Design history as an independent discipline and field of study appears to be in trouble. Design historians complain about its diminishing influence within universities due to the ongoing instrumentalisation of higher education. The Eurocentric canon built upon values and methods adopted from art and architecture history has been contested by decolonial theories. And finally, it appears that the trust in the institution of ‘history’ itself and its meta-narratives has eroded.
A discipline that was once considered to provide reflection on what came before and guidance on what could come to be—under the auspice of a grand narrative of continuous progress—has been replaced by modest narratives, social anthropologies, and claims of the ‘end of history’.
In this article, I rummage through the ruins of design history and try to unpack what it was that we once considered design history and our design history canon, how we wrote about it and to what end. In particular, I focus on this one image: a portrait photograph of a well-known historical figure, the designer and typographer Jan Tschichold. How is it used? And what stories do we tell about it?