In art and design programmes across the USA, the ‘history of design survey’ remains the first, and sometimes the only, formal exposure most design students will have to design history, especially that of the premodern period. In contrast to the model of the art history survey, in which painting and sculpture dominate, history of design surveys consider a range of disciplines from textile and furniture design to landscape, graphics and new media. Moreover, the history of design survey is an opportunity to introduce students not only to design history but also to the culture of these various disciplines within design practice. This greatly expands the scope of what is already a broad chronological study. The continuing debate within the field of design history over the very nature of what constitutes design further complicates teaching a survey. This paper presents a case study of ‘History of Design, 1850–2000’, the introductory-level design history survey course taught to design students at Parsons The New School for Design, New York. It is based on an overview of history of design courses currently being taught in the USA and on discussions with instructors in the field. It examines the challenges as well as the opportunities of teaching design history surveys and sets the Parsons course within continuing debates by exploring the ways history of design surveys might address more closely the needs and goals of future design practitioners. The article is intended to elucidate methodological and pedagogical perspectives that will help history of design surveys remain relevant to design students and useful in framing the field and propelling it forward. It invites disciplinary discussions of new strategies and approaches for teaching and learning the history of design.