The Great Man Theory of Design History

I’ve always wondered why one style becomes “the thing” in different eras–whether it’s the 1890s or the 1960s. So it was a welcome surprise that, one page into Owen Jones’ design classic The Grammar of Ornament, I discovered he tries to answer this very thing:

Man’s earliest ambition is to create… As we advance higher, from the decoration of the rude tent or wigwam to the sublime works of a Phidias or Praxiteles, the same feeling is everywhere apparent: the highest ambition is still to create, to stamp on this earth the impress of an individual mind.

From time to time a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation, and carry with it a host of others of less power following in the same track, yet never so closely as to destroy the individual ambition to create; hence the cause of styles, and of the modification of styles.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 32-33

“From time to time a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation.” Hence, he says, the cause of style–and the modifications of past styles.

This basically sounds like the “Great Man Theory of History,” but applied to design history.

If you’re not familiar with this idea, it comes from Thomas Carlyle, and it’s basically: history happens because “a mind stronger than those around will impress itself on a generation, and carry with it a host of others of less power following in the same track.” It ascribes momentous changes in history not to systems and trends, but to people who are forces of nature, and who were far from inevitable. Think Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, etc.

For design, I think Owen Jones would ascribe changes to major people. He’d probably say that he and Henry Cole and others like them were the “strong minds,” producing the Arts & Craft movement that followed, and that without them that movement would never have happened–or at least, not happened the way it did. He probably would have said the Glasgow movement followed the “strong minds” of The Four–Charles Makintosh, James MacNair, Margaret and Frances MacDonald. Without those four, those trends in design wouldn’t have occurred.

I’m not sure I buy this idea entirely. The Wikipedia page on the “Great Man Theory of History” has several criticisms of the theory, which usually amount to: the individual is always shaped by the social environment, so it’s the larger trends and forces that make the rise of some individual perhaps inevitable: they light the match on a pile of burning wood that’s already there. That said, Dan Carlin–somewhere in his large ouvre of Hardcore History podcasts–has said that he thinks the answer lies somewhere in between: if Winston Churchill hadn’t been in a position of authority in World War 2, would the outcome have changed? If Hitler had been someone with more mental stability, could that the war have changed? Entirely possible on both accounts. But of course, trends and forces are involved, too: producing the currents that gave rise to Nazism and nationalism.

So it’s probably a mix in history of design, as well. The Arts & Crafts movement may have been an inevitable trend to the alienation and de-personalization caused by the Industrial Revolution. But it’s possible that Henry Cole and Owen Jones and John Ruskin and William Morris’ specific opinions and preferences were not inevitable. Same goes for other major designers and the trends they worked in. (I’d also add–there are Great Women too!)

It’s definitely interesting, though. What does it take to create a style that goes “viral,” to use our language today? A style that catches on? And is that style an expression of the spirit of the age–the zeitgeist? Or does a specific style come about because of a forceful mind, “impress[ing] itself on a generation”? Or is it something in between?

New Materials and Revolutions in Design

Going through Dardi and Pasca’s Design History Handbook, I’m realizing that the materials available to designers have been a major influence in the history of design. Perhaps this is obvious, but it’s also obviously profound. I quote:

Designers, accustomed for millennia to operating with natural materials, were no faced not only with the enormous availability of iron, cast iron, and glass, but with new procedures. Vulcanization allowed for the use of gutta-percha or rubber to simulate wood, stone, and metals, inlays included; electrotyping made it possible to reproduce objects by electrochemically depositing a metal into a mold; granite and marble could now be easily cut. The new responsibility of designers was to give shape and meaning to the artificial processes [and materials] that the Industrial Revolution was developing.

Design History Handbook, p. 17

Maybe what I didn’t realize was the full extent of materials suddenly available to people once the Industrial Revolution came around: an explosion of new materials and methods to make them.

Here’s a pile of vulcanized rubber–again, a never-before-seen material–witnessed at the Great Exhibition in 1851:

Charles Goodyear, display of products in Indian vulcanized rubber (1851-1852)–a material that . From the Library of Congress.

Can you imagine? Seeing a material like this for the first time?

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, talks about questions to ask of any “cultural artifact” (meaning anything from an iPhone to an omelet). One of those questions is: what new horizons of possibility does this artifact open up? What does it make possible?

So: what did vulcanization, and vulcanized rubber, make possible? It made possible “rubber hoses, shoe soles, tires, bowling balls, bouncing balls, hockey pucks, toys, erasers, and instrument mouthpieces.” Tires, of course is the biggest of these (which is why Goodyear Tires is named after Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanization). But note that “most rubber products in the world are vulcanized, whether the rubber is natural or synthetic.”

In other words, one artifact–from Charles Goodyear–made possible businessmen and designers who could suddenly imagine new worlds of possibility: a world with tires, toys, and instrument mouthpieces. And of course, a world with tires, was a world with cars; and a world with cars, a world with highways and commutes. (Thanks, Charles. Could’ve done without commutes.)

What a revolution that just one of those new materials instigated. Each of these new materials became the blueprint for new products, technologies, and works of art. And those products, technologies, and works of art have remade the world we live in today.

My friend Will Hall explained to me that in the Bauhaus school of design (in the early 1900s), they had two teachers in every classroom: a master of form and a master of works. The former was a visual artist; the latter an expert in the production of the new materials, and the machines involved. Together, the students learned to create and craft from all sorts of materials: textile, wood, glass, color, clay, stone, and much more besides. They were tutored in the realms of possibility that each material opened, and how to act in that realm. This, combined with a distinctive aesthetic approach, is part of what made the Bauhaus school so successful.

So: I’m only just learning about the larger history of design, but it seems apparent that design is shaped by the materials available to me. New materials? New opportunities. What materials do I have to work with?

It’s exciting: as a UX designer in the twenty-first century, I get to work with digital materials of all kinds. Pixels, sound waves, moving pictures, photographs; a flexible canvas of colors and layout and typography. These materials can be combined to create something wonderful: a digital interface, and ideally, a wonderful subjective experience within that interface.

I do a lot with conversational design, and I’m starting to wake up to the materials I really have to work with. New synthesized voices from places like Vocal ID and Lyrebird; new abilities to alter not only the gender and tone of the voice, but the paralanguage–the prosody, the breath, the intonation, and feeling of the voice; libraries of foley sounds and music loops; the ability to create music, fashioned from the raw materials of rhythm, pitch, timbre, amplitude, and harmony–all available to me from the use of different instruments, and even synthesized music. All of these can be combined to create immersive soundscapes and aural experiences on smart speakers and phones.