Design issues

Title Design issues: history, theory, criticism
Location Pittsburgh, PA
Publisher MIT Press
Periodicity Quarterly
ISSN 0747-9360
URL Design Issues MIT
Published Since 1984-
Indexed Holdings 2000-


ccindex office; Enric Bricall Library, Elisava, Barcelona

Periodical's Overview

“Within the American design tradition, too little attention has been given to understanding the profession of design in all its dimensions. Americans have always prided themselves on pragmatism and a hard-nosed confrontation with reality. But as the conditions of life become more complex, the celebration of an over-simplified pragmatism is unconvincing. At the same time, as design programs proliferate throughout the United States, many educators have realized that design education lacks the dimension of history, theory, and criticism that can foster more sophisticated and critical responses to new situations.”

"The journal does not seek a set of universal principles and methods; rather we recognize the need for and value of a diversity of design strategies, ranging from large organizations of specialists operating with the latest technology to small teams of individuals concentrating on alternatives to mainstream practice.

The aim of this journal is to be provocative and to raise controversial issues. The best design is done with intensity and commitment and we seek the same qualities from our contributors.”[1]


"The founders never envisioned Design Issues as a strict academic journal with all contributions in a scholarly format. Their intention was to mix research with polemic, visual spreads with informal essays, book reviews with original documents. They wanted the journal’s audience to include both scholars and designers but, given the backgrounds of the founders, the aim of reaching designers was high on the list. Consequently Design Issues adopted an extremely broad definition of argument and has remained open to many voices."

Design Issues is committed to advancing design knowledge and promoting design discourse. This commitment, demonstrated page after page, issue after issue, volume after volume for twenty years, to bringing pluralistic discussions of design history, theory and criticism together in one place (which, due to the enduring and globe-spanning power of the printed word, means this one place is literally everywhere) remains the bedrock upon which Design Issues is built.”[2]

Selected Subject Headings

  • Barrier-free design
  • Brand name products - marketing
  • Design, Industrial - Indonesia
  • Graphic design (typography) - Iran
  • Human engineering
  • Information organization
  • Logos (symbols)
  • New products - decision making
  • Plastics
  • Pleasure principle (psychology)
  • Signs and symbols - political aspects - Turkey
  • Sustainable design
  • Textile fabrics, Yoruba
  • Type and type-founding - India
  • Upper class - United States
  • User interfaces (computer systems)
  • Women designers


Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is invoked in Design issues’ first editorial, in which the journal is presented as “the first American academic journal to examine design history, theory, and criticism.” His words are quoted as follow:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."[3]

In order to counter unconvincing "over-simplified pragmatism," Thoreau’s maxim serves Victor Margolin to present a case for thoughtful reflection as, he advances, in order “to know onself, one must also know one’s profession--its history, its theoretical propositions, and its critical assumptions.”[4]

And this is precisely what Design issues has been delivering through their almost 30 years of existence: history, theoretical propositions and critical analysis. What might appear as an arid professional field has yielded a lush harvest of knowledge, as if one thinks of it, there’s not a single aspect of our life in which design doesn’t play a role. This is, if one shares the journal’s editors broad view of what the ‘field’ of design might encompass: yes, the material culture and visual reality we live submerged in--the things, the signs, the stuff--but also the not-so-visible infrastructures that shape and allow this reality to exist: from information organization and code writing to human engineering. Airport transit, life management, our liquid modern world. Thought of, analyzed, contextualized.

The journal's layout is sober, almost austere, following the tropes of academic publishing design, perhaps as a reaction to the postmodern excesses of other U.S. design magazines that appeared that decade; this functional layout allows a seamless combination of historical accounts, white papers, book reviews and fresh dispatches from the commercial streets of our global consumption hubs, be those Helsinki, L.A, or Dubai.

Counter to the widespread belief that technology is shaping our reality, we are inclined to think that there’s no better way to understand technologies than to be aware of the ideologies that shape our design environments, realities. To read Design issues grants us privileged access to the back-end of how these are being thought of or constructed, but always grounded on analysis and historical recall.

A world of things, a world of structures. Appropriate technology.

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[1]Victor Margolin. "Editorial," Design issues (Pittsburgh), vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1984), p. 3.

[2]Richard Buchanan, Dennis Doordan, Victor Margolin. "Introduction 2004," Design issues (Pittsburgh), vol. 20, no. 1 (Winter 1984), p. 1-9. We recommend this text for those interested in a fascinating account of Design issues' editorial vicissitudes and history.

[3]Margolin, ibid.