Recently – over the course of four weeks – I spent more than 24 hours of productive time attending the online BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] Design History Class: “Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design, from the 19th to the 21st Century” (https://bipocdesignhistory.com/). Organized by a collective of graphic design educators, practitioners, and scholars led by Silas Munro and his colleagues at poly-mode studio (https://poly-mode.com/), the series of 14 sessions offered exciting and valuable content lessons. Just as important to my own practice focusing on the History of the Designed and Built Environment, however, were the transferrable lessons I learned about method.
- Trans-disciplinarity. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the separation of the design disciplines wasn’t as firm in the BIPOC community as in the white, mainstream design community. As a result, a do-it-yourself and get-things-done mentality, combined with support for collaboration that grows out of community-led initiatives, often took a transdisciplinary approach. This approach might not be captured by mainstream definitions of design practice. Historians need to be similarly nimble in looking for lessons from historical examples that might be found in surprising contexts.
- Pay attention to ephemera. Most scholars in the series took a very close look at ephemeral design creations such as posters, flyers, protest signs, advertisements, newspapers. These were design activities that existed at the margins and might not have survived in historical records. What are similar ephemeral approaches that might be fund in the designed and built environment?
- Look for the blind spots of the capitalist system. Given that the chattel slavery system stole black labour to make slave owners/whites rich within the capitalist system, this capitalist system overall is highly suspect. What design activities existed [indeed still do exist] outside of the capitalist system in the designed and built environment?
- Question modernist aesthetics. Even something as apparently neutral as formalism and aesthetics could benefit from a re-assessment. One ubiquitous example is the underpinning of the modernist ‘grid’ and ‘clean aesthetics’ in most highly esteemed examples and methods that are taught as 20th Century design icons. This modernist aesthetic can be closely linked to a eugenics philosophy that seeks to remove the weaker parts to strengthen the dominant. Were there alternatives to this organizing system for design during the mid-century period? Also, especially in today’s studio, a blind adoration of this organizing principle from a past era doesn’t necessarily speak to the needs of today’s designers.
- Look for new examples. New archives need to be investigated for research material. It is important to create a network of scholars and researchers who are aware of different archives and collections.
- Recent scholarship has provided good models. The methods demonstrated by Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson in Race and Modern Architecture (https://upittpress.org/books/9780822966593/) are being broadly taken up. For instance, many speakers developed their points based on a deep reading of textual evidence. Also, many speakers noted the presence of a frame-of-mind or organizing principle of essentialist and exclusionary taxonomies based on race (and race-based eugenics) that had come about in the 19th century. This scholarship is having a large impact on the field.
- We owe it to today’s designers to write a more inclusive history. The link between history and contemporary design practice is strong. Practitioners look back at their studies – both in terms of classroom content and interaction with their mentors and instructors – as a formative part of their cultural context. Those present at the lectures were still interested in their disciplinary history and design history in general. They are [still] looking for a history that reflects their identity. Many spoke in the chat of their regret at not learning this BIPOC content in school.
It is always exciting when the teacher goes back to school, and for me this has been one silver lining of the pandemic period. As I attend these online events and lectures, I have increasingly been delighted to find a community of scholars and researchers who generously share their work, and enthusiastic audiences who fill the online chat windows with stimulating conversation.
Image Credit: Johnson Archives/Photo: Aaron Rose. Retrieved from https://design.newcity.com/2015/10/01/stony-island-arts-bank-theaster-gates-opens-a-repository-for-cultural-assets-of-the-black-community/