10 Questions: Searching for the Zeitgeist

Tech faculty member Joyce Medina discusses the power of design.

Fall 2016 | Story by Melissa Fralick Photos by Josh Meister

Part art historian, part prognosticator and part teacher, Joyce Medina holds a unique position at Georgia Tech. For the past 18 years, she has taught both Art History and the History of Industrial Design—humanities electives that provide students a change of pace from the Institute’s largely technical curriculum.

Her influence is enormous: Each year, Medina teaches approximately 1,200 students, 600 in the popular History of Industrial Design course alone. Chances are high that if you’ve graduated from Tech in the past couple of decades, you’ve probably had Medina as a teacher.

“She’s done a fantastic job of teaching students across the Institute about the importance of art and design,” says Steven P. French, dean and John Portman Chair in the newly named College of Design. “The large numbers of students that take her classes are a testament to the quality of her teaching as well our students’ desire to marry creativity with their knowledge of science and technology.”

With a new school year underway, we caught up with Medina for a crash course in design.

What kind of material do you teach in the History of Industrial Design?
We follow a “material culture” approach in which we look at everything designed as being motived by culture. Whether it is through designed objects or art, we as humans develop ways to problem solve within cultural constructs and culture finds a way to express itself through us as design. How we live, how we communicate, what we do for fun, all of that. As culture moves forward, new problems emerge, and new solutions need to be sought.

For instance, the internet had a really interesting influence. Suddenly we’re getting information invisibly. There are no telephone lines or wires. And this invisibility translated itself through all layers of culture as transparency. So we started sitting in chairs that were transparent. Even one of the original personal computers, the iMac G3, was designed so that you could see into the interior and view the mechanism. Transparency of the internet got translated into a lot of areas of design.
It’s called looking at the “zeitgeist.” It’s a German word that means the “spirit of the an age.” You can look at any historical period and identify what the prevailing trends are, the zeitgeist, and see how it distributes itself through all layers of culture.

What is the zeitgeist we’re in now?
Right now we’re moving into a zeitgeist about robotics: self-driving cars, houses that schedule themselves, all that is starting to happen and it’s just a continuation of ubiquitous computing. With the internet available everywhere, how do you make use of that? We’re not going to be carrying around clunky cellphones. We’re going to be wearing them or have them tattooed on our bodies. And with robotics and wearable computing already in the curriculum here at Georgia Tech, we’re going to be right at in the center of this trend.

Design is so fluid and means so many things to many different people. How do you make it applicable to different kinds of students?
If you’re an engineer, design is still connected to your field. This class focuses on looking at influences from history and philosophy as a broader way of thinking about connections, as opposed to viewing everything as autonomous and separate.

Why do you think it’s important for students to understand the history of design?

The idea of studying the history of design is to collect together as a platform what’s been done in the past and then use that platform to stand on the shoulders of all those designers who came before you to push forward. You gather together all their solutions and what they’ve offered and you push it forward to what’s necessary now in the zeitgeist in which you find yourself

One of the reasons for studying history is to avoid reinventing the same stuff over and over again. We don’t need to invent the wheel again. We need to invent what we do with the concept of the wheel. That’s what designers are doing.

When you survey the history of design, basically what you’re looking at are the connections, the influences and the innovations. You just keep pushing it forward.

What do you enjoy most about teaching this course?
One of the exciting parts about this for me is keeping up with it all. I can’t stop at the 1950s or even 2010s and what ended there. I have to keep my eye on tracking the current zeitgeist. And often you don’t know what it is until you see the material objects and how they display trends. You start to decipher them. It’s really exciting to keep your hand on the pulse of culture and to see what is emerging, disappearing, changing.

How do you define design?
Art, design, any invented object is a way for humans to communicate about being human. So a painting is an artist saying something about being human. Or, a car design is a car designer coming up with a solution to some human interface problem.

How important do you think design is in the world of STEM?
Georgia Tech engineering students may not consider themselves to be designers. But as problem solvers, they are designing solutions. The way that a solution is configured and how we interface with it is a design decision.

Talk about the scope of your History of Design course.
I start with the year 1850 during the Industrial Revolution and, over a full semester, I examine the history of design to our contemporary time. I survey the material by decade: how history impacts design, how politics impacts design. Even though many students may not know the history or politics of the middle ages, they know more recent history as it is familiar to them. With that familiarity, they already have a viewpoint and I think it’s really important to have a viewpoint. A viewpoint is not just what you like or don’t like. It’s how you see something as a good solution or how you see something as moving us to a good solution.

Do you ever think about influencing generations of designers and engineers?
I’m not influencing them, but I know that the course materials are. I can tell that they are thinking differently based on their exposure to the material. They are going to get out there and start to look differently at everything around them—and I don’t mean just what kind of refrigerator am I going to buy or what chair am I going to buy—but to look very differently at all the possibilities out there.

I know that happens because it already happens during the course when they start to form opinions or preferences; and then of course, I often will get emails from students a couple years down the road, saying ‘I finally saw that building you showed in class and I remembered it.’

How do students use what they learn in the real world?
In focusing on a category, like transparency and the internet, they practice looking for that language elsewhere and they start to see it in a lot of different forms. They can then take the categories into the “real world” and continue to let the history of design unfold outside of the course.

One almost needs categories first to make connections. Otherwise, you are just sort of walking through the world observing. But once you have categories, then it’s a way of looking at the world and analyzing the world. Then the world is yours. You’re not a bystander. You’re playing an active role.

That’s what’s so great about design. When you appreciate good design, you’re participating. Your appreciation means you’ve interacted, you’ve participated.


Not all of what Joyce Medina discusses in her History of Industrial Design class is located far away or relegated to the history books. Some things featured in the curriculum can be found right here on Georgia Tech’s campus:

Guggenheim Wind Tunnels

In 1930, the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics Inc. gave Georgia Tech a $300,000 grant to establish a school of aeronautical engineering. Guggenheim’s grant to Georgia Tech was the third largest of the seven grants made to establish centers for aeronautical research at institutions across the country. Included with the grant was funding for research equipment such as wind tunnels, which were used for testing automobiles and airplanes during the Streamline Modern design movement. The wind tunnels at Georgia Tech were also used to test and design helicopter propellers during the Vietnam War years.

Model A Ford – The Ramblin’ Wreck
In 1960, Georgia Tech Dean of Students James Dull began searching for a classic car to serve as a mascot for Georgia Tech. After struggling to find the right vehicle for the job, Dull saw a refurbished Ford Model A parked on campus and was instantly smitten. Nicknamed the “Tin Lizzie,” the Ford Model T was extremely popular but also rather utilitarian. When Ford debuted its successor, the Model A, in 1927, it was said that Henry Ford had “made a lady out of Lizzie.” With its sleek, sporty body available in a variety of colors, The Model A was a hit with the public. Though it was only produced until 1931, about 5 million of the vehicles were made and many still live on thanks to the care and devotion of car collectors and enthusiasts who appreciate its design. Yellow Jackets, of course, can instantly identify a special version of the Model A—dressed up in White & Gold—as the Ramblin’ Wreck.

Kessler Campanile
As Georgia Tech prepared to play host to the 1996 Olympic Village, alumni worked together to create a new gathering spot in the center of campus. Richard Kessler, IE 68, MS IE 70, donated funds for a sculpture known as the Campanile, which is surrounded by a fountain and amphitheater plaza donated by the classes of 1943 and 1953. The Campanile is an 80-foot obelisk made of steel plates stacked in a spiraling pattern. Designed by artist Richard Hill, the sculpture is topped with three sharp points—an abstract interpretation of Tech Tower. Abstract art, which fully or partially distorts reality, began to gain popularity in the late 19th century. The Campanile’s abstract crown has become a symbol for Georgia Tech, incorporated into branding and signage across campus.