In November and December 2022, the University of Brighton Design Archives hosted a three-part online talk series called Where Design Fails? Exploring Design Archives. Here, Researcher Zara Arshad reports on the programme.

The events series Where Design Fails? was developed as part of a broader Design Archives research theme titled Global Archival Cultures of Design, building on a longstanding Design Archives interest in developing international design archives networks and collaborations. In 2021, I carried out a first stage of the project, to research the state of the field and collate initial findings on design archives in diverse global environments in academic, heritage, practitioner or community contexts. For the second stage in 2022, I organised the programme Where Design Fails? Exploring Design Archives to bring together scholars, archivists, and curators from around the world to discuss key questions and to share knowledge and expertise around the project’s agenda.

Presentations were curated to particular themes, intended to be cumulative, while offering more flexibility for global audiences than a single full day. These themes encompassed both theoretical and practical issues to collectively investigate how a focus on ‘archival cultures’ might challenge, augment or complement existing histories of design and design research. Specific questions driving discussions included: what contexts and imperatives produce archives of design? What work is the design archive doing, or being asked to do? And what might these kinds of repositories do through the development of new networks and fresh research? How have design archives historically approached and defined “design”? And how have these definitions and interpretations encouraged omissions and erasures in the archive? We also acknowledged the fluid meanings of the term ‘archive’ as this might be used in different contexts, and proposed to define archives, for this purpose, as records generated in the practice of design and its networks: records which document how design in its broadest forms happens. Where such records might not be present, we wanted to consider materials that could be doing the same ‘work’. Our programme invited speakers and audiences to test and develop our proposed definitions as conversations unfolded.

For our first event, on 9 November 2022, I presented an introduction to the series alongside Setareh Noorani and Eduardo Augusto Costa, speaking to the theme of “Theories, Methodologies and Praxes”. My opening presentation shared some of the research from the Design Archives project, particularly addressing questions of terminology.  Setareh Noorani from Nieuwe Instituut presented recent initiatives at her institution to disrupt archiving and collecting practices, reorienting the institution as a testing ground, or what she called a ‘tool shed’ that can offer new possibilities for design and architecture archives and collections, an analogy that prompted lively discussion in the following Q&A. Finally, Eduardo Augusto Costa from the University of Sao Paulo drew on the examples of a library situated at the University of Sao Paulo’s School of Architecture and Urbanism, the Afro-Brazilian-focused digital repository ‘Zumvi – Afro Photographic Archive’, and the initiative ‘Research on Argentine Design’, to challenge what design archives conventionally do and want to do. Referencing both established and under-explored theories, methodologies and praxes, all three talks opened up questions and offered ways of re-situating institutional repositories, setting the tone for the remainder of the events programme.

The second session on 23 November 2022 focussed in on two particular regions, East Asia and Latin America, to build on findings I collated in 2021 for Global Archival Cultures of Design. Firstly, Sang-kyu Kim, expanding on points introduced during the 2021 Design Archives in Asia symposium, reflected on his role in preparing South Korea’s national design museum and national design archive, highlighting the tensions between ‘archive’, ‘collection’ and ‘library’. Similarly, Shirley Surya, curator of design and architecture at M+ in Hong Kong, explained the process of building collections versus collection archives at her institution. Speaking as museum representatives, both presenters also highlighted the relationship between – or, rather, the need to connect – institutional design archives with decentralised private archives to fill material and conceptual design history gaps. Finally Livia Lazzaro Rezende spoke of her ‘deep encounters’ with archival records at the Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial (Industrial Design College) in Rio de Janeiro. Drawing on the work of scholar Saidiya Hartman, she highlighted ‘the agency of instinct, intuition, emotions, and chance in history writing as means to work with the omissions, debris and erasures of colonial histories and histories of coloniality’.[1] This event demonstrated through concrete case studies how the particular conditions of different countries and contexts can impact and shape local (design) archives.

The final event in the series, on the theme of ‘Representation, Gaps and Erasures in Design Archives’, took place on 14 December 2022. Presentations from four scholars, Tai Cossich, Mark Okyere, Elli Michaela Young, and Dora Souza Dias, summarised their perspectives and experiences as design researchers investigating historically-marginalised histories, narratives and geographies. Cossich reflected on the inclusion and exclusion of indigenous languages in visual communication design practice in Brazil, highlighting the urgent need for design archives to open up spaces for research on and with ‘underserved’ communities. Both Okyere and Young spotlighted the nascent stages of design discourse in Ghana and Jamaica, respectively – contexts in which archival gaps have notably impacted the representation of certain groups and communities in global design histories. Finally, focussing on her engagement with the University of Brighton Design Archives, Dias demonstrated how biases and hierarchies were established in the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA). These biases are reflected in its archive, leading to the marginalisation of certain events and initiatives in the organisation’s history. Such research critically reflects on the agency of UK-based repositories like the Design Archives offering an appropriate conclusion to the event series.

These events highlighted the potential for an international network of design archives through future initiatives. The 2022 programme has also confirmed the value of such spaces for thoughtful discussion around the role and potential of design archives, for decentralised collaboration, and for long-term focused research.  We plan to build on these themes and connections to encourage the sharing of knowledge and praxes amongst a wide range of global collaborators.



[1] Livia Lazzaro Rezende,  RMIT Journal