Design Design Assignment #1

Design Design #1

Due: Wed. 4/15

This assignment asks you to create a design about design history. You will design a visual lay-out of cultural forces — related to a form of 19th century design from 1850-1900.

You will also turn in 5 page (typed, double-spaced) paper, in which you explain relevant background information on the object and your design choices.

Fundamental steps:

  1. Choose one object, image, or structure that relates to 19th century design. Choose something that piques your interest in lecture or elsewhere.
  2. Do a bit of reading/research on your chosen object. Which 19th century forces, ideas, consumer practices, or technological developments led to and away from this object?
  3. Create a visual that illustrates the cause and effect relationships that surround, or are evident in, your chosen object, image, or structure. In other words, how will you show the relationships among these forces and your object/image?
  4. Write a paper about those cause and effect relationships and your design choices.


More specific guidelines:

As you select information and create your design, consider these questions:

  • Which economic, cultural, gender or class-related forces, behaviors, or beliefs led to the creation of your item?
  • Which technological, industrial, or production-related developments played a role?
  • How did it affect other forces, behaviors, or beliefs?
  • Who affected the creation of this object?
  • Who was affected by this object?
  • Who needed it/wanted it? (Why did they need it? Or why were people told they needed it/wanted it?)
  • Who designed it? Who used it? Who was inspired by it or critical of it? Who changed its design?
  • Which other areas of design did it co-exist with or influence?
  • Any other causes and effects?

Requirements for the visual form:

  • This is a VISUAL EXPLORATION of the RELATIONSHIPS among these forces.

This should NOT look like a science fair poster with lots of little paragraphs of information. You may use single words or simple phrases. The composition, font, color, and other design choices must be the primary means of communicating the relationships among these forces.

Your diagram should NOT look like a simple timeline, but, instead, should be visually explore the complex cultural matrix in which this object existed.

  • You must include at least 5 historical factors/forces/influences in your design and in your paper.
  • Include an image of your chosen item or a clear visual indication of the original object/image/structure.
  • Be creative! Really look at the formal aspects of your object/image – what can you play with in your design? Consider using appropriate 19th century lettertypes/fonts, color combinations, or patterns for your design.
  • You may go high-tech or low-tech with this assignment. Creating a hand-drawn diagram on a sheet of paper is fine, particularly if you are exploring forms that involved drawing: e.g. design sketches, book illustrations, fashion trading cards, or catalogue entries.

Requirements for the paper:

  • You must include at least 5 historical factors/forces/influences in your design and in your paper.
  • In addition to using your lecture notes, consult 2 additional sources. I am picky about sources – see suggestions below.


  • You must indicate which sources you’ve used throughout the paper through footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations (I don’t care which style you use — Chicago Style, MLA, etc. — just pick one and be consistent.)
  • You must also include a bibliography or list of works cited.
  • Researching design history is tricky! Be careful of commercial sites; some companies provide a veneer of academic material while trying to sell their products. Consumerism is fine, but their historical information is not always accurate!
  • Museum websites are excellent resources for the kinds of images and information you might need. See, for example, the sites below:

Victoria and Albert Museum

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Museum of Modern Art         

Vitra Design Museum            



  • The presentations will take the form of an informal critique session, however, this is not a studio course and grading will not be on aesthetic quality but on the effective/engaging communication of an historical matrix.
  • All designs will be on display simultaneously.
  • You must bring in a poster, hand-drawn diagram, or other physical form of some kind.
  • Alternatively, you could bring in your own laptop on which to display your design. (If you choose this option, please also email it to me so that I have a record of it.)
  • We will go around the room, observing and analyzing the designs in terms of how they communicate the different historical forces.
  • Be prepared to discuss your design.  As with the overall assignment, the goal here is NOT to become an expert on the history of a given object, but to communicate how cultural and aesthetic/formal choices are inter-related. In other words, you will not stand in front of the class and give a report on the history of an object. Instead, be prepared to give an overview of your design choices. HOW did you present the forces that led to, and stem from, your chosen object?
  • Still, do inform yourself about the basics of the object. What is it? Why did it look the way it did? Select several items of historical significance that you might point out to the class.
  • Be prepared to briefly state why you chose what the original object/image/structure. What drew you to it? What piqued your interest?

Why I Write

I’ve stolen the title of this essay from George Orwell, who, in 1946, loaded his explanation with phrases like “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”

Sheesh. So, why did Eric Arthur Blair (a.k.a. Orwell) write?

George Orwell suffering though a bout of writing

George Orwell suffering though a bout of writing

He laid out four “great motives”:

Sheer Egoism
Aesthetic Enthusiasm
Historical Impulse
Political Purpose
I suppose I relate most to the first two. Sheer Egoism? Sure. I find writing both ego-stroking and soothing. Aesthetic Enthusiasm? Absolutely. Arriving at le mot juste — or the right combination of mots — is liberating and satisfying.

And as for the last two? Well, I want to contribute good novels for smart, young readers, but my ego hasn’t been stroked quite enough to feel like I’m participating in the grand Historical Impulse. And while I try to pepper my middle grade and young adult novels with ideas about socio-economic structures, I can’t really say that I’m driven by Political Purpose.

Orwell has lots of weighty, important things to say about these four great motives. (You can read the complete essay here).

But, for me, he really hits home at the end of his essay, where he gets quite charming and self-deprecating and says that it all boils down to compulsion. He says writers write because they are propelled by “some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

This particular demon has only recently come to stay with me.

There I was, minding my own business — trying very, very hard to mind my own business: Raising two daughters, doing some freelance writing, teaching a few classes, and struggling to finish my Ph.D. I had plenty of business to mind. But then a little demon flew into my head. An idea for a novel.

And it wouldn’t leave me alone. My attention was pulled more and more toward character names, plot ideas, turns of phrases. The opening sentence. Oh, I adored thinking about that opening sentence. The whole thing became a fantasy land to which my mind flew.

But it was all theoretical. I hadn’t written a word. Finally, I sat down with my laptop, debating whether to open up a fresh, blank Word document. I told myself, “Don’t do it. Finish your dissertation first. Don’t do it.”

But, of course, I did it. I opened up that document and started writing my very first piece of fiction.

Well, my first piece of fiction as an adult.

In his essay, Mr. Orwell wrote, “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.”

It wasn’t that way for me, although I did write a fair bit as a kid: mostly poetry and short stories, including a very, very earnest story called, “Friends Forever.” I wasn’t exactly a prodigy. But I did enjoy making things up and writing them down in my loopy, girly script.

And then, as I grew up, I drifted away from fiction. I became an academic and then a freelance art critic, and I wrote a fair bit of non-fiction. I still do, and I love that process.

No. I am grateful for that process. Through the cherry-picking of words that will articulate what I want to say, I figure out what I am saying. It’s how I understand art and history and theories more deeply.

Now that I think about it — write about it — it’s like Orwell’s Historical Impulse, which he describes as “the desire to see things as they are.”

But fiction is different. It takes me places I didn’t even know I could imagine. Writing fiction is magical. Sometimes, I am almost breathless when I write, and that’s not an exaggeration. I want to find out what happens next.

Of course other times — often, really — it’s plodding and sticky. But when it’s flowing, and I’m in it, really in the writing, it’s as close to alchemy as I’m ever going to get. The characters talk to each other. The next element in the plot is revealed. Or, all of a sudden, something insists on being inserted into an earlier chapter. I rewrite as I write. I understand as I go. And I keep going until I’ve created something out of nothing.

So, now, this alchemical escapism has become its own demon. A friendly, if slightly nagging, demon that I have welcomed into my life, onto my couch where I sit with my laptop, wondering where the writing will take me.


(This essay was originally produced for, March, 2014)