A Graphic Design History Lesson

We are constantly talking about the future. What’s the next big thing? Is there new technology we should be harnessing? What’s trending? What’s going to be trending?

While it’s extremely important to know what’s coming, it’s also helpful to take a step back. Where did the graphic design industry come from? How, and why, do we do what we do?

Take a walk down the home decor aisle at Target. Anything look familiar? Those geometric patterns and sleek lines scream Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern. Styles that emerged during the early to mid-1900s have found their way back into our homes. Why? Because like everything else in history, design styles are cyclical. And if you look close enough you just might be able to predict the future.

Let’s open our books to Chapter 1, the early history of graphic design, to discover what hidden inspiration awaits.

Chapter 1: Early History

Graphic design at its core is about visual communication. Some of the earliest examples of this appear in cave paintings around 38,000 BCE. These paintings range in variety from handprints to bison hunts and religious rituals. While experts still speculate their true meanings, it’s understood that they are an effort to communicate.

Photos of the oldest cave paintings.

Image taken from, courtesy of Jean Clottes, Chauvet Cave Project.

Jumping forward to 3000 BCE, ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and Egyptians developed a system of icons to express themselves. Each icon represented an entire word instead of a phonetic sound. Today, this type of written language is called “logographic” and encapsulates an essential principle of modern graphic design. Take a closer look at the device you’re on right now. Notice a hamburger menu or a magnifying glass? Today’s UX designers are harnessing our human ability to interpret a visual into a complete thought, just as it was done before.

A cuneiform clay tablet dating to the Early Dynastic period in Sumer, approximately 2500 B.C.

Image courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Jump to Europe around 1100 AD and you’ll witness this same phenomenon. During the Crusades, soldiers needed a way to distinguish families. They developed their own logo or “Coat of Arms,” representing their values, characteristics, and styles of their homeland. Years later, families would convert their coat of arms to a wax seal to document authenticity.

Map of Europe showing the arms of some medieval countries and provinces.

Image courtesy of Reddit.

In 1439, Johannes Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press took visual communication to the next level. Initially, this new tool exposed the masses to literature such as the Bible and focused primarily on readability utilizing neutral typography and minimal imagery.

But as its craft became more popular, commercial uses developed and paved the way for graphic design as we know it today. Moving into the late 1400’s, printers harnessed the printing press to create the first “logos,”  marks on their documents to showcase their printing skills and quality of their print.

Printer’s marks, late fifteenth century.

Image taken from Smashing Magazine.

Up until this point, designs were limited to pre-cut blocks of text or images to convey their messages. In the 1760’s, the Industrial Revolution invented lithography, pushing visual communication a step further. This method of printing involves inking your design into a stone or metal surface and transferring it to a sheet of paper.

Originally only black ink was available, but with colored inks applied in 1837, chromolithography was introduced. New processes let people easily handcraft and mass distribute posters for events, products, or political movements, opening the door for brand advertising as we know it today to emphasize brand recognition.

Chromolithographic poster advertising a train system in Boston.

Image from Canva's Ultimate Guide to the History of Graphic Design.

Chapter 2: Modern Era

Companies began to recognize the benefit of advertising and marketing. In 1903, the first graphic design agency was founded!

Austria’s Wiener Werkstätte was the first organization of visual artists that included painters, architects, and early graphic designers. This set the stage for collaborative agencies like Beyond Definition and educational institutes like the german art school, Bauhaus. Founded in 1919, Bauhaus developed a new way of thinking that combined art and craftsmanship, focused on color theory and composition, and the basic principle that form follows function.

Image from Canva's Ultimate Guide to the History of Graphic Design.

The term “Graphic Design” first appeared in 1922, William Addison Dwiggens used it to describe his process of designing books. Dwiggens didn’t like the idea of limiting himself to one trade and utilized multiple skills to create his books including the art of typesetting, illustration, and design. He felt that seeing is just as important as reading and that strong symbolic relationships could be developed when the verbal and visual arts are combined.

As it turns out, he knew what he was talking about. Think about your favorite Super Bowl ad or social media meme sensation, and you’ll notice that this combination is used heavily in today’s advertising.

Paul Rand, known as “The Father of Graphic Design,” agreed that an ad’s effectiveness depended on how words and images were combined on the page. But, he opted for minimal verbals to allow for more white space and bolder visuals. During his early career as a commercial artist for “Apparel Arts,” he observed that lengthy copy provided by the copywriting department often stifled the creativity of his ad layout.

Inspired by both Bauhaus and Swiss design, he parred down copy and introduced white space into his compositions. The outcome? Witty and artful layouts standing out among dense copy.

His success soared. In 1947, he published his book “Thoughts on Design,” arguing that a good piece of commercial art had to be both beautiful and persuasive. By the mid-1950s, Rand had convinced some of America’s biggest corporations that good design is good business and developed brand identities for UPS, ABC, American Express, and IBM.

Paul Rand's corporate logo designs.

Image taken from Envato Blog.

Up until the mid-1980’s Paul Rand and his fellow graphic designers, spent a large majority of their time manually cutting and pasting images, typesetting text by hand, and altering images in dark rooms. After the invention of the computer, the pace of the design world accelerated tenfold.

Adobe Photoshop was released in 1990. This program sped up photo manipulation and allowed photography to blend with illustration, typography, and computer-generated imagery at the push of a button. MTV was known for embracing this tool. It allowed them to maintain the general shape and proportions of the mark while also pushing the limits of brand recognition by incorporating new color schemes, patterning, textures, and images.

This method of marketing is still very popular and was employed by Beyond Definition (formerly Bates Creative) during our “Storytellers By Design” campaign in 2014.

MTV's usage of logos.

Image taken from 99 Designs.

Chapter 3: The Future

This wave of constant advancements brings us back to the age-old question: What is going to mark our place in history?

Many would argue that interactivity is what our generation will be remembered for. The possibilities for virtual reality and augmented reality are limitless. Spaces like Artechouse invite users to play, discover, and build their own experiences while 360-degree movable images have already made their way into Facebook ad campaigns. These environments have the potential to change our understanding of typography, layout, and how we’ve communicated for thousands of years.

Others may say that artificial intelligence has the potential to make a huge impact in every area of our lives, including graphic design. AI has the ability to up the ante on an already accelerating world.

For example, Nutella utilized an AI algorithm that pulled from a database of dozens of patterns and colors to successfully generate seven million different versions of their graphic identity. Each unique design was applied to their jars and sold throughout Italy. After one month, all seven million jars were sold.

No one can say for sure where we are headed or how fast we’re going to get there. But, I think we can all agree that graphic design’s vast history contains a wealth of knowledge and experience that is still relevant today. The greats of the past left us an inspirational legacy. May it serve as a reminder of how far this industry has come, but also how far we have yet to go.

Cecile Jordan's headshot

Cecile Jordan

As Art Director, Cecile articulates a client’s goals into a visual experience that is both on-brand and creatively influential. Armed with years of industry insights, Cecile continuously strives to inspire her team members to create solutions that bridge research, strategy, marketing, and design.

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