Design History and Representation at SECAC Y’All in Birmingham, Alabama
This Fall, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to take part in SECAC’s annual conference. I presented a paper on research I’ve been doing into the history of graphic design as well as zines produced by underrepresented populations in North America. The paper was included in a panel on Modernism and the Canon of art history, alongside peers unearthing histories of other fascinating cultural zines from across the world.
My research included a review of all commonly used design history textbooks, a visit to multiple zine libraries including Bitch Media in Portland, OR and the collection at the San Francisco Public Library. It also included a palette’s worth of books on the history of zines.
Below is an excerpt of my paper, see the full post here.
Published in 1983, Phillip Meggs’ first edition of A History of Graphic Designestablished a narrative of design history dominated by white, male European voices. As additional textbooks, including Drucker’s Graphic Design Historyand Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History,emerged over the subsequent decades, their indebtedness to Meggs’ early work was notable and served to further solidify Meggs’ initial narrative and its selected heroes as the definitive canon of design history.
Though much good was done by Meggs, Drucker, and Eskilson as without them the history of design might still be relatively uncertain and ambiguous, it is apparent that the canon we have operated on for decades is not serving all practitioners well. Instead of offering a rich history with diverse points of view, cultural clashes, multi-modal exploration and interwoven influences, the canon of design remains to this day a white, Western narrative. Much of the diverse dialogue related to the practice of design—particularly the work and ideologies driven by marginalized people and cultural groups—continues to be underserved and unacknowledged.
While reassessing and revising the canon of design requires a broad and multi-faceted effort, one important step would be the reconsideration of what types of objects are considered as part of the history of design. In the face of a mono-cultural and exclusionary canon, zines, an often-overlooked form, provide an opportunity to address many of the issues found within the traditional approach to design history.