A Thoughtful Explorer : Interview with Victor Margolin

When I was in my early twenties, I set out to create a cosmology. My intent was to explain the relation between the different forces in the world, from the most noble to the most base. Overwhelmed by the hope and expectation that I, a young dropout with a good undergraduate education, might be the one to accomplish what no philosopher in the past had successfully done, I plunged into the vast sea of knowledge and grasped intuitively at straws that held the promise of unraveling the universe’s mysteries
Victor Margolin in the introduction to The Politics of the Artificial

We live in a cacophonous age of ideas, globalism and multi-channel discourse, yet how many enlightened individuals do we personally know? Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a prime example of someone who is questioning, exploring, and articulating theoretical and practical dimensions of design within larger social, political and economic frameworks.

I met Victor when I was an undergraduate student in his design history courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What made these courses valuable was his rigor, humor, and balancing the showcasing of designed objects and the larger discussions of intentional and unintentional effects these objects had from a social, political and economic perspective. Victor did not teach a streamlined view of design and designers, but the complexity of designing and delving into thoughtful questions and discourse that is rare in today’s design discourse.

His writing is cogent and compelling and he has written, edited, or co-edited written nine books. He was the founding editor and is now co-editor of the academic journal Design Issues, one of the few soundly curated publishing conduits for global perspectives on design since it’s inception in 1984. Victor takes the best of sincere humanism, an unwavering belief that design is important and merges it with a variety of topical areas such as sustainability, service design, and even larger areas of inquiry. One of my favorite books of his is The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies, which codified many things I was thinking about, but did not have specific models or concepts for. This book provided me clarity on many levels as both a practitioner and one who is interested in theoretical aspects of design.

While Victor has been retired from teaching for five years, he has not retired from lecturing, editing, traveling and writing. He is currently writing a three-volume World History of Design, which he plans to finish in more two years.
We have been meeting over the years to discuss design and I finally wanted to ask him specific questions and document his responses. Our conversations tend to be convivial, spirited, and focused meandering.

You devoted quite a bit of your career to teaching design history. How has the subject of design history changed since you first started teaching?

When I first started teaching, the central narrative emphasized design in Europe and the United States and a bit in Japan. The Philip Meggs book on graphic design history and several standard histories of industrial design determined much of this. For the most part, the textbooks published in the last five years or so have not improved much on this situation.

At the same time, however, scholarship on design history in many parts of the world has been flourishing. Scholars in widely dispersed countries – Turkey, China, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Poland, Taiwan, Israel, Korea – to name a few have been publishing articles and also local histories and monographs on individual designers and movements.

For example, in Brazil there is Rafael Cardoso who has written about 1920’s and 1930’s graphic design in that country; Priscila Farias writes a lot about Brazilian vernacular typography; and Ethel Léon has written on 1950’s and 1960’s Brazilian industrial design. In Chile there is Eduardo Castillo at the University of Chile who writes about radical graphics of the 60’s and 70’s and co-wrote a large book on the history of the School of Applied Art at the University of Chile; and Pedro Alvarez Caselli wrote two excellent books on Chilean trademarks and a history of the Chilean poster.

In Mexico there is Oscar Salinas who wrote a history of industrial design and a book on design in pre-Columbian Mexico. There are also two recent large books on the history of graphic design in Mexico, one by Giovanni Tronconi and the other by Luz del Carmen Vilchis Esquivel. Marina Garone is known for her work on early Mexican typographers and printers and a recently published volume on the book covers of the Fondo de Cultura Economica publishing house. In Turkey there are Alpay Er, Secil Satir, and others who write about post-war Turkish design. One of our UIC Art History Department PhD students, Gökhan Ersan recently completed his doctoral dissertation on a Turkish company that produced appliances, automobiles, and other products.
Wendy Wong writes about graphic design in Taiwan and China.

These examples show that there are a lot of people doing good work around the world. Unfortunately, not enough of this has made its way into mainstream design history teaching, which is still very much behind the curve. The problem is that a lot of this work is not translated into English. In Design Issues we have published some articles in English, such as those by Artemis Yagou on design in Greece and Sarah Teasley on modern Japanese furniture design. The Journal of Design History is another publishing conduit, but there is a growing amount of international writing on design history and a need for more journals to publish it.


Can you discuss teaching design history with an emphasis on it as a professional/commercial activity vs. a social/critical theory perspective?

Yes, there is a difference. Design students are generally interested in seeing objects and understanding them. When I was teaching my survey, I talked a lot about values and the ideas behind the work that designers did. That was certainly of interest to students. If you move out of this realm into larger social dimensions, methodology, design for development, service design and so forth the course can become somewhat abstract and it is more difficult to keep a student’s attention. At a graduate level I taught courses on different design issues in which we did not look at objects at all.

However, the context for design is crucial and is most important to emphasize as the field of design history develops. One of my principal concerns is that design historians need to pay more attention to design in its wider sphere such that it can connect with other aspects of history. There has historically been too much focus on objects that derive from the decorative arts and consumer culture such as furniture and appliances and an unfortunate lack of communication between historians of design and historians of technology.


How are students different today than when you first started teaching and how has design history changed?

One big difference is that there is more technology today. Young people operate at a much more abstract level than I did at their age. I did not have any technology except television, so my world was very tangible and local. Today, much of what young people are interacting with is very abstract and arrived at through digital technologies. They are talking a lot on their mobile phones with people who are elsewhere, and are engaging with endless images through the Internet. The default now is abstraction and things that are real and tangible occupy less of their attention than was common than when I was their age.

I also think that people today are used to operating in a broader conceptual space.  As a boy, I came home from school and played and never talked long distance to anybody. Today, people are in not as connected to materiality. Their access to global spaces allows them to be in several places at once, but are they really any more cosmopolitan for that?

Regarding the teaching of design history, Steven Heller and other contemporaries who teach or write about design’s history knew many of the designers they wrote about and emphasized their personalities and sensibilities in their teaching. Today there is more interest in theories of design than in the past. Both perspectives have value and I think the best history combines an appreciation of the designers and their work as well as theories that explain it.

One problem with the field of design history is that is does not have a shared narrative and an agreed upon base on which to build more research. The design history community seems to be more scatter shot and does not have a common agenda. Thus we are left with a diverse set of ideas about what the narratives are and consequently the field does not move forward in a coherent way.


You mentioned that there is not a lot of design research happening in the United States. Why?

There is still a kind of American hubris that we are the first and the best in everything, despite the political and economic disasters we are experiencing. We do have good design schools like RISD, Cal Arts and Art Center. At Parsons many of the faculty are doing interesting work on design studies, service design, and sustainability. But if you look around the world there are very good design schools outside the United States that embrace philosophy as an integral part of their academic culture.

In the United States we don’t have a developed field of design research. Therefore other fields have usurped some of the research on design. For example, there is a very active area on human/computer interaction that is led by the HCI community; there are some young scholars interested in participatory design; and there is some cutting edge work on design and sustainability. Service design is starting to emerge in business schools such as the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, where my colleague Richard Buchanan teaches. Yet, these subgroups do not reach out to others due to the constraints of academic culture which reward scholars more for recognition in their own fields than for working in broader more experimental or less developed areas.

Historically, design in the United States was a commercial activity and was not grounded in a deep intellectual culture. Hence, design teaching was located in schools of art. One exception is Herbert Simon at Carnegie Mellon University. He was a polymath who worked across many disciplines. He should serve us today as a strong model for incorporating design research into different parts of the university curricula but this has not occurred.

By contrast, Finland through its new Aalto University has amalgamated design, economics, and technology schools and incorporated design research into all its programs; in the Netherlands there is the Delft University of Technology, which has very active programs of design research. Likewise at the Royal College of Art in London. There are similar impulses at work in other parts of the world, China, Taiwan, Brazil, and Turkey to name a few countries. In the United States, we have not figured out how to integrate design research into university curricula except for having it embedded in separate departments, which generally have little communication with each other.

The paradox is that American universities collectively have long traditions of excellence. They have deep and well-developed approaches to methodology and research quality. Yet, while we still have an incredible educational apparatus for training American academics, in terms of design we are not the leaders we could be. You would expect American scholars to be more visible in the design field, but because of pressure for advancement, they tend to become very territorial and are reluctant to step out into new areas. At international design and design history conferences, relatively few Americans present papers.


You have been involved with Design Issues since you helped found it in 1982. How has the landscape of critical design theory changed since then?

First of all, there are many more scholars in the field today than there were in 1984, when we first began to publish Design Issues. At that time, relatively few people were writing about design in a critical or theoretical way. There had been the design methods movement, the founding of the Design Research Society and its journal Design Studies, the application of semiotics to visual communication, and some early work in design history. In the past ten or fifteen years, however, doctoral education in design has exploded and this has produced a lot more researchers.

Our journal gets contributions from all parts of the world, especially Turkey and various Asian countries. The percentage of American article submissions to Design Issues, by contrast, is quite modest compared to some other countries.
The problem I see with the current situation is that, with the burgeoning of doctoral programs, there is a preoccupation with the validation of journals and article selection processes. Young scholars are preoccupied with journal rankings, citation indexes, and impact factors. All of this is antithetical to a free atmosphere of serious inquiry. Unfortunately it is something our journal has to contend with in order to get good articles.

With the increase in design PhD programs, how has this development affected the quality of dissertation content and the level of discourse of design?
There is a big shift going on in design today and it has made some impact on design research as well. Design doctorates are quite new and many of the programs are, in my opinion, questionable both in terms of the preparation students receive and the quality of their doctoral work.In some universities, professors in design departments are taking their doctorates in those same departments with their peers as their professors. This makes little sense to me.

The field of design research is in some confusion. The best part is that some nodes have begun to emerge such as design and emotion, sustainability, design education, HCI, and other areas. These nodes are important because around them will crystallize the studies that will advance the research field.There is also a shift towards more attention to social accountability in design and design research.

Fields like sustainability and design for development are becoming popular and there is more emphasis on trying to understand the idea of social design. The big problem is that the support system for design practice is not sufficient to encourage all the new directions that are emerging so that the rest of society has to catch up with design’s new tendencies. At the same time, public sector design, the design of organizations, and service design have attracted a lot of interest from large companies and government agencies in some countries. Another new field is design for health care which involves improving the way health delivery works.

Within universities, there is a problem with how innovative thinking is fostered. What makes a scholar successful in a field is heavily codified and faculty members tend to work at both the university level and the larger level of their professional associations. At the professional association level, there are journals, conferences, and other activities that are valued according to quantifiable criteria and these tend to be considered more highly than experimental activities or participation in lesser known venues. This tends to discourage branching out into new fields of research such as design. However, some universities are starting innovation centers to cut across disciplines where possible. There is, for example, an innovation center at my university that is headed by a product designer.


What is your view on the current discussions on design thinking and the development of D-Schools?

I believe in design thinking but in a wide sense that links it to reflection, for example, on how a political system works. Design is deeply implicated in all political processes but in ways that are not yet evident since we don’t use the term ‘design’ broadly enough. I am starting to write about that now and want to show that design is implicit in much that we do. If we could more clearly identify some of our activities as design activities, we could introduce methods for achieving better outcomes.

My interest is in demonstrating that thinking about design goes on all the time but it is not always conscious or of maximum benefit. I visited the D-School at Stanford and was dismayed to hear David Kelley say that reading was not important for his students. There is a kind of hubris there regarding the IDEO methodology that drives the D-School program.


Where has design made progress, and where is design having challenges as a field of study and as a profession?

Design has made progress in the broadening of thought about what designers can do. This is a relatively new phenomenon but it is growing. As we experience more problems in the world, the old adages about what design is for seem less and less relevant to contemporary needs. Two big problems exist, however. One is the way that design is presented socially so that some students coming into design schools think it is more about creating cool objects than making the world a better place.

In that regard, design educators have a job to do in order to socialize their students properly so they have a better understanding of what their future roles as designers could and should be. The second problem is the lack of financial support for new tendencies in design. Product design and communication design for the market are still the basic sources of support for designers. Graphic designers have more flexibility because they can go into less hard-core commercial fields like book and poster design or socially oriented areas like urban signage.

The broadening of design in contemporary society is opening up new avenues for a greater sense of what a designer might do and a deeper sense of a type of thinking to address a more complicated world. This broadening is also making it more difficult to be an effective designer because the questions designers have to address are much more complex and numerous, demanding greater knowledge to insure success.

There are new projects that can be considered the purview of design like the design of organizations, projects, and systems that call for a larger vision of what a designer is and a require teamwork. An example would be the United States involvement in WWII, where it was necessary for the American government to mobilize rapidly to produce hundreds of different weapons in large volumes. It was during this time that new techniques such as operations research (which originated in Britain), ergonomics, and systems design were invented in order to manage large complex design problems and to insure favorable results for new types of designs such as radar.

What the American government accomplished in five years was astounding and was the result of government and industry working together to create methods to manage complexity. Today we are facing equally complex situations such as famine, drought, climate change, and refugee movements and we need methods that have yet to coalesce to deal with these situations from a design perspective. If we really put our minds to it, I believe we could shift to a clean energy economy in a decade or so.Design is becoming more visible as a way to think about some of these problems.

The difficulty is that there are not enough clients who understand the value of design skills and there are not enough designers who really see what designers could do and are prepared to address these new opportunities.


How can designers introduce new types of design?

I would go back to the 1930’s as an example. Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, and Walter Dorwin Teague brought something new to American industry. Bel Geddes used his book Horizons with its images of trains, ships and airplanes of the future to prime conversations. The level of showmanship and the creation of compelling arguments to sell new design services to these industries made for, at the time, compelling results.

Today, some designers and design organizations are trying to transform design in a different manner but we are at a point where the possibilities are large and require bolder arguments for change than we have seen thus far. We cannot rely on the “design is important” arguments as these are yesterday’s bread. Designers need to present their visions in compelling ways. Take service design. How many trained designers could have envisioned a car sharing service like Zip Cars and have gone to a car company and packaged a narrative that laid out the whole service continuum for such a company and envisioned the products to support it?

There will always be work for a cadre of talented conventional artist/designers. We now see the return of craft industries and designers can create limited run objects very cost effectively. People will still need chairs and consumers will always look for the novelty of new forms of existing objects. However the pool of projects that require traditional design approaches is shrinking and is combined with an ever-large number of designers who have to compete for this shrinking work.

The challenge now is to begin to conceptualize at design schools what a new designer would be like. I wrote an article about design doctorates in which I criticized many of them for being vague and not useful for practical work. In reality companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft that work on large transdisciplinary projects are hiring people with doctorates in specific fields of knowledge such as mechanical engineering or biology.

There should be doctorates in medical design, systems design and service design for example. We need to develop a research culture at the doctoral level that can go deeper and also address practical research projects.


Can you discuss design as a plan that can define frameworks and processes and design as a material manifestation and how to connect them together in a more fruitful relationship?

Good design requires a broad vision of the world and various design practices contribute to shaping this kind of vision. Not enough designers have such a vision and much more discussion is needed to explore this subject. We do know how to manage complex projects with designed systems and methods but we don’t have a sense of the world for which we should be designing.

Our contemporary world is one where inequities of income need to be reduced and human needs have to be met in a more effective way. Unfortunately most political decisions in which design is implicated such as health care, food production, and housing are controlled by people with no sense of design. Impractical ideologies drive decisions that should be made by people with a more highly developed sense of how to achieve positive outcomes in these areas.

On a basic level there has been a big change in product design. Many cutting edge industrial design firms use research methods, albeit pragmatic ones that require anthropologists, sociologists and futurists. Clients want to know about their markets and design consultancies are given the latitude to find out. Much of this research is market research and is focused on improved quality and performance for a specific user.

One of the salient qualities of design is that it is open ended. Anyone can propose new directions for designers and invent methods to work in new ways. The obstacle is finding support for new directions. Design is a contingent activity. There is no imperative to design anything other than we want to do it or the market encourages us to do it. But markets are random and constantly change from year to year in terms of what is marketable. The market is not a reliable indicator of what to design, other than to justify doing something for a desired economic return. If you start to ask deeper questions about the contingency of design, you recognize that what one does is not inevitable and is only a response to a set of conditions and circumstances that exist at a given moment.

For example, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and other design consultants from the 1930’s had compelling visions of how to improve existing products. They were not just stylists and the real innovations of these product design consultancies was meshing their vision of a new product with a back office of engineers and architects who worked out the complexities of their proposals to clients. However, they generally stayed within current situations and focused on making things better for current markets.

Such a model still does not address what one might do. We need to pull back from our immediate conditions and to adopt a larger critical perspective and a willingness to question these conditions. The next step is to consider what questions might be possible. This will break our current moorings and enable us to interact with new situations with a larger set of cultivated skills. You could go to the extreme and address a situation that currently does not exist.

Based on these ideas there are three possible routes an individual can take :

1) Work within existing situations
2) Become a reformer, modify a current situation and produce a new/variant product.
3) Be a radical and seek out a new situation. This takes a tremendous amount of reading and awareness.

When you look at the history of radical movements, you see that a lot of the germination happened in cafes where people would talk things through. Today there are social movements, however many of the people involved do not really deeply understand these movements they want to be part of. They may catch a Twitter feed to meet up somewhere. They understand the basics of showing up but are not revolutionaries with a strategic plan.

Vladimir Lenin, a leader of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, really understood capitalism and through reading, thinking, and dialogue envisioned an entirely new system to replace it. While this system failed, there were elements of it that were positive antidotes to the worst aspects of capitalism.


What are the new challenges and opportunities that emerging countries face and bring to the integration of design in larger social, political and economic contexts?

This takes us back to something we discussed earlier – why don’t we have more Americans doing design research? We have the capacity to do it, but do not understand its value. Our higher education system is mature and ought to foster a greater engagement with design. In China, there are a lot of creative people, in spite of all the governmental constraints. Chinese culture has a history of great inventions like movable type and paper. But at the current pace that they are moving, they are still copying Western models and practices. They currently think of reverse engineering one of our products rather than inventing one of their own.

Can China figure out a type of culture that supports innovation in a deep way? You cannot replicate Silicon Valley in China without a deep culture to sustain it. China has a long way to go in this regard. However, global standards of competency are variable and people can pass themselves off as experts when they really have little technical competency. They do not understand quality issues and in certain sectors you cannot be 70% right because of inherent risks involved in the products you are designing. The United States has the resources to maintain a lead in product innovation but we are not using enough of them. China is trying to do the things we should be doing like developing solar panels and high-speed rail but with far less knowledge.

India on the other hand has excellent universities but it is still mired in corruption and bureaucracy and I am not sure if the Indians will be able to deal at the systems level for a while. Brazil in contrast has good universities, many researchers who received their degrees abroad, and a sense of enthusiasm that may enable them to pull off some real breakthroughs. Brazilians are very conscious of their particular social problems and it is still a question as to whether they can deal with problems such as corruption. Where Brazil and other countries are opening up, the United States seems to be shutting down due to political and social gridlock.


How do we connect individual activities within larger institutional or global activities?

There are three level of human activity : the micro, mezzo and macro realms. At the micro level, educated people do not want to be part of the destructive aspects of consumption. Many are trying to reduce their stuff consumption, live economically, eat well, and not waste things. This is all good. At the mezzo level we are seeing institutions arguing for sustainable values and companies are making objects using less materials and energy.

It is at the macro level where we are having problems and seem to be stalled. We need policies that affect the millions of cars that are made and address the potential of mass transit. While mass movements of individuals are important, institutions need to change to affect the macro level. The macro level depends on trained people who are prepared with a body of knowledge gained at the mezzo level.

We may now be experiencing a revolution in American democracy based on civil disobedience again. As the political system continues to be paralyzed, there are movements to fill the void like the American Dream Movement and Occupy Wall Street that are creating vigorous conversations based on desperation for real change. This means looking forward to something new.
We need more discussions with one another since we do not really have sufficient well thought out compelling theories of change. It is very important to think well into the future and use conversation and dialogue to explore how the world could be.

This is where design comes in. Historically, design acted at a mezzo level of practice within companies, not at the macro level of governments. Now, the feelings of change at the micro level are welling up to the mezzo level but there are problems to make this level work more efficiently. There are people who are not designers who are interested in design as a subject, but we need trained designers to collaborate with them. Design schools need to organize curricula to meet these contemporary challenges. This is where design could play a role, but can we articulate and implement a vision that meets these challenges?


You are currently writing a book about the World History of Design. Can you elaborate on why you wanted to tackle such a large subject? Based on what you have written thus far, what has been some of the more surprising connections you are making?

I am a cosmopolitan person with an interest in what goes on all over the world. I have traveled a lot and appreciate differences in cultures and lifestyles. I am also someone who is drawn to mapping large spaces, particularly holistic ones. Over the years I have read a lot in different fields and when I began teaching design history and working on Design Issues, I saw the limitations in subject matter and the lack of consistency in understanding how design works across the world. I also admire large sustained writing projects and envisioned my world history of design as one of them.

I’ve been working on the project for more than ten years and have a couple of years to go before the three volumes are completed. In the course of researching and writing I have discovered a lot and learned a lot about how design works in different cultures. I have chapters in the book on Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia as well as Europe and North America. I have come to see larger patterns of how power affects economic conditions in different parts of the world, how ideas spread, how design is linked to economic development, and how that development influences the status of a nation in the global polity.

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