Good History/Bad History

“There are two problems with design history. The first is how design history is written, for how history is written affects how the past is seen and understood. How history is written also affects how the past is used. And that’s the second problem: Most design history is not written, it’s shown. There’s a lot to look at, but not much to think about. Maybe this is because designers don’t read. That particular cliché (which, like most clichés, has a basis in truth) provides a good excuse for a lot of hack work in publishing: collections of trademarks, matchbooks, labels, cigar boxes, you name it – volumes and volumes of historical stuff with no historical context. And since these artifacts are mostly in the public domain, unprotected by copyright, such books are a bargain for the publishers and a godsend to designers who are starving for ‘inspiration.’

We seem to be locked into a self-fulfilling prophecy: Designers don’t read, so design writers don’t write. Let’s amend that: They write captions. Sometimes they write really long captions, thousands of words that do nothing but describe the pictures. Books of design history that are packaged for a supposedly illiterate audience only engender further illiteracy. Visual literacy is important, but it isn’t everything. It doesn’t teach you how to think. And an enormous amount of graphic design is made by people who look at pictures but don’t know how to think about them.”

— Tibor Kalman, J. Abbott Miller, Karrie Jacobs (Good History/Bad History)