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MIT Better World

By Stephanie M. McPherson SM ’11

The Course

4.657: Design: The History of Making Things


Timothy Hyde

Clarence H. Blackall Career Development Associate Professor, Department of Architecture

Kristel Smentek

Associate Professor, Department of Architecture

From the Catalog

The term “design” has many meanings, but at its core it refers to the human capacity to shape the environment we inhabit. Design is as old as humanity itself, and studying its history provides a way to think critically about the past through the lens of design.

The course asks: How have the processes and products of design been shaped by new technological possibilities, whether the discovery of silk, the invention of the automatic loom, or the development of the computer? What role has design played in globalizing capitalist consumer desire, and how, in turn, has it been mobilized in the service of alternative economic and political systems? What are the ethics of design in an age of inequality and environmental crisis? Finally, how have the meanings we assign to design been mediated by magazines, exhibitions, corporate communication, glossy design monographs, and advertising?

  • Hyde: “Ethics of design means asking why you’re designing something. Not ‘what is the purpose or the function of this object’ but what are the consequences of something you’re making.”

The Lectures

Students enrolled in Design: The History of Making Things come together for two lectures and one recitation (led by a teaching assistant) every week. Through these meetings, students learn about the process, history, and social implications of design. The course aims to create a critical thinking environment, challenging the students to explore not just design success but also missteps and unintended consequences throughout history. In the lectures and discussions, students explore every aspect of design—from the development of pigments to the manufacturing chain behind any given object. They investigate how changing societal norms and economic pressures have affected both the process and result of design. Each class explores the history of a different design industry, including fashion and city planning, for example, and things as seemingly mundane as the chair.

“Chairs have a very long history, but that history is not just how to seat oneself comfortably. For a long time it was not about comfort at all, it was about status,” says Associate Professor Kristel Smentek. “There are gender considerations as well. We talk about the models that designers used in the mid-20th century—the standard, normative ‘Joe’ and ‘Josephine’— that determined design of furniture for most of us who don’t look like Joe or Josephine.”

  • Edwin Song ’22: “The question of what is good design also brings up questions about who it’s designed for and is this design ethical … It’s way more complicated than someone might think.”

The Assignments

Design: The History of Making Things fulfills one of MIT’s undergraduate CI-H (Communication Intensive in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requirements. Over the course of the semester, students complete two major communications-focused assignments.

Students select an item important in the history of design, which will become the focus of their assignments. First, each student creates and presents an oral pitch about the object from the perspective of its inventor or investor. This requires that the student evaluate the object’s function and place within its time. The second assignment has each student take a more critical, historical perspective by writing a museum catalog entry for the same item. The goal is to get students to understand the myriad decisions and thought processes that go into designing something for human use, and to analyze from a modern perspective how the making of things has changed over time and from culture to culture. At the end of the semester, students complete a take-home final.

  • Sophia Mittman ’22, on her project item American Modern dinnerware by Russell Wright: “It became such an iconic symbol in the 1950s … It helped to transform the idea of American home lifestyle, linking it to a more leisurely lifestyle instead of a prim and proper European one.”
  • Hyde: “This is a novelty that we’re rediscovering in advanced consumerist societies, the idea that you can make stuff for yourself. For four billion other people, this is just daily life.” 

Guest Lecturers

Each semester, guest lecturers provide students with additional perspectives on design from around the world. For example, last year, one lecturer discussed the thought processes involved in design behind the Iron Curtain, presenting a counterpoint to design in a Western, capitalist framework. A speaker from the MIT Museum talked about the MIT Office of Design Services, a woman-led graphic design studio (1960s to 1980s) that led the world in bold graphic design concepts. Dietmar Winkler, who worked in the Office of Design Services, also spoke about the group and its impact. And students heard from an artist who designs objects and social spaces with an eye to accommodating the disabled—revealing how deliberate design choices can transform social situations.

All the lessons raised in Design: The History of Making Things mesh together to teach students that every decision has consequences. As Smentek says, “Problem-solving can also simultaneously be problem-producing.” For example, the advent of plastics has both provided convenient packaging and generated a lot of pollution.

Students come away understanding they can make a difference by taking a longer, deeper view of the design process when creating things in their own lives. “Exposing MIT students to historical and theoretical thinking about design, about objects, about engineering, about making will make them better students, better engineers, better scientists, better citizens,” Hyde says.

  • Smentek: “Design decisions were driven by ambition to forge a new society—a classless society—by transforming chairs, cups, and clothes” in ways that would downplay social division.
  • Mittman: “Everywhere you look, wherever you are … there is some aspect of design that has an entire history behind it.”