Design History

RELATED TERMS: Modernism; Theoretical practice; Design practice and functionalism; Ontological designing; Modernity; Lifeworld (Lebenswelt; Umwelt)

It may be of value in thinking about narrative environment design, as a particular kind of, or approach to, design, to consider it in relation to design history.

As Arturo Escobar (2013) states, serious inquiry into the history of design as a practice must engage with the trials and tribulations of capitalism and modernity, beginning with the emergence of industrialisation through to the current era of globalisation and pervasive technological development. Design has been a central political technology of modernity and the processes of modernisation. It was with the full development of the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century that industrial design came to prominence as a field and set of practices, the products of which were showcased at the Crystal Palace in 1851 and subsequent world fairs.

The Arts and Crafts movement sought to counteract the dominance of machine production in design practice during the second half of the 19th century. However, by the time modernism emerged in the 20th century design has become fully wedded to functionalism. The aim of designers, as ‘stylists’, was, in large part, to improve mass-produced artefacts through the use of new materials and techniques.

During the first half of the 20th century, with the Bauhaus and Ulm schools of design, as well as design schools in other parts of Western Europe, modern design sought to articulate a new view of the intersection of art (ars) and technology (techne) as it instilled new ways of living in the mass of the population through the design of lived environments (Lebenswelt, Umwelt) and the functionality of objects. Functionalism, however, Escobar concedes, carried the day.

As a design practice of the 21st century, narrative environment design stands among those design theorists and practitioners who are seeking different kinds of engagement, i.e. other than strictly functional, between design and the world at all levels, from everyday life to infrastructures of all kinds through to experience itself. In short, narrative environment design is part of design practice for a complex world, seeking to enable people to have more meaningful and environmentally responsible lives, an environment that, while still part of the Earth’s geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere, is increasingly ‘designed’, or at least modified and modifiable through the intentional and unintentional acts of design.

If it is assumed that the contemporary world is a great design failure, as Escobar contends, the question becomes how we can design our way from that situation towards a more sustainable world, given that design itself is part of the problem to be addressed, as Papanek (1971) had already noted in the 1970s. This might be considered a paradox or an aporia. In this context, narrative environment design may be considered an endeavour which seeks to offer the means to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing conditions into preferred ones, as part of a shift from object-centred to human-centred, or rather, human-environment-centred, design, and taking account of the paradoxical or aporetic situation of design as as complex professional practice and academic discipline.


Escobar, A. (2013). Notes on the ontology of design [Draft paper]. Available from [Accessed 4 September 2016].

Papanek, V. J. (1971) Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York, Pantheon Books (C1971)