History from the Ground Up: The Zine as Model for a More Inclusive Design History
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.
While 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.
A Lack of Inclusivity within Art and Design History
As a broad field of study, art history has a long legacy of hero worship and obsession with the work of white, males of European descent. If art history as contained in standardized textbooks is overwhelmingly white and dominated by male voices, design history as told in the three primary textbooks comes close to excluding all but white, male voices.
On July 26, 2018, an article by designer and educator Ramon Tejada was posted to the Walker Art Center’s online publication titled The Gradient. His writingsummarizes the frustration that many designers of underrepresented populations experience when encountering design history. In his article, Tejada writes,
As a designer, I have come to terms with the fact that what and who design history has been interested in canonizing, up to this point, does not reflect me, my cultures, my values, and many of the tenets that make me a citizen, a designer, and a teacher. I don’t see myself reflected in much of the narrative of design—not in the history, the theory, the practitioners or the outcomes. People of color: Hispanics, Latinx, African-Americans, Native Americans, Women, LGBTQ people—those labeled “minorities”—have been relegated to the margins at best, or often just excluded.[I]
A review of common design literature substantiates Tejada’s claim. A survey of the modern to contemporary chapters in Philipp Meggs’, A History of Graphic Designincluded nearly 244 references to designers. Of these references, approximately nineteen were women and two were people of color.[II]A review of the example work in the chapters of Johanna Drucker’s, Graphic Design Historycovering the Modern and Postmodern periods offers a similar account. Of the hundreds of works, seven were created by women and two were created by people of color.[III]
Though most historical narratives concede that design’s earliest precedents can be observed in places such as Sumeria and China, when it comes to the modern period, the rich traditions found in continents such as Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia—that proved so important to establishing the roots of design are entirely absent from the modern canon. Furthermore, designers that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, women, people of color, and the indigenous people working in Western countries are hardly mentioned let alone mentioned as part of the development of modern design.
The effect of this history on contemporary practitioners can be clearly observed in a sentiment expressed by designer Silas Munro, who in an article written during a backlash against the 12thedition of the Art Director’s Club Young GunsAward, and the realization that the awards which were meant to showcase the best young, international design practitioners were once again predominantly celebrating white, males from regions near New York, stated, “…there are many great black and brown designers in practice, but they had to work harder than their peers to get there. There were fewer possibility models, at least that has been my experience. My teachers, as talented as they were, didn’t reflect that aspect of my identity. My design history courses didn’t either. The monographs of design greats didn’t either. There are still so many gaps.”[IV]
As Munro suggests, the problem is not a lack of people of color who have practiced design but rather a historical narrative that ignores the contributions made by people of color. These gaps in the narrative are not only a historic problem but a contemporary one, creating barriers and obstacles for underrepresented designers that continue into contemporary practice.
Fortunately, the field of design history is still in relative infancy and therefore has great potential for revision. One potential revision is to explore the role zines might play in bridging the gaps. While the landscape of zine making and self-publishing in the modern period is not without its own cultural issues, one thing that makes zines a particularly compelling way to pursue inclusivity in the history of design is the lack of a filter or editor. Because zines are self-published and therefore free of the gatekeepers that other works of design are often subjected to, sub-cultural and marginalized voices are readily found within zines in numbers that rival other forms of design production. Marginalized designers and creative people who were otherwise excluded from access to institutions or positions of power often turned to zines and independent publications where their voice was welcomed. Zines, therefore, may offer a more authentic and dynamic cross-cultural dialogue than other forms of publication that rely on editing bodies or institutions.
The ability of zines to improve the diversity of representation within cultural history is something that has been a conversation among other fields for some time. In “Zines for Public Libraries”, Cheryl Zobel notes that the inclusion of zines is one way to compete against the mainstream and its potential to self-pollinate to the point of monoculture.[V]Editing institutions are after-all, concerned about producing items that are marketable to the majority, therefore, they turn to material that has already done well, leading to a state of general homogeneity. The lack of an editing institution in the creation of zines means that the emphasis is on powerful communication and the formation of an identity rather than on marketability, therefore providing a more fertile ground for dialogue.
Looking to specific examples, its easy to see how zines might invite new conversations and voices into the narrative of design. Zines such as Quantify, created by Lauren Jade Martin might be used as an example to demonstrate how one might use text, content, and layout to present a person’s many identities and experience of intersectionality—in Jade’s particular case, how she explores her experiences as someone who is both Chinese and Jewish.[VI]Cristy Road’s Greenzineopens up a conversation about her experience as an African American victim of rape as well as her pursuit of healing and the gathering of support.[VII]Interlope: A Journal of Asian American Poetics and Issues provides an example of the way that designed objects might speak about the cultural experiences and challenges faced by Asian Americans. Intercourse: The Journal of Sexual Freedom provides a look at mid-century conversations about sexual identity, using its scrawling design and collage of textual citations to construct a conversation about the challenges faced by anyone openly embracing their sexuality or exploring alternative sexualities within their work. Yet these examples offer only a small snapshot of the incredible breadth of experience covered within zines that is left generally undiscussed within the context of design history.
Imagine working through the mid-century civil rights movement with eyes not only on iconic works of design such as Emory Douglas’ work as the minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party but also including the voice of individuals living through the trauma of the Civil Rights marches and using designed objects to process their personal, local experiences. Zines such as Tutti Frutti, Black Dialogue,Black on Black, the 1960s issues of theJournal of Black Poetry, or We Called a Strike and No One Came by Black and Red offer readers a snapshot of the experience of black life from a multitude of unfiltered perspectives unguarded by broader political movements or institutionally acceptable language and layout. These personal narratives speak powerfully and offer a voice on history that is rarely heard. The level of nuance, awareness of divergent opinions, and ability to honor the incredibly complex experience of the civil rights movement as well as the ways that design played a role in it would be greatly improved.
Imagine the counterpoints that could be made to the incredibly white history of corporate modernist minimalism by including publications that stake their identity within the cracks of capitalism and serve as an indictment of the world as dictated by mass media.[VIII]Imagine a modern history as told by the design objects everyday people made rather than those with clients that could afford them. Zines use the tools of graphic design—text, image layout—in situations that have been left unaddressed by historic narrative, and therefore provide a way to enrich the discourse and elevate the conversation of design and its role in society.
Zines as a Part of the Historical Narrative
The inclusion of zines into the discourse of design history need not require a total revision of the themes or movements of design history. Common themes of design development such as the way graphic images embody values, construct shared experience, or the relationship between politics and the press all have an obvious relationship to the practice of zine-making. Zines become all the more relevant in the context of the modern design conversation which engages dialogue about commercial practice, mass mediation, capitalism, and the designer as author movement.[IX] Johanna Drucker’s chapter on Modernism even includes a passing reference to the significance of the independent press a part of how design was employed as a form of protest in the wake of a highly corporatized civilization.
InNo More Rules:Graphic Design andPostmodernism, Rick Poynor describes postmodernism as a period full of deconstruction, appropriation, techno, authorship, and opposition.[X]While these themes can be displayed through many objects, they sound more accurately like the aim of zines than the aim of mainstream design. In fact, zines may likely provide some of the earliest postmodern compositional strategies. A review of zines from the 60s, 70s, and 80s such as Phil Franklin’s Eggor Punk magazines likeSmash it Upand the many Black Flag inspired zines reveal that compositional strategies typically associated with the 1990s and designers such as David Carson were actually adopted decades earlier by zine makers throughout the world.
The idea that zines might be deeply related to the discourse of art history was well articulated by Daniel van Der Velden—the primary force behind Metahaven and then lecturer at both Otis College of Art & Design and Yale University—during a two-day presentation where he reconstructed and retold the history of design through his own lens as a person coming of age through the late seventies and eighties. Among other things, he identified his first encounter with the formal constructions and tropes of the Modern period of design not in the commercial work of Paul Rand, Theo von Doesburg, or the theories of Jan Tschichold, but instead through the enigmatic symbol of the band Black Flag.[XI]
Instead of modern minimalist geometry reflecting universalist ideology, mass-market messaging, industrialized production, and the puritanical aesthetic commonly described in the design canon, the Black Flag logo paired the visual forms of modernism with anti-authoritarian impulses, non-conformist and subcultural messaging, and songs that articulated the struggles, fears, and anxieties of local, teenage life. The stark contrast between the emphasis on universalism found in the design canon and the subcultural individualism of the punk movement created a tension that has continued to inform van der Velden’s practice. The implication in van der Velden’s presentation was clear. Where work rooted in advertising offers the ability to look at formalist challenges, the increased efficiency of technology, and communicative efficacy, the very same methods can be drawn from to support subcultural movements and promote counter-cultural discourse focused on the human impact of an industrialized world, emotive content, and defiance as part of the discourse of design. By treating zines with the same respect one might treat commercially viable and academically sanctioned work, the discourse of design is expanded in a way that produces new ideological opportunities Replacing the commercial vocabulary of American and European advertising in favor of objects that offer the opportunity for discourse over code-switching, queer identity, personal narratives, or simply the frustrations of bored suburbanites who use the design and production of small publication as part of an effort to find or cultivate transformational communities. A shift towards the inclusion of zines in the discourse could, in fact, help design address its struggle to reflect on its own societal implications and shortcomings.
An Invitation into Counter-Narrative
Beyond the inclusion of zines as objects, zine-making also has much to offer as a method and model within design pedagogy. Because zine-making provides an opportunity for individuals and subcultures to formulate identities, articulate their own history, and provide counter-narratives, they are an excellent way to invite students into a critical assessment of the history of design. For similar reasons, they also offer a helpful way to respect the plurality of voices typically found in a college classroom while still maintaining academic inquiry.[XII]
Educators have already begun pursuing zine-related and authorship-driven practices with some success. Simmons University in Boston has employed the creation of zines focused on social justice as a way of studying, crafting and sparking discussion around social justice issues affecting their students.[XIII]In 2009, Dorrie Coman introduced a zine project to California State University in Monterey Bay that offered students a chance to use the design of zines to explore their identity and to provoke more in-depth engagement within the discourse of design.[XIV]The documentation of these initiatives demonstrates the ways that zine-making might offer a more personalized approach to history and construct a culture that invites students to use design as a means of establishing and strengthening their own voice while critically engaging and research history.
More directly related to the study of design history, the Cornish College of Arts in Washington’s recently revised their design history curriculum to include the collective production of an independently published book titledParallel Narratives, a publication of annotated bibliographies that address the gaps in the design canon. In the first year of the Cornish College of Arts’ design history curriculum, students are exposed to the standard design canon with some acknowledgments and addendums. In the second year, students are asked the question, “what is missing?” They go on to produce research—citing and sourcing materials that offer additional views into the history of design.[XV]Along the way to constructing their final group publication, many students begin designing and publishing small booklets of their research. The publications they construct engage students in collective, historic research that expands the discourse of design history and ultimately tends to inform into the students’ final thesis work.[XVI]
Implications for the Teaching of Design History
The invitation to respond to history through the construction and inclusion of counter-narratives embedded in zines does come at a practical cost for most educators. The idea of teaching the entirety of design history within the one or two courses typically offered by most universities poses a significant challenge to educators. To add to that challenge the aim of weaving a narrative of design that adequately represents the diverse people found throughout the world and opens up the opportunity for alternative histories necessitates a dramatic revision of the standard curriculum. Having made heroes and icons out of particular designers and established them firmly within our canon for the past few decades, what do we remove in order to make room? Add to this the additional challenge in deciding what zines are suitable for inclusion and the challenge becomes even more complicated.
Regardless of these challenges, if the canon we have does not serve us well because of its failure to include diverse voices, its privilege of commercial value over communicative innovation, and its creation of heroes that represent only a small portion of the designers in the world, then we must be willing to question our heroes, to tear out examples, to even start afresh and construct an entirely new narrative. In order to better serve the designers of the future, the canon must be revised. The first step, however, might be for historians and educators in the area of design to open up our collective ears to hear alternative voices and welcome these voices into the conversation. To that end, zines provide a model—small, self-published, personalized narratives, offering examples of alternative voices that might enrich our dialogue and furthermore may assist us in pursuit of a better canon. While imperfect, overlooked, and culturally complicated in their own right, zines nonetheless provide counterpoints to many of the most challenging issues facing design practice today; validating the zine as a more significant part of design history provides an opportunity to empower students and practitioners as well as an invitation to all interested makers to engage critically with the discourse of design through the creation, production, and dissemination of zines.
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[I]Ramon Tejada, “We Must Topple the Tropes, Cripple the Canon”, (Walker Art Center, 2018), https://walkerart.org/magazine/soundboard-queering-design-education-ramon-tejada.
[IV]Brett Mckenzie, “The Whitest Winners You Know,” Art Director’s Club (ADC, 2014), http://adcglobal.org/the-whitest-winners-you-know/.
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