Paradoxes of Globalizing Design Histories

Decentring from within the centre?


The history of design, as it is generally understood in the West, is intricately connected to the historical processes of industrialisation and modernisation. Most standard design history textbooks present the Industrial Revolution in Britain, during which the design profession emerged as a result of labour division, as a key moment in the development of discourse on utility and aesthetics. Design equals modernity, and modernity entails the project of design. One example of a classic textbook is Pioneers of Modern Design, published in 1936 by the German art and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who set the stage for an understanding of design that revolved around the professional designer (i.e., the white male designer) and the object, focusing on the aesthetics of ‘good design’ in the U.S. and Europe. While this approach has proven to be persistent – it still features in common conceptualizations of design today – it has been vigorously debated since the 1970s, and, under the influence of poststructuralism, feminism and postcolonialism, contemporary approaches to design have been broadened to encompass not only a wider range of objects of study beyond canonized design icons, moving towards ‘material culture studies’, but also to include various phases of ‘the life of things’ beyond the pristine moment of object creation, such as the consumption or the mediation phase of design.[1] In the past few decades, design historians have borrowed methodologies and theories from art history, anthropology, sociology, archaeology, consumption studies, material cultures and many other disciplines to find new modes of inquiry. The question of what exactly defines design as a field of research distinct from other disciplines is perhaps the most consistent and defining feature of the field of design history.

Securing more relevance for design history is in fact, for some design historians, one of the motivations for globalizing the field.[2] Other authors urge that more ethical approaches to design history should be found, and that new design historians should, in the course of their education, be given the right tools with which to approach other cultures’ art and design.[3]

Nowadays, design can be an object, an icon, a system, a social interaction, a way of thinking, a business model and much more. Design processes are globally dispersed in terms of their creation, production, assembly, transportation, (digital) mediation, distribution and consumption, and also in terms of the migration of designers and ideas, and therefore it is simply imperative that design in various parts of the worlds is studied. Yet it is only in the past few decades that design historians have actively brought up this question. A map [link:] showing the locations of past International Conferences on Design History and Studies is indicative of a commitment to the aim of broadening the scope of design history,[4] and the scholarship of design history itself is becoming increasingly globalized: not only has there been an increase in articles dealing with design in different parts of the world, but there are also more and more ‘non-Western’ design historians doing research into design. However, as the design historian D.J. Huppatz rightfully states, the quest for a global turn within design histories “remains in its infancy”.[5] What is the path forward?

The quest to globalize design history seems to be caught up in a set of paradoxes. Do we understand globalization as the process of acknowledging, researching and studying design and its increasingly interconnected processes while also remaining sensitive to their specificities all over the world? Or are there ‘overarching narratives’ that can be addressed and compared? Does ‘globalizing’ mean to acknowledge a multitude of perspectives on ‘design’? But how can the field of design history be ‘global’ if both ‘design’ and ‘design history’ are entangled in rigid Western modernist paradigms?

Centuries of colonialism and imperialism have left their marks on the various ways in which global power dynamics manifest themselves and, importantly, on how academia and epistemologies are structured. For many decolonial scholars, such as the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano and the Argentinean philosopher Walter Mignolo, the year 1492 marks a symbolic turning point in the history of the world.[6] With the conquest of the Americas, the power dynamics within the world shifted radically, allowing Europe to become and construct itself as the superior centre of the world. Mignolo argues that modernity could only exist thanks to its inseparable darker side: “coloniality”.[7] Accordingly, decolonial scholars such as Quijano and Mignolo, consider “modernity/coloniality” as one and the same concept.

In a recent issue of Design Philosophy Papers, Madina Tlostanova writes that design as we generally understand it is deeply embedded within the frameworks of “modernity/coloniality” and “is a perfect and pure manifestation of modernity’s objectifying principle of perception and interpretation of the world, of other human and nonhuman beings, of manmade objects and knowledge”.[8] She urges us to destabilize the naturalized modern heritage implicit in design, which “hides its locality and represents itself as universal and natural”.[9]

The design historian Victor Margolin has argued for a move towards understanding design as an analytical category, arguing that “throughout human history, all cultures have produced the basic material and visual artefacts they require to survive. In this sense, design in some form has been present in all parts of the world at all times.”[10] In 2015, Margolin published the encyclopedic World History of Design, expanding the scope of design history not only in terms of its time frame, but also geographically.[11] In these two books (for sale for $625), Margolin focuses on the social, historical and economic processes at work in different parts of the world at different times – elements that are missing, he argues, from traditional accounts of design history, which focus instead on style or aesthetics.

While broader in its geographical scope and time frame, World History of Design still adheres to the idea that “the non-West [is] in a perpetual catch-up game with the civilized West”.[12] Despite producing what must have been, for him, the achievement of a lifetime, Margolin does too little to explore the lenses through which he looks at history and the terms he uses. The book adheres to a traditional mode of division, separating its text into chapters according to period. Margolin tries to use the term ‘design’ as an analytical category and forces it to be more inclusive, but he does not recognize the epistemological origins of the discipline of design itself and its entanglement with the linear progressions of modernity. Moreover, the academic project of writing an encyclopedia of world design reflects the modernist, universalist desire to map out the world.

In the book Global Design History (2011), edited by Glenn Adamson, Giorgio Riello and Sarah Teasley, global design history is described as a set of methodologies and approaches. According to these authors, it is important to avoid global “master narratives” and, instead, to trace networks, movements and trajectories of design, as design manifests itself locally but is always implicated in global networks.[13] They write that, “global design history is a sited approach that recognizes the multiplicities and fragmented condition in which we experience and enact design, as part of being in the world.”[14] Although they do not deny the importance of the digital and immaterial aspects of manifestations of design practice, they write that centralizing “the confined, concrete space of the ‘designed object’ [provides] a way to deal with sometimes bewildering geographies and chronologies.”[15]

These methodologies have been used by a number of design historians who have explored how national identities have been constructed through design and how nationalism has functioned as a normative frame of reference within the field of design. Authors such as Grace Lees-Maffei and Kjetil Fallan argue against essentialist notions of national identity and show how various national agendas influence the process of constructing ‘imagined’ national identities through design. The global, the national, the regional and the local are “inextricably interlinked processes” and are constructed and negotiated by particular actors through design.[16] World exhibitions; the construction of local, regional, national and international design policies; and the histories of (inter)national design institutions are but a few topics that these authors have used to explore the constructions and the politics of identity and design.

Other design historians have specifically looked into the introduction, confrontation, “transculturation” and hybridization of (Western) design in non-Western countries.[17] One such example is the “design and development paradigm”, as discussed by design historian and anthropologist Alison Clarke in an article on the Ahmedabad Declaration on Industrial Design and Development (National Institute of Design, India, 1979), which set out “to discuss the promotion of industrial design in developing countries”.[18] The currently fashionable idea that design can act as ‘a catalyst for social change’ is indebted to Viktor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (1971) and is still very present today. It can be recognized, for example, in the ‘World Design Capitals’ and ‘What Design Can Do’ conferences. Designers are urged to ‘do good’, and within this framework design is considered a form of positivist ideology. It is closely interconnected to particular western notions of development and industrialization, and therefore reminiscent of the so-called ‘white saviour complex’.[19]

In conclusion, globalizing design history remains a complex process and a problematic desire if we don’t fully understand the Eurocentric origins of the notion of ‘design’ as well as the Western epistemological foundations of ‘design history’ and of academia more broadly. The wish to globalize design history runs the risk of causing design historians to make universalist, tokenist or essentialist claims.

In 1989, the Australian design historian Tony Fry was already arguing that the field of design history was “Eurocentric, ethnocentric, and logocentric”.[20] A perspective from Australia, “on the edge of the developed world”, may contribute to actively objectifying, countering, and destabilizing the dominant discourses on design by including other voices from different positions. Understanding design as a “translation term”, a term rendered unstable when approached from a variety of perspectives, allows us to see it as a (historic) construction that reflects and performs hegemonic power relationships.[21] Considering design as a translation term thus subverts modern design’s universalist claims while also encouraging curiosity about what has (previously) not been considered ‘design’. Another aspect of this endeavour is to raise awareness of the positionality and implication of design historians within Western paradigms.

What would it mean to globalize design history from a place like the Tropenmuseum, with its ‘ethnographic’ collections? Questioning why the collections are here today, tracing their origins, trajectories and the ways in which they have been exhibited through the lens of ‘design’, with a focus on objects and materiality, will raise several issues. This approach challenges the classic paradigms of design history, as notions such as ‘craft’, ‘modernity’, ‘industrialisation’ and ‘development’ become situated in histories embedded in particular global power dynamics. Bringing in the notion of design also challenges the ‘design/art’ museum as a separate institution, raising questions about the rigid categorisation of design/art as distinct from ‘material culture’, as well as strategies of display and representation. The goal is not to integrate or assimilate the ethnographic collection into the category of design, but to use ‘design’ as a provocative tool to decentre and unfold design as a Western and, in its own estimation, superior category of material culture. Ultimately, this confrontation will hopefully create a “consciousness of just how flawed the universal model of knowledge and history [is] upon which the assumptions of the history of design rests”, while at the same time, increasing appreciation and interest for ethnographic collections.[22]


This text is based on a presentation given on January 25 as part of the 'Design and/as Translation Seminar'.

Cited Works

[1] See: Grace Lees Maffei, ‘The Production-Consumption-Mediation Paradigm’ in: Journal of Design History, 22:4, 2009, pp. 351-376.
[2] D.J. Huppatz, ‘Globalizing Design History and the History of Design’ in: Journal of Design History 28:2, 2015, p. 188.
[3] Rose Cooper and Darcy White, ‘Teaching Transculturation: Pedagogical Processes’, in: Journal of Design History Vol. 18 No. 3, 2005, pp. 286.
[4] Recent ICDHS conferences have taken place in: Havana (2000), Istanbul (2002), Guadalajara (2004), Osaka (2008) and Taipei (2016). See:
[5] Op. cit. (note 5).
[6] Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Duke University Press, 2011; Anibal Quijano, ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’, in: Cultural Studies 21:2-3, 2007, pp. 168-178.
[7] Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Duke University Press, 2011.
[8] Madina Tlostanova, ‘On Decolonizing Design’ in: Design Philosophy Papers 15:1, 2017, p. 52.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Victor Margolin, ‘A World History of Design and the History of the World’, in: Journal of Design History 18:3, 2005 pp. 235-243.
[11] Victor Margolin, World History of Design, Bloomsbury, 2015.
[12] Dipesh Chakrabarty, quoted in Huppatz, op. cit. (note 2) p. 186.
[13] Glenn Adamson, Giorgio Riello, Sarah Teasley (eds), Global Design History, Routledge, 2011, p. 6.
[14] Ibid., p. 3.
[15] Ibid., p. 5.
[16] Tim Edensor quoted in Grace Lees-Maffei and Kjetil Fallan (eds), Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization, New York: Berghahn, 2016, p. 8.
[17] The term ‘transculturation’ was coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in 1947 in: Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (trans. Harriet de Onis, Cuban Counterpoint Tobacco and Sugar, Duke University Press, 1995).
[18] Alison Clarke, ‘Design for Development, ICSID and UNIDO: The Anthropological Turn in 1970s Design’ in: Journal of Design History 29:1, 2015, pp. 43-57.
[19] When ‘What Design Can Do’ launched a ‘Refugee Challenge’ in which designers had to come up with solutions for refugees in April 2016, designer Ruben Pater wrote a series of essays and comments on Dezeen. He aptly quoted writer Teju Cole, who states that “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” See the comment section of this article by Richard van der Laken:
[20] Tony Fry, ‘A Geography of Power: Design History and Marginality’ in: Design Issues Vol. VI Number 1, 1989, p. 17.
[21] See: James Clifford, Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, 1991.
[22] Op. cit. (note 19), p. 16


The visual is an image of the Zeeuws Veilinghuis.