The Difference between Design Studies and Design History

Published on: January 7th, 2012


As promised, this is the second in a series of posts in which I answer hypothetical questions about Parsons’ M.A. in Design Studies.  Of course, the first questions you might have (I know I would, especially if I were moving) might have more to do with what life will be like on a day-to-day basis in New York. Realistically, this may be too subjective for me to tackle here. There’s only so far I can walk in imaginary shoes.  So while you look at Google Earth and take the cultural pulse of the New School and Parsons, I’ll tackle the territory I do know—the content and nature of the program. And given how young design studies is as a field, one of the first things you might want to ask is this:


Just as I take a very catholic view of design, I see design studies as more inclusive in scope than design history. Traditionally, design history narrates the development of design since the advent of mass production and elucidates the contributions of designers to their professions and particular moments in time. Moreover, since its emergence in the late 1970s, design history has expanded its documentary nature by taking on board issues of gender, race, and global consumption and production.  (On this point, I highly recommend Denise Whitehouse’s “The State of Design History as a Discipline” in Design Studies: A Reader, eds. Hazel Clark, David Brody—a collection of essays that should be required reading for anyone interested in design studies.) Nonetheless, design history does subscribe to the idea of disciplinary boundaries as assurance of its academic legitimacy even as they are being stretched.

Design studies is happily more promiscuous. It’s less concerned with defining or limiting its remit vis a vis the disciplines and methodologies that travel through its terrain. In the best sense, it is intellectually opportunistic, drawing on the knowledge of things that resides in fields such as philosophy, anthropology, sociology, literature, and the sciences.  Design studies scholars explore the ways in which design both parallels and anticipates the contributions of those and other disciplines.* 

With regard to history qua history, design studies is concerned with the genealogy of ideas of, and about, making things and places since antiquity. This is the case because design is always, in part, a response to patterns imprinted on the brain over millennia. But at the same time it reflects past experience, design must also counteract the hard-wired habits of harm we continue to inflict on the planet and ourselves.  And here is where design studies is most distinct from design history. Design studies views design both as the embodiment of the imminent future (by virtue of behaviors it triggers and resources it depletes) and as a means of envisioning alternative futures.

That said, design studies would not exist without design history. Nor would it be conceivable without art history, material culture studies, or the history of decorative arts.  These are its roots, just as the humanities and sciences are its grafts.

*In my own research on architecture and textiles, I have seen how this works.  Case in point: at the University of Pennsylvania, architect Jenny Sabin produces models that translate data into physical form, models that give biologists’ entirely new ways of experiencing the dynamics of cellular activity in real time and space. But this is not merely an illustrative exercise. The three-dimensional models she creates are research propositions for a literally organic architecture that can swell and shrink in response to external forces and thus be more sustainable.

No doubt the distinctions I’ve outlined above will raise more questions than they answer. Trying to create profiles of fields so young is a bit like trying to imagine the adult face of a child.  But part of any maturation process is imagining what might be, so it behooves us to offer projections about our own futures, or run the risk that they’ll be determined for us.

Please don’t hesitate to send me your thoughts at  I look forward to hearing from you.



Program Contact

Caroline Dionne, Program Director

Program Update

Parsons is not currently admitting new students to this master’s degree program. Parsons is now offering a Graduate Minor in Design Studies that is designed to complement the MA History of Design and Curatorial Studies and other graduate programs across the university in design, liberal arts, and social research.