Four Counter-Narratives for Graphic Design History

The potential for inclusivity and increased emphasis on social impact.

Augusta Rose Toppins
Associate Professor
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Most graphic design histories conform to a professionalized, Eurocentric narrative in which prominent works are progressively arranged along a timeline. While methodologies vary between Phillip Meggs’, Richard Hollis’, and Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s well-respected texts, these approaches share similarities that suggest a dominant narrative. In Thinking about History, Sara Maza wrote: “[T]he practice of history itself and the questions historians ask are transformed and renewed every time a new set of actors lays claim to its past.” In this Pecha Kucha, I will present four counter narratives for graphic design history that offer the potential for inclusivity and increased emphasis on social impact.

First, I will offer a Marxist counter-narrative in which the history of graphic design is told primarily through its relationship to labor and class struggle. Second, I will suggest a people’s history of graphic design, in which the counter-narrative is invested in graphic design as a universal human activity and a form of cultural production beyond the profession. Third, I will discuss decolonized counter-narratives, in which graphic design is delinked from its relationship to capitalism and legacies of Western centrality. Fourth, I will offer an intersectional counter-narrative in which gender politics and queer theory are integrated into the history of graphic design.

For each counter-narrative, I will share a methodology as well as design objects, ideas, processes, and/or texts that serve as examples. While none of these approaches will be exhaustively discussed in such a short presentation, my goal is to spark curiosity about the possibilities of shifting the conversation.

Image note: Lakota visual language, designed by Sadie Red Wing, 2016. Image courtesy of Sadie Red Wing.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 6.2: CAA 2020 Conference Chicago on February 14, 2020.