Designers are historians: Critical discussion about history's relevance in contemporary design education

Presented by: Bryan Orthel, Dana Vaux, John Turpin, Lisa Tucker

Relevance / Problem The explicit value of history to the design process is often unclear. During discussion at the 2016 conference, one attendee challenged the relevance of history as part of design education, “We’re designers, not historians.” We cannot accept that design history—whether as distinct design knowledge or as a part of design culture—lacks significance for what designers do. Historical knowledge and criticism expands beyond grand narratives to examine cultural forces and evolving societal values (Hinchman, 2013). Designers cannot understand contemporary culture without considering our past values and actions. Design history provides active context for the decisions we make in solving design problems. The 2017 CIDA Standards recognize this relationship in the requirement that students understand material culture in the context of architectural and interior spaces. Beyond having historical knowledge, designers must understand how their viewpoint to this history matters. How does knowing design’s past shape a designer’s response to a present-day solution? And, how do we frame design history education in a way that matters? Context Design history requires designers to analyze and consider aspects of the human condition that are broader than any one design solution (e.g., gender relationships, sociopolitical meanings), and that range from the idea of space to ornament to ethical implications (Turpin, 2013). This history must be multivalent, inclusive, and complex (Orthel, 2014). History cannot disappear into design process any more than it can be ignored as unrelated to the creation of human environments. The design process inherently relies on knowledge about the past (e.g., typologies, stylistic characteristics, cultural expectations, precedent) often through contributions to heuristics and typologies that inform design solutions (Vaux & Wang, 2016). Design without history misses the point of thoughtful, contextual, response to human problems (Tucker, 2013). Learning design history is one way for students to apply analytical, synthetic, and critical thinking skills. Method The panel offers four distinct explanations for how history is relevant to addressing contemporary problems, including gendered space, global and cultural space, material objects and mass consumer culture, and history as design. Each panelist will present a concise demonstration of one design history research example applied in classroom activities or real-world design solutions. Together, the examples challenge design educators to consider how history might be defined and ways that history can be integrated into the design process. Outcomes Attendees will gain exposure to varied understandings for what contemporary design historiography includes, why designers are historians, new approaches for including history across the curriculum, and thought-provoking discussion about the boundaries of the interiors realm. Advancement of Design Knowledge History provides a lens for understanding socio-cultural interpretations and meanings of spatial environments over time. History develops in the context of our surroundings—as a material, spatial, and cultural product of human creation. History informs design thinking in the how and what of an environment by shaping what knowledge designers consider relevant to solving design problems. The design history we research and write reflects and molds society and individuals. The integration of design history across design curricula advances students’ ability to address the complex, wicked problems present in contemporary society. As students learn to address these problems in studio and technical courses, their understanding of the human condition is improved. The panel will highlight ways that including history is a design (and designers’) issue.


  • Hinchman, M. (2013). Interior design history: Some reflections. Journal of Interior Design, 38(1): ix-xxi.
  • Orthel, B.D. (2014). Ordinary wallpaper: Identity and use of history. Interiors, 5(3): 361-388.
  • Tucker, L.M. (2013). The value of the historic perspectives on approaches to development of interior space. In T. Vaikla-Poldma (Ed.), Meanings of designed spaces (pp. 185-188). New York: Fairchild.
  • Turpin, J.C. (2013). Ornament: A physical language of design and culture. In T. Vaikla-Poldma (Ed.), Meanings of designed spaces (pp. 158-184). New York: Fairchild.
  • Vaux, D. and Wang, D. (2016). Ethos-intensive objects: Toward a methodological framework for identifying complex client cultures. Journal of Interior Design. doi:10.1111/joid.12076