Learning Design Histories for Design Futures: Speculative Histories and Reflective Practice


The conceptual frameworks that influence historical accounts also influence speculation about the future. In this respect, history and futurology share a subtle affinity. They are both children of the moving present (Buchanan, 2001, p. 73).

The affinity between histories and futures has always been a central concern of my teaching, research and practice. I might use different terms according to the context—heritage and innovation in museums or design history and design futuring in education—but I share with Richard Buchanan a desire for a robust design culture in the present that makes a sustainable contribution to humanity’s future. This essay takes the form of a reflection on my own practice as a design teacher, and discusses the value of speculative history for design students, as well as a recent example in practice. The educational case study is based on a paper I presented at the first Teaching Design History workshop organised by the Design History Society in 2010, which coincided with the launch of the Design History Reader (2010) by Grace Lees-Maffei. Having taught design history, criticism and theory for seven years in the Design Studies Department at the University of Otago in New Zealand, it was gratifying to see a relatively comprehensive published reader that bore some resemblance to the various readers I had compiled for undergraduate courses. However, talking to the design history teachers, I became aware for the first time about a tension that existed in the UK between the teaching of design history and its relationship to studio practice. Since being made compulsory in tertiary education in the UK in the 1970s, design history had grown to be an established discipline (or, at least, sub-discipline of history), but there was a perception amongst students that it lacked relevance to studio practice, or at least had become divorced from it due to different methods of delivery and outcomes (studio vs lecture, design vs essay). While this did not necessarily coincide with my own experience, it did make me consider the relationship of history and practice in tertiary design education.


Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2  – Critique of Method (2016).

Click to Comment