Towards a Post-Anthropocentric ‘Political Context’ in Design Historiography

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That design artefacts and practices ought to be understood in terms of their ‘contexts’ has become a moot point in design scholarship. Yet, what exactly design’s contexts are, what role design plays in their making, and how to study the relationship between the two are still topics in need of elaboration. This paper contributes to these debates by contextualizing the changes in the notion of ‘context’ in design historiography and by proposing a ‘new materialist’ understanding of the relationship between design and its contexts beyond anthropocentrism. In the 1980s, design historians seeking to bypass the ‘art historical’ approach to design turned to the idea that design’s social contexts provide insights into its meanings. This strategy has contributed towards the ‘de-essentialization’ of design as autonomous object. Yet, it has also introduced a problematic anthropocentric perspective on the relationship between design and its contexts, implying as it does that design artefacts are passive vessels whose arbitrary meanings are inscribed by its social contexts. In contrast, ‘new materialism’ views things not as reflections of social relations, but as their co-creators. This perspective thus entails examining how the materiality of design creates its own contexts, contexts that do not necessarily coincide with those of established—read: human—geographies or temporalities. This approach thus rethinks afresh the relations between design and its contexts beyond anthropocentrism. I focus on the Dutch situation as a case of this problematic and tie it in with broader debates in design historiography.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalWriting Visual Culture
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Design
  • Design history
  • new materialism
  • Context
  • Anthropocentrism


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