Historic Narrative Inquiry: Contextualizing Political, Cultural, and Social-Economic Factors in Design History Through Visual Thinking

Presented by: Moira Gannon Denson, Robin Wager

Why did Richard D’Oyly Carte decide to build the luxurious Hotel Savoy in Britain? What social/cultural events involving the Knickerbocker Set of New York City shaped the hotel’s design? These and other questions were posed to students in two study abroad courses – design history course and visual sketching course. The goal was to structure the courses to enhance one another and improve the student’s learning experience by engaging “historic narrative inquiry”; that is, an understanding that history is not isolated into styles and periods, but is more comprehensive involving political, social, and cultural events. Traditionally, design history courses involve a lecture format relying on cognitive recall of knowledge; however, Erin Cunningham (2014) in her essay expresses the need to look at the teachings of history “as a tool for broadening perspective and forging connections, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of issues that are critical to developing design thinking” (p. v). Therefore, we sought to foster creative and critical thinking skills through an experiential, narrative inquiry and visual literacy experience. 1. To engage students experientially, students were taken to London England to explore and study architectural and interior spaces over a broad historic time line. The sites were grouped into three categories: residential, places of worship and public spaces. Historic guides, lectures and meetings with architects who specialized in British preservation supported the visits. 2. To engage students to explore different perspectives of design history, we used narrative inquiry. Mitchell (as cited in Danko, Meneeley & Patillo, 2006) defines narrative inquiry as an analytical method to understand the user’s experience and “how design responds to the cultural, social, and personal needs of users” (p. 10). Using notes from a lecture by Dr. Bruce Peter (2013), a pre-departure lecture was presented on historic, political, social, and cultural impacts on hospitality design. Using the lecture as a framework for the students own narrative inquiry, students were asked to use The (United States) Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings, Brief 17 to organize information gathered at specific historic sites. 3. To help students critically analyze, visual literacy was documented in a sketchbook. According to Colin Ware (2008), “It is known from human memory research that recognition is vastly easier than recall. In other words, we can recognize what we have seen far more easily than we can reconstruct a memory” (p. 160). Students learned various visual note taking techniques to assist them to constructively see and recognize elements and components within the built environment. In summary, the incorporation of narrative inquiry and visual note taking into experiential learning courses creates successful responses to creative and critical thinking skills. In course outcomes, student’s demonstrated an understanding of narrative inquiry. Questions and discussions with historic guides and faculty ranged from the effects of the Reformation on design to the design restraints caused by the window and brick tax. Additionally, student’s sketchbooks and design briefs documented critical analysis through visual note taking and revealed the positive use of “Brief 17” as an organizational tool for the analysis of architectural and interior spaces. However, the briefs exhibited several weaknesses, such as student’s inability to work in groups and a failure to translate their vocal perception of narrative inquiry into writing. But most importantly, responses from a post survey identified students comprehended design history as more than just design periods and styles; that is, their responses supported they understood the basic element of “historic narrative inquiry” – that design is a reaction to historical, political, social, and cultural events.


  • Cunnigham, E. (2014). Navigating the Past: What Does History Offer the Discipline of Interior Design? Journal for Interior Design, 39(3), v-xii.
  • Danko S., Meneely J. & Portillo, M. (2006). Humanizing Design through Narrative Inquiry. Journal for Interior Design, 31(2), 10-28.
  • Peter, B. (2013). Lecture on Hotel Architecture: Renaissance to post WWII. Personal Collection of B. Peter, Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow UK.
  • Ware, C. (2008). Visual Thinking for Design (Edition 1). Burlington MA; Morgan Kaufman.
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