Can We Teach Graphic Design History Without Chronology?

Chronology is so ubiquitous that it seems almost natural. Human beings age and die, which means we experience linear duration in a deeply personal way. But this isn’t the only way we relate to time. Seasons, phases of the moon, and even recurring fashion trends are all cyclical. With linear time, the past is gone, the present is here, and the future is anticipated, each in separate states. But the way we remember the past bears on the future, and future contexts will also change the way we view the past. Yesterday is alive in the here and now, whether we study history or not.

And yet for most of us, history and chronology are practically synonymous. We’re often taught history on a timeline, where events, figures, and movements march along in sequence, supplanting outdated precedents. In graphic design history, the convention has been to plot designers and design styles along a singular line of succession. Even in efforts to revisit the canon and decolonize design history, the newly taught styles, people, and movements are still often placed on a timeline. 

While chronology is useful because it helps explain causes—how A led to B—it’s not inherent, nor is it the only way to teach or visualize history. Chronology extends from a deeply-rooted Western belief in progress and the use of that ideology to create cultural hierarchies. But there are many interesting historical and current examples of alternatives to the timeline. They’ve shown that when we unfetter history from this temporal chain, we open space for relational and pluralistic interpretations of the past. What would graphic design history look like without chronology?

The origins of chronology

In his book Time, the Familiar Stranger, J.T. Fraser proposes that chronological time was most often adopted by societies whose religions were based on salvation. In Europe, time came to be seen as directional; as in, toward a destiny. In societies where religions were based on reincarnation, harmony with ancestors, or the divinity of nature, time was often seen as cyclical. Many African, Asian, and Indigenous communities related to time through ritual and repetition. With chronology, time is spatialized according to a worldview that centers change—it’s absolute and external to lived experience. Cyclical time is spatialized according to a worldview that centers stability. It’s not conceived as external to lived experience, but rather constituted by it. 

In suggesting a path toward something, chronology also suggests a point of origin. The first chronologists in Western civilization emerged during the Middle Ages. Then, chronology was a separate field from history. While historians narrated the past, chronologists identified precise dates of significant events. Many chronologists were concerned with pinpointing the age of the earth by tracing events back to Creation. A common methodology was to try to square events in the Bible with the published histories of various empires. 

In their book Cartographies of Time, Rosenberg and Grafton show that early visualizations of time were tabular rather than linear. Chronologists compared events from different global sources in a great matrix. Eventually, the matrix produced irreconcilable conflicts. For example, chronicles from ancient Egypt and China contained events that preceded the Flood, which only Noah’s family was supposed to have survived. During the Enlightenment era, when knowledge became increasingly secular, the literal interpretation of the Bible for the purposes of charting time eventually fell out of favor. Consequently, the belief in salvation transferred to science. 

The path of humanity was heading toward an ultimate purpose: freedom, it was thought, or utopia. 

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, scientific achievement put human ingenuity on display like never before. Wealthy classes in Europe enjoyed new comforts. Chronological projects began reflecting a worldview based on technological development and imperial power. By comparing the world’s cultures in a table, Europeans began to see the present as more advanced than the past, and themselves as superior to the rest of the world. Time became teleological: the path of humanity was heading toward an ultimate purpose: freedom, it was thought, or utopia. 

By the late 18th century, the most common chronological form transitioned from a comparative table to a linear visualization. Rosenberg and Grafton credit Joseph Priestley with the first bonafide timeline, A Chart of Biography (1765). Priestly’s sophomore release, A New Chart of History (1769), was equally influential. In its context, Priestly’s timeline was greeted as a sparkling innovation. Seductive in its simplicity and effortless to consume, the timeline both quantified units of time and presented those units in a uniform way. Such order in the spatializing of time made it possible to visualize more complex data in the years to come. But this emphasis on order was also an imposition on cultural processes which do not occur within such mechanical divisions.

By the late 19th century, the fields of chronology and history merged. History was shifting from an upper-class gentleman’s hobby to a professional domain with presumably objective methods. Since the Enlightenment, it was believed that science was the way to truth. The interpretative qualities of historical scholarship were downplayed if not outright denied. Throughout the century, historians tasked themselves with both framing causes and effects, and explaining the origins and destinies of nation-states. Chronology lent itself well to these imperatives. 

Chronology: the global takeover

While this shift in history was taking place, the world was going through a two-fold process of temporal standardization. First, non-Western nations began adopting the Gregorian calendar, based on the birth of Jesus. Second, beginning with the International Meridian Conference in 1884, the world began converting to a common 24-hour time scale whose center was in Greenwich, England. Emerging patterns of labor and international trade made it useful to bring the globe under a single system. By the mid-20th century, nearly every country on earth related to time through a Western conception of chronology. 

With chronology as the structure, technological progress as the means, and utopia as the goal, history aligned with the Western quest for power under the banner of “modernity.” This coincided with the industrial revolution and the birth of design, as both a professional practice and a force behind the techno-utopian, capitalist-colonial imaginary. 

The most influential book on graphic design history, Meggs’ (A) History of Graphic Design, is a modernist interpretation. It chronicles graphic design from cave paintings to the internet in a continuous, unified narrative. Meggs was inspired by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who saw technology as a positive driving force for change. This mirrors an Enlightenment-era value system that equates scientific knowledge to cultural advancement. Yet, in the midst of climate change and mass surveillance, among other wicked problems, technology can no longer be seen as intrinsically positive. In the conventional rhetoric, graphic design is an objective, problem-solving field whose output moves societies along the path of progress. But design has also been a destructive force, created new problems, and helped to place the very possibility of a human future in precarity. 

Alternatives to the Timeline

Historians often deploy chronology because it neatly explains cause and effect. In fact, I just used chronological logic to quickly explain how chronology supported the formation of Western power. But causes are rarely singular or clean-cut. A history of graphic design without chronology could privilege meanings over causes. Meanings are messy. They’re relative, ambiguous, and dependent on multiple forces.

A history of graphic design without chronology could privilege meanings over causes.

There are ways to visualize time in the plural. Early chronologists tried to model time after trees and streams—metaphors that conjured heritage and intertwining flows of change. While these were less reductive than a timeline, they were still directional. The French Annales historian Fernand Braudel conceived of time in tiers, like a wedding cake, in which slow-moving geological forces (the base layer) factored into shorter periods of social, economic, and political change (the top layers). The German historian Reinhart Koselleck referred to “sediments of time,” the layers of which were transcendent structures, repetitive structures, and singularities. These terms held space for multiple ways of relating to time.

Dori Griffin at the University of Florida uses a thematic approach in her course “Design for Social Impact,” by bringing together geographically and chronologically diverse objects in modules based on “form, function, and philosophy.” Her course highlights design’s “capacity to facilitate social change” rather than a “stylistic history of famous Western European and North American designers and their work,” wrote Griffin in Teaching Graphic Design History. Griffin discusses the global, in that her examples draw from diverse cultures, and the local, because these examples are “always specific to audiences and needs local to a particular place and time.” Griffin asks students to find ways to personally relate to historical design through this inclusive approach.

Similarly, Silas Munro, who teaches at Otis College of Art and Design and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, uses a network model in which history unfolds through interconnected nodes of influence. This approach explains the spread of ideas while showing how institutions and individuals drive change. Munro asks students to position their practices within this relational and conceptual ecosystem. 

History without chronology elevates the complex and the plural, over the simple and the singular.

Munro’s network form relates to what historian Stefan Tanaka advocates in his open-source book History without Chronology. Tanaka calls for “situatedness” rather than “contexts.” He draws on cybernetics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity to suggest shifting positions in which historical interpretation is understood as relative to the observer. This is in sharp contrast to the supposedly neutral and omniscient position of the historian in texts like that of Meggs and his emulators. 

A history of graphic design without chronology is not without trade-offs. It destabilizes the canon, which some may see as a drawback. It is unapologetically incomplete, whereas chronologies often attempt to be definitive, ironically, despite their many exclusions. History without chronology elevates the complex and the plural, over the simple and the singular. But the dominance of chronology is worth interrogating for what it may reveal about design hegemony. A history of graphic design without chronology could decouple the idea of social change from mythical notions of progress. It may offer students ways to situate their work in worlds of meaning, rather than encouraging the imitation of style. If the mechanical ordering of time leads to linear thought, a history without chronology may allow for unexpected connections, parallels, and detours.

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