Making History: Teaching Design History Methods in Studio

Learning outcomes emphasized gathering information, examining sources, interpreting evidence, connecting design to social contexts, and crafting historical narratives in text and image

Aggie Toppins
Associate Professor
Washington University in St. Louis

In Spring 2023, Toppins introduced a new course called “Making History” in which students had the opportunity to learn historical research methods and use them in their studio work. At the time, WashU had only one design history course, an elective survey of graphic design, which one student in my class had taken. An ungraded quiz on the first day of class showed that most students had no sense of what was (or was not) considered canonical. None were familiar with prevailing themes in graphic design history. Unlike a survey course, which tasks students with absorbing a broad scope of historical content, this course focused on making inquiries into the past. Learning outcomes emphasized gathering information, examining sources, interpreting evidence, connecting design to social contexts, and crafting historical narratives in text and image. 

Toppins’ teaching methods were hands-on and high-impact. Having secured a $2500 Sam Fox School teaching grant, she was able to bring in a number of guest speakers and take students on field trips. Students visited local archives, museums, and historical sites. They listened to scholars and designers with diverse backgrounds discuss their research methods and outcomes. They got to physically handle historical objects from cuneiform tablets to mid-century paste-ups. Students also read historical texts, critical essays, and watched documentaries to prepare for in-class discussions and debates. After each of these activities, students responded to prompts in a provided sketchbook. The sketchbook served as the “field notes” component of the course, in which students recorded their ongoing reflections and took notes on research. In most cases, the sketchbook helped students locate the topic for their final, self-guided project. Throughout the semester, leading up to this project, students engaged in four workshops that instilled specific methods. Each workshop resulted in a short outcome, like a zine or broadside, that kept students connecting the dots between making historical inquiries and making graphic design. The final project asked students to pursue a topic of their own interest. Students became primary investigators, forming their own questions and mapping out their own research approaches.

Student work from this class was strong in terms of formal design and critical positioning. Students could articulate their goals, match appropriate research methods to their questions, and translate their findings into criteria for design projects. They also became familiar with graphic design history’s prevailing themes by thinking critically about historiography and methodology.  Another important outcome of this course is that it gave Toppins the chance to test exercises and content for her forthcoming book, Thinking Through Graphic Design History. Some student work from this class will be published in the book, which will reach market in 2025.

This project was the 2023 Design Incubation Educators Awards winner recipient in the category of Teaching.

Aggie Toppins is an Associate Professor of Communication Design and Chair of Design at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. She combines studio practice and critical writing to explore the social life of graphics. Aggie’s creative work has been internationally exhibited and garnered national design awards including the Type Director’s Club ‘Certificate of Typographic Excellence,’ and the SECAC Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design award. Her recent writing has been published by Design and Culture, Design Issues, Diseña, Slanted, Eye, and AIGA Eye on Design. She has written essays for Briar Levit’s book Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History and Ali Place’s recent volume, Feminist Designer. Her first book Thinking Through Graphic Design History will be published by Bloomsbury in 2025.

Social Design: Bridging Two Continents Through Collaboration and Innovation

Students understand their role as designers/co-creators/catalysts within a global context to explore the problem of sustainability

Design Teaching Award Winner

Neeta Verma
Associate Professor
University of Notre Dame

The aim of this advanced-level course in Social Design was for students to understand their role as designers/co-creators/catalysts within a global context to explore the problem of sustainability. This multi-disciplinary partnership brought together students from the University of Notre Dame (UND) and the National Institute of Design(NID) in India. The cohort of 14 students traveled approximately 17,000 miles, with 19 weeks of working together (3 weeks in India, 2 weeks in the US, and 14 weeks of working virtually). With an emphasis on problem solving and innovation, the learning goal was to examine the problem of sustainability through a cross-cultural prism, in India and the United States— two very divergent socio-economic constructs. The project was funded through a $30,000 grant awarded to the lead faculty. This semester-long collaboration was to help students develop an understanding of social constructs within two divergent economies and look through globally re-contextualized perspectives at the singular issue of sustainability. The course was designed as a solution solution-finding process for a singular problem, where students not only to sought a solution but gained a deeper understanding of complex cultural, social, and economic environments within which design solutions often need to find congruity. The students gained both a depth of understanding and breadth of social competency of the frame of reference within which their solutions were expected to function.


The course followed an 8-step pedagogical process used in the Social Design class.

Empathy: the understanding the needs, attitudes, and pre-dispositions of a people with whom the designers are working

Immersion: Daily engagement and involvement over a period of time

Awareness: Observations and knowledge gathering of a problem area within its cultural context

Definition: Determining the scope of research and inquiry

Engagement: Understanding stakeholders and their interconnectedness

Synthesis and problem framing: Structuring the context within which the problem is being defined

Design interventions: Collaborative encounters that facilitate solution-finding at the grassroots

Integration: Ensuring that the solution embeds itself within the context from which the problem emerged


A total of six projects were completed. Of those, the one listed below is being showcased: Sustainable Packaging by Kacey Hengesbach (UND), Anupam Garg (NID)

The project looked at packaging trends in the current fruit and vegetable markets supply chain to document non-sustainable packaging trends and explore ways to replace existing packaging solutions with biodegradable alternatives in India.


The students developed cultural competencies by discovering ways of navigating new environments. Within research students were introduced to ethnographic research; and empirical investigation through interviews, photo and film documentation, logging daily activity, contextual analysis, and partnering with local individuals working in the supply chains to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges. The project framework for the project focused primarily on a critical understanding of convergence and divergence in problem-framing that helped students position their research in two diametrically different geographies. In some cases, the research yielded similar results between the two contexts and in others, there was great divergence.


The following steps were used within the design process:

1. Problem Definition

Researching statistics that quantitatively describe the acute problem of plastic consumption and the proportion that is specifically used for fruit and vegetable packaging. Also examined was the per capita consumption of plastics in the United States and India as they compare to world consumption.

2. Researching the market

Students researched the time and distance fruits and vegetables travel to get to markets. They examined the complexity of supply chains and journeys of fruits and vegetables as well as the needs that packaging had to fill along those journeys before arriving at the local wholesale markets.

3. Field research, interviews, and photo documentation

Over two weeks, students visited the wholesale and retail markets to understand the various needs of the vendors and where plastics were replacing traditional materials.

4. Exploring material

Students explored traditionally used regional materials like bulrush, banana, bamboo, and jute but ultimately chose the water hyacinth, a plant that is predominantly found across the world. It has both pliability and high strength in its various stages of drying.

5. Exploring materiality

Students explored the pliability and the tensile strength of the water hyacinth in its various stages of drying. They also examined how different surfaces could be created during each stage of drying to develop surfaces from soft (for protection) to hard (for support and bearing weight) to accommodate the varying needs of the markets.

6. The Design Intervention

For the final design intervention, the proposed solution was a packaging solution that offered a cradle to cradle method made out of naturally biodegradable materials, specifically using water hyacinth in combination with jute and bulrush. The packaging system was customizable, stackable, usable for display, reusable for future use, compactable, and transportable.

7. Project Design Impact

Environment: Creating a product that benefits the environment by ridding it of an invasive species without the use of harmful chemicals.

Economy: Adding income to rural areas that participate in manufacturing.

Culture: Supporting existing regional crafts and using their skills to create sustainable packaging solutions.


The course due to its travel component and the complexity of the problem exposed students to contexts that they had never experienced before expanding the classroom globally. Challenges included differences in climate, language, and cultural etiquettes. The academic challenges lay in navigating the research as the students immersed themselves in unfamiliar environments. On the other hand, experiencing the richness of a whole new culture and renegotiating the sense of the self within a new context helped broaden perspectives. The opportunity provided an incredibly enriching experience for design students to immerse themselves within a new social, cultural, and economic order. The experience enabled the design students to gain global perspectives about the implications of design and the impact it can have. Above all, with social innovation at the core of design education today, this experience built confidence and resiliency within students as they situated themselves within diverse contexts and collaborated with others to manage complexity at both global and local scales.

Neeta Verma is an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame and situates herself within the porous discipline of Visual Communication Design. Her areas of research and teaching focus on social equity and justice. She teaches Social Design at the intersection of social innovation and collaborative practices, and Visualization of Data that investigates the aesthetics, ethics, and politics of representation. Her current research, supported by a prestigious grant, examines youth violence. She received her MFA from Yale and currently holds Faculty Fellowships at the Center for Social Concerns, the Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Studies, and the Pulte Institute for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. She is the recipient of several awards including Graphis, Core77, A’Design Awards, and International Design Awards. She has presented her research at both national and international conferences. She serves on the SEGD Academic Task Force and CAA Committee on Design.