Design history is the study of objects of design in their historical and stylistic contexts.
With a broad definition, the contexts of design history include the social, the cultural, the economic, the political, the technical and the aesthetic. Design history has as its objects of study all designed objects including those of Architecture, fashion, crafts, interiors, textiles, graphic design, industrial design and product design.
Design history has had to incorporate criticism of the 'heroic' structure of its discipline, in response to the establishment of material culture, much as art history has had to respond to visual culture, (although visual culture has been able to broaden the subject area of art history through the incorporation of the televisual, film and new media). Design history has done this by shifting its focus towards the acts of production and consumption.
Design history as a component of British practice-based courses
Design history also exists as a component of many practice-based courses.
The teaching and study of design history within art and design programmes in Britain is one of the results of the National Advisory Council on Art Education in the 1960s. Among its aims was making art and design education a legitimate academic activity, to which ends a historical perspective was introduced. This necessitated the employment or ‘buying in’ of specialists from art history disciplines, leading to a particular style of delivery: “Art historians taught in the only way that art historians knew how to teach; they switched off the lights, turned on the slide projector, showed slides of art and design objects, discussed and evaluated them and asked (art and design) students to write essays – according to the scholarly conventions of academia”.
The most obvious effect of the traditional approach design history as sequential, in which X begat Y and Y begat Z. This has pedagogical implications in that the realisation that assessment requires a fact-based regurgitation of received knowledge leads students to ignore discussions of the situations surrounding a design’s creation and reception and to focus instead on simple facts such as who designed what and when.
This ‘heroic/aesthetic’ view – the idea that there are a few great designers who should be studied and revered unquestioningly – arguably instils an unrealistic view of the design profession. Although the design industry has been complicit in promoting the heroic view of history, the establishment by the UK government of Creative & Cultural Skills has led to calls for design courses to be made less 'academic' and more attuned to the 'needs' of the industry. Design history, as a component of design courses, is under increasing threat in the UK at least and it has been argued that its survival depends on an increased focus on the study of the processes and effects of design rather than the lives of designers themselves.
Ultimately it appears that design history for practice-based courses is rapidly becoming a branch of social and cultural studies, leaving behind its art history roots. This has led to a great deal of debate as the two approaches forge distinct pedagogical approaches and philosophies.
Debates over the merits of different approaches to teaching design history on practice-based courses
The debate over the best way to approach the teaching of design history to practice-based students is often heated, but it is notable that the biggest push to adopt a 'realistic' approach (i.e. non-hero-based, analysing the production and consumption of design that would otherwise be viewed as ephemeral) comes from teachers delivering these programmes, while critics are predominantly those who teach 'pure' design history courses.
The biggest criticism of the 'realistic' approach appears to be that it imposes anonymity on designers, while the counter argument is that the vast majority of designers are anonymous, and that it is the uses and users of design that are more important.
The research literature suggests that, contrary to critics' predictions of the death of design history, this realistic approach is beneficial. Baldwin and McLean at the University of Brighton (now at the University of Dundee and Edinburgh College of Art respectively) reported attendance figures for courses using this model rising dramatically, and improved interest in the subject, as did Raein at Central St. Martin's. This compares with the often-reported low attendance and low grades of practice-based students facing the 'death by slideshow' model.
- Raein, M. (2005). "Integration of studio and theory in the teaching of graphic design." Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 3(3): 163–174
- Baldwin, J and McLean, S "Abandoning History: delivering historical and critical studies to practice-based students" at the New Views conference, LCC 29 October 2005. 
- Design Museum, London, UK.
- V&A Museum, London, UK.
- Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Museum, NY, USA.