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Cognition

Looking forward, looking back

It’s a new year, and yup! you’ve guessed it: I’ve got some goals. The goal spanning my personal and professional life is to learn more about art history in hopes of developing this into a lifelong habit. As I continue to deepen my understanding of art and design history, decisions I make in my professional work will become more informed. I always loved my art history classes in school. They were a departure from my other classes since the coursework didn’t require me to solve anything, just study visual patterns over the course of history. I found that whenever I had an art history class on my schedule, my concurrent creative work got a lot better. The subject matter covered in my art history classes varied quite a bit, but always gave me an existing art movement or piece of art to relate to in a fresh way and take into other aspects of my work. Even if I didn’t particularly like an artifact or era, it brought something of value to my work.

A new perspective

So many aspects of our visual culture have deep ties to art history. Many are easy to overlook, but when I make note of them, they alter my perspective. Recently I watched the 1985 movie, Brazil, and immediately recognized the filmmakers’ use of retro futurism in the movie set design. Even the credits were set in Futura to play off the movement. While the movie itself was arguably intended to be as era- and location-agnostic as possible, having this base visual knowledge helped me recognize a wider theme of industrialization and the tension between past and future. This changed the way I digested the movie giving it significantly more meaning. Recognizing art history in everyday life, especially as a designer, is an invaluable tool we can use to communicate meaning and give our visual work greater substance.

History as context

In the context of a design project, we can probably all agree that research is an important step of the design process, typically happening both before and during design. Research helps designers make informed decisions, in the context of the project, that align with the client’s and users’ needs. Research based only on the context of the project, though, is narrow. This narrowness can lead to predictable designs, retreading old ground. Aside from project-focused research, it’s important for a designer to have a wide range of design history to pull from when making decisions.

A wider historical foundation can help when it comes time to start designing, since that foundation gives me a larger catalog of inspiration and helps make deeper connections. Not to mention that viewing something in real life as opposed to on a screen can usually pull me out of a design rut.

History as a skill

Trends repeat themselves. A deeper art history knowledge can provide the foresight hindsight to separate the ephemeral from the substance, inherently helping me create more meaningful work. When experiencing something I only loosely understand the reference to, I have a tendency to research more about it. Could we better use our history to challenge the people we are designing for, raising the bar for ourselves, our users, and our industry? At a minimum, I anticipate that learning more history will challenge me to become a more well-rounded designer.

So how do I plan to immerse myself in the history of art this year? I’ll go to more museums than last year, each vastly different from the next. I’ll go to a huge art museum that I’ve somehow never crossed off my list (the Guggenheim), a museum I’ve visited frequently but not recently (the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and a museum in another city and/or country. I’ll go to museums relevant to my more specific interests (The American Visionary Art Museum), and museums that have little-or-nothing to do with my work (perhaps the Insectarium). The list goes on. I’ll read. I’ll crack open my old art history books for a refresher. I’ll watch some movies I’ve never seen, probably making my way through some of The Criterion Collection to start. My hope is that it will all help give me more perspective as I create anything: design, illustration, or writing. I’m excited for what I’ll learn.

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