of design between the mid-late 1930s and the 1960s.
In the case of graphic design, Dilnot argues that history seems to have been irrelevant to many in a field which was attempting to escape the historical limitations of the arts and crafts movement and roots in commercial art. These historical influences were seen as a threat which would hamper the development of new styles, particularly modernist design which had already overtaken other areas of design, such as architecture, and thus, did not require historical justifications in order to be adopted. Furthermore, the field of design was not only highly anti-intellectual in attitude during this period, but it was seen as a sub-division of the fine arts, the history of which was already studied by the field of art history. However, interest in the history of design can be understood, according to Dilnot, as being a result of the popular impact of design during the 1950s and 1960s.
With the development of an affluent post-war economy in which image affected sales, the widespread use of design by institutions to express brand standards, the growth in the number of schools teaching courses in design, and the growth of the Western youth popular culture, design was suddenly central to the products and institutions of everyday life to an extent which they never were in the 1930s and 1940s. Advertising and design was now being used not simply to sell people products, but to sell them products which they associated with particular ideas and lifestyles to an extent which had not been seen prior to mid-century. With this recognition of design and its importance, new interest was also created in the history of design in earlier periods, particularly Victorian and Edwardian popular and technical design. Indeed, 1960 saw the republication of Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design and the release of Reyner Banham's Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, which focused upon the history of the modernist design movement and its origins. However, these books were still heavily focused upon architecture, fine art, and what constituted good design, while describing the profession in terms of the "great men" of design. Yet, recognition, particularly from the design education field, that the history of design was not simply the story of the development of modernism, and that the history of design should go far beyond the history of architecture and fine art, led to the emergence of a new design history by the late 1960s ad early 1970s.
Given the lack of a tradition of design history, Dilnot claims that it is difficult, if not impossible, to offer a comprehensive survey of the field. Practitioners do not focus upon core subjects and do not base their knowledge upon an agreed upon cannon of texts. Rather, he claims that the best that can be said is that the field shares four principles and three absences. The principles are that:
- Design history is the study o f the history of professional design activity.
- It is not the activity itself that forms the first layer of attention of historians, but the results of that activity: designed objects and images. (This emphasis is justified on a number of esthetic and archeological grounds, as well as on the premise that design is a practical activity that results in a new thing or image.)
- An equally natural orientation was added to design in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- Design history emphasizes individual designers. Explicitly or implicitly, they are the focus of the majority of design history written and taught today." (page 221)
Dilnot’s three absences are that:
- There is little explicit consideration of aims, methods, or roles of design history in relation to its actual or potential audiences.
- There is little consideration of design history's origins, except in an educational and institutional sense.
- There is a general lack of historical, methodological, or critical self-reflection. Whereas self-reflection might at the very least engender clear statements of position or clarification of aims, the ad hoc nature of most design history means that it is very difficult to define social, theoretical, or methodological presuppositions. This is not to say they do not exist. (page 221)
Dilnot also claims that, as of the late 1980s, when he wrote his paper, one could point to at least four different areas of concentration in the field of design history. These include:
1) The study of the decorative and minor arts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
2) A focus upon modernism, its practitioners, its origins, and movements away from it by the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Dilnot focuses upon the work of Tim Benton and the Open University's Art History Department for developing comprehensive courses since the early 1970s which focus upon relationships between the history of modernist architecture, seen from a very broad perspective, modernism, and other areas of design. Furthermore, Dilnot claims that the focus upon modern design has also led to new definitions of Modernism. He writes that, according to Pevsner, to be modern was to be aware of design's social role and to attempt to progress design towards a rational universalism. Thus, one was modern if one was aware that one was striving towards an ideal of design. However, for those studying American modernist design, such as Penny Sparke and Jeffrey Meikle, modernism had more to do with design that reflected the progressive aspects of American capitalism. This modernism manifested itself in the esthetic, theoretical, economic, and technological aspects of design. In contrast, European modernism was more disconnected from the market, which could limit design possibilities.
3) Linked to the American interpretation of modernism, Dilnot claims that many design historians focus upon issues of design organization, that is, how design fits into the production process, the two activities having become separated since the Industrial Revolution divided the production process into a series of separate steps and jobs.
4) The final area of focus is related to the study of design's place in the production process. The study of the social relations of various kinds of design examines how and why designs are executed within and in reaction to political, social, and economic relationships. Focusing upon the cultural aspects of design, Dilnot considers the work which has been done on design and representation by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the journal Block, as well as the influence of the works of Rolland Barthes upon both, particularly his 1957 book Mythologies. This is of interest to a study of iconography in that the work of Barthes examines how images are never free of meaning, but they, or their elements, always make reference to other ideas or images with which one, or one's culture, is already familiar. This can be seen as akin to an iconographic example of Wittgenstinian language games. Where as Wittgenstein recognized that words gain their meaning based upon context and experience, Barthes argued that the meaning of images, or their elements, are specific to individuals and groups who have specific experience, and thus, are able to participate in a kind of language game of images. As Dilnot notes, the study of the use of sensory signs and sign combinations to express specific ideas (or the study of semiotics) has been influential to various areas of media studies. In the case of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and Block, scholars have moved beyond the analysis of only graphic images to the use of and associations made with the products of material and popular culture. Furthermore, Dilnot argues that analyses of the meaning of elements of design can be seen to include feminist design history, in that "[i]t is precisely the feminist analysis that relates the design of things intimately and concretely to the ways in which objects and images affect us." (page 232)
In the second part of his article, "The State of Design History, Part II: Problems and Possibilities," Dilnot claims that there are four main problems which need to be addressed in the process of creating a field of design history. The first of these is for design historians to agree upon what it is they are studying. In addition to being defined differently by those who examine design from its role in industrial, economic, and cultural events over the past two centuries, the word “design” has various meanings. Design can refer to the act of designing, it can refer to the results of such acts, and it can imply a certain added value. In design history, this range of meanings has led to the production of very different kinds of design histories. This is the same point which John A. Walker makes at the beginning of his book Design History and the History of Design. Dilnot argues that glossing over the differences in the use of the term design may have the effect of confusing people as to what designed objects really are and what designers actually do. The second negative effect will be that history will be removed from design in that, not knowing exactly what design is, people will stop questioning what the activity of design is, why it is done, and what it produces. Rather, the field of design history will be reduced to a cannon of "important" works and designers. "Histories" of design could merely consist of retrospectives of the field and not real explorations of the activity and its products. Such retrospectives would not explore the details of different developments in the field, but would offer an overview of design so as to explain the current state of the field and/or product. Indeed, Dilnot claims that Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design was such a retrospective overview. Such overviews of the history of design reduce the subject,
to an unproblematic, self-evident entity (Design) in a form that also reduces its historical specificity and variety to as near zero as possible. This reduction also restructures the history of design to a repetition of designers' careers and to the past as simply anticipating and legitimating the present. In the process, the vast range of designing represented in history, professional and vernacular, industrial and preindustrial, is eclipsed to a single developmental model, and the process and activity of designing is largely sundered from its social roots. (page 237)
The second major problem facing design history is, according to Dilnot, the challenge of defining both the roles of the field and its audiences. While not offering any concrete solutions, Dilnot does raise several questions which must be asked. These include whether design historians would be writing for themselves, for professional designers, or for a general audience. He also questions whether the field should constitute an independent area of study, whether it should just be thought of as a subset of history, or possibly cultural studies, or whether it should be understood as an interdisciplinary field which makes important links between fields such as cultural studies, sociology, history, and anthropology.
This leads to Dilnot's third challenge, that of constructing the discipline by defining its subjects and aims. This includes defining the historical approach by which design historians will interpret the past. As of 1989 there had been little discussion of such historiological issues amongst practitioners in the field.
The final challenge to design history, and that which follows from the other three, is to explain the significance of the field. Why do the issues and events of design history matter to the world? What can the field reveal about design and does it matter? Dilnot claims that the value of the field will be determined by the "adequacy, range, and vigor of the questions practitioners ask of their material" (page 241), as well as an authentic recognition of the perspective from which those questions are asked.
Dilnot concludes the article by asserting that the above mentioned challenges will be easier to overcome if people stop thinking about design as being sets of values or esthetics which are embodied in certain individuals or the objects they create. Rather, quoting Victor Papanek's Design for the Real World, he argues that design should be understood as, " 'the conscious attempt to impose meaningful order . . . the planning and patterning of any act towards a foreseeable end', and that sees professional design as a particular historical form of this more fundamental activity." (page 245). Particularly in the case of Dilnot's first problem for the field of design history, this would allow, if not challenge, design historians to avoid the tendency of offering histories of the "great" designers and designs of the past, but would force them to examine all of the past and contemporary phenomena which affected their subjects and led to their producing particular kinds of products which were used in particular ways by particular sets of people within unique environments.