This document originally appeared in 2001 – and yet to be updated.
Graphic design is essentially visual communication, the visual representation of ideas and concepts. Graphics as an art form exploded with the rise of photomechanical reproduction processes in conjunction with the use of fast printing methods, and the de pendable manufacture endurable paints, printing inks, quality papers and boards. Graphic art and design is a product of mechanisation, facilitated by the demand for broad communications using popular and cheap materials which are be easily transported. Technology from photography, photo engraving, lithography to print and computer technologies has acted as a catalyst to the design solutions of graphic artists.
Since prehistoric times, people have given visual form to ideas and concepts, in order to store knowledge in graphic form, and bring order and clarity to information. Over the course of history, various people including scribes, printers, and artists hav e filled these needs. Not until 1922 a book designer William A Dwiggins coined the term “graphic design” to describe his activities as an individual who brought structured order and visual form to printed communications. Thus an emerging profession receiv ed an appropriate name.
Origins of language
The visual communication of ideas and information since the earliest of times evolved in various areas from pictograms. Examples can be seen in Chinese picture writing, cuneiform from Mesopotamia, Mayan pictograms and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Pictograms developed into ideograms, which later developed into alphabets. The alphabet we use today is derived from the first alphabet developed by the Phoenicians (1700-1500 BC) and later modified by the Greeks and Romans. The Phoenicians allocated a simple sound t o a symbol and then rearranged the symbols into a written language. Unlike ideograms, which have no relationship to pronunciation, these Phoenician symbols spawned many languages, many of which are in use today, for example the Arabic, Greek, Russian and Roman alphabets. The Chinese characters however are a separate development, which remain based on the ideogram.
Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages
Although the storehouse of knowledge from philosophy to poetry was huge and rich in the ancient world enough to inspire and fuel the “rebirth” of learning, that is humanism in 14th Century Europe literacy as such was a restricted skill. The disintegratio n of the Roman Empire heralded the Dark Ages of the 4th to 6th Centuries. The great migrations of the Visigoths, and marauding hordes led to the destruction of culture and to a contraction of learning westwards to the isolated monasteries of Ireland for e xample Iona.
Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800 AD, fostered a revival of learning in the arts. He mandated reform by royal edict in 789 AD. At the court of Aachen a “turba scriptorium” or “crowd of scribes” was assembled to prepare master copi es of important religious texts. Then books and scribes were despatched through out Europe to disseminate the reforms. This led to standardisation of page layout, writing styles, decoration and the alphabet was successfully reformed.
The Romanesque era (1000 – 1150 AD) was a period of renewed religious fervour and stronger feudalism. Monasticism reached its peak and liturgical books like the Bible, Gospels and Psalters were produced in booming scriptoria, for example Beatus Fernandes and Sancha 1047.
The Middle Ages
During the Gothic period from 1150 AD to the beginning of the 14th Century towns and villages grew into cities. International trade flourished and money rather than land became a measure of wealth. During the 1200’s the rise in universities created a hug e demand for books. Literacy was on the rise and professional lay illuminators were active to help meet the growing demand for books.
Examples of these manuscripts include, Douce Apocalypso, 1265, Gothic style with one hundred illustrated pages, one the Ormesby Psalter written in the 1300’s in England. The Hebrew and Islamic religions also had a strong tradition of illuminated manuscrip ts. The production of illuminated manuscripts for private use became increasingly important and in the early 1400’s the “Book of Hours” was popular. These were private devotional books in which the day was divided into hours of the day for prayers and dev otion. The Duc du Berry installed the Dutch Limbourg brothers to create the most famous les Tres Riches Heures which illustrated hours, days and months of the year, zodiacs and a lot of other detail. Books were still rare and priceless by modern standard s. In 1424 the Cambridge University had only 122 manuscript books – the value of a book at that time was equal to a farm or vineyard.
Humanism and the increase in the printed word
The emerging literate middle classes snatched the monopoly on literacy away from the clergy. The invention of typography in the 1400’s was one of the most important inventions after the creation of writing and helped meet the insatiable demand for book s – religious, classical, and secular, for example Dante’s Inferno.
The Pre-Gutenburg Era
Wood block printing of playing cards and textiles had been popular since the 1300’s. Devotional prints of saints with images and lettering cut from the same block of wood were the first known as European block prints. Block books with thirty to fifty leav es for example Ars Moriendi were produced. Miniscules (lower case letters) were developed by the scribes of the Middle Ages as a faster more convenient form than writing in capitals with a pen. Before the Gutenberg invention in 1450, there were two schoo ls of writing, the round humanist hand Rotunda in Italy, and the pointed Gothic Gothic Textura (black letter) in Germany.
Early trade marks date back to the 15th Century and were merchants’ marks used in commerce and trade. Applied to articles offered for sale, these symbols generally consisted of a monogram or emblem which often combined with a visual pun of the individu al’s name. A variety of craftsmen, from stone masons to goldsmiths used these marks to authenticate the source of origin.
In the 1600’s travelling merchants were replaced by fixed houses of trade and their marks of identification were substituted by shop signboards. At first these signs were simple pictorial representations of the trade carried on within, for example a knife for a cutler. But with time businesses became more competitive and imagery became more complex.
Graphic design and technology
Graphic art as we know it today is the product of the technological advances, the printing press being the primary vehicle for change. The invention of moveable type was attributed to Gutenberg in 1450 although many printers were working towards the same invention, was tied to the rise of printed moral sayings, penny broadsheets and etchings that were to become the precursors to the newspaper.
In 1475 William Caxton produced the first English language book. Claude Garamond’s first French Renaissance typeface Old Style appeared in 1531. Earlier in 1501 Francesco Griffo made the first italic typeface, based on Chancery Script handwriting.
By 1609 Germany had regular newspapers, and The Weekly News in Britain has been in print since 1621. The Gutenburg press perfected the method of casting letters on to moveable type, which remained the common until the mechanisation in 19th Century.
In 1799 the first paper making machine was produced, followed by the steam driven press sixteen years later. This led to the mass circulation of newspapers. The Industrial Revolution (1800-1899) radically altered typography and the graphic arts. Designers of the time responded with an outpouring of new forms and images. In 1803 the first Fat Face type appeared, and in 1815 the first Egyptian (slab serif) and shaded typefaces by Vincent Figgins appeared. The English type founder William Caslon IV th. produ ced the first sans serif type face in 1816.
The development of the steam engine impacted on the mechanisation of the printing presses. The Times of London was the first steam driven printing press was to exceed 1000 copies per hour in 1814. Increases in speed did not necessarily lead to increases i n quality, more the reverse – the quality of craftsmanship and moral of the workers declined.
The growth of the commercially printed word
After 1850 photo engraving allowed photographs to be reproduced in printing were first used in the graphic arts. The first practical typewriter was constructed in 1867.
With increased trade and the popularity of packaged goods entire label designs were registered as trademarks to prevent copying by competitors. In Britain in 1875 The Trademarks Act initiated a system of registration whereby a manufacturer could make excl usive claim to marks appearing on mass produced goods. These have been published regularly in a journal since May 1876. Many labels were for patent medicines and food, bearing the signature of real (or presumably real) individuals attesting to the product ‘s authenticity. This use of a hand-rendered typography as a unique identifying mark for a company or product has become a traditional device in trademark design.
The quest for quality
The linotype machine (1884) mechanically set type for newspaper which replaced human compositors of type set. At the same time the monotyped keyboard-operated typesetting machine was developed. The Anglo-American Point System, based on the pica (12pt) em, was officially adapted in 1880. The offset lithographic printer was invented in the early 1900’s and enabled printing onto almost any surface from a flat printing plate. Printing could now be done onto metal cans, wood, plastic and paper.
By late 19th Century attempts were made to arrest the decline of quality in design and manufacturing. William Morris (1834-1896) English poet, craftsman and socialist writer attempted to address the demise of quality in visual communications. He founded o f the Kelmscott Press in 1890, famous for unique typefaces, book designs and freedom of page layout. The Kelmscott press (one of many private presses) carried Morris’ three typeface designs, Golden, Troy, and Chaucer reflecting his fascination for medieva l illuminated manuscripts. Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement were the seminal influences behind the later Art Nouveau style.
Although not a movement as such Art Nouveau reached its zenith in the early years of the 20th Century in many countries. It began as a reaction against the horrors of mass production, aiming to reintroduce the skills and craftsman ship that were fast dyin g out. In fine art by creating fantastical forms in mythical landscapes it rebelled against the striving for naturalism of the Impressionists. The essence of Art Nouveau was line – the curvilinear line, sinuous and extended.
This approach rejected the order of the straight line and right angles in favour of more natural movement. The emphasis was on decorative pattern and flatness devoid of perspective. It can be seen as a synthesis of European art, Viking and Celtic influenc es and Japanese wood block print with graphical applications in posters, advertising, typography, books, crafts, building design and the decorative arts – tableware, porcelain, glass, furniture, ceramics and jewellery. The name came from a shop in Paris (1895) called La Maison de l’art Nouveau.
Other notable English designers of this period included Arthur Mackmurdo, Aubrey Beardsley who produced sinuous black and white book covers and illustrations, and Charles Ricketts who founded the Vale Press in (1896). Ricketts designed his own fonts, init ials, and borders for the books he produced.
In France Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard and Alphonse Mucha designed coloured lithographic posters famous for their undulating linear elements and elaborate “whiplash” style of pattern.
Some of this stylistic revival was inspired in part by a growth in nationalism. As such Art Nouveau percolations had many regional variations. The revival of interest in early Celtic Art became an important influence on the Glasgow School, in the work o f the most renowned architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh was more restrained in style. This set him apart from his contemporaries. He was a major influence in European avant-garde graphics and the beginning of the machine aesthetic , a tough new look which formed the basis of later Bauhaus design.
The Modernist avant-garde in the visual arts catalysed modern graphic design early in the 20th Century. Cubism broke many of the old visual rules and invented a whole new visual aesthetic. The anarchic movement of Dada was as inventive as it was subversiv e and rule breaking in collage, montage, concerts, poetry, typography and graphical art. Revolutionary Russian abstraction was shockingly minimal and modern – a deliberate cleansing of old decadent ornamentation. The boldness of Dada, Futurist and Russian Constructionist design inspired the ideas the Bauhaus movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The turbulence and violence of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution completely broke with Art Nouveau, and swept away the old 19th Century styles.
Graphic design and the Avante Garde
The early years of Bauhaus were folksy and crafty but moved towards the clean modern machine look which attempted to merge art and industry. In contrast to the Art Nouveau movement the Weimar Bauhaus art school proclamation (1919) declared “Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinction which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.
Together, let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the symbol of a new faith.” The order of the Bauhaus machine aesthetic, (seen in the architecture of Walter Gropius) was of asymmetry, basic rectangular form with no decoration and balance by contrast. Retaining only essential elements, heavy lines, circles and rectangles were employed . Good examples of the graphic were the Sans-Serif Type Faces in the commercial world.
Advances in the commercial world
Away from the avant-garde the perfection of engraving and printing technology meant that pictorial designs became more complex, but as well became poorer in quality. It was not until the 1920’s that trademark designers were capable of achieving a clarity of form and simplicity of message which would elevate their work above that of ordinary drawing. Foremost in this shift in direction was the promotion of good design for the first two decades of this century. In Britain this was championed as “good design is good for business” by Frank Pick. As managing director of the Underground Group of Companies, he ranked publicity as an integral “public face” to the organisation, and the pictorial poster was the key method of publicity. In 1916 Pick hired the talent ed calligrapher Edward Johnston to design a completely new alphabet for London Transport. Originally intended as a poster typeface, it was quickly adopted for all official London Transport communications. Johnston redesigned the Underground symbol in 1935 , adapting the wheel mark of the original General Omnibus Company into the symbol still in use today.
Advertising and new typography
Advertising agencies recognised the positive impact on sales which clarity in design could achieve. Sadly most trademark designers worked in anonymity as staff or freelance artists in the employ of job printers and advertising agencies. Trademark designs emanating from Britain during the 1920’s did not attain the level of severity of their German counterparts. In part reflecting the difference between the two societies. British symbols are best described as humane. While German designers influenced by the Bauhaus movement emphasised form, British designers stressed content.
Typography gained a new lease on life early in 20th Century. Piet Zart a Dutch interior, industrial and graphic designer was one of the pioneers in the field of typography. He was inspired by Dada and De Stijl movements. Typographers of the Bauhaus develo ped new styles. Herbet Bayer head of Bauhaus typography and printing workshops 1925-1928 only used sans-serif, like his Universal alphabet that later did away with capital letters- a single case of geometric form.
Other notable typographic designers were Paul Renner Futura, Eric Gill, Gill Sans, where simple geometric shapes and the use of primary colours were seen to be the only appropriate means of expression in the age of the machine.
Between the wars Art Deco was the exciting new movement in the “decorative arts” and design which again swept away the elaborate ornamentation of preceding centuries and replaced it with a stunning simplicity of line. Art Deco reached its peak between the two world wars. Previous ages had drawn inspiration from the past, this movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s was inspired by the present and the future. Art Deco was seen as the embodiment of the steam age, the machine age.
Its name Art Deco was derived from the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels held in Paris in 1925. Not everything on display at this exposition would now be described as Art Deco today. The term more aptly describes the style that followed on imm ediately from the Art Nouveau period at the end of the 19th Century.
Art Deco was a style that spread through every aspect of daily life between the wars. Every thing from the arts and crafts used the new sensibility, whether it was a cinema, or a design for a radio set or a new motor car. Historians look back between the wars to find examples of such artists as Picasso, Mondrian and Kandinsky pushing the visual language beyond the boundaries of a stale academicism. Surrealism, Cubism and Expressionism were the coherent styles of the period, but no Art Deco style of painti ng ever existed. However “graphic arts” in particular, Art Deco posters were the first fully developed examples of a sophisticated understanding of the advantages and idiosyncrasies of the world of advertising. This was hardly surprising as the growth of the advertising industry and the medium of the poster design were inseparable. Art Deco, the style of the consumer age was applied with great success to the promotion of all the new consumer items, the gramophone, radio set, motor car, aeroplane, ocean-g oing liner, house hold appliances and Hollywood movies.
The one lasting theme and motif that ran throughout the Art Deco poster and illustration was that of the modish, chic, self-possessed and highly energetic woman, modern in every sense of the word. Two great Art Deco poster designers were Paul Collins and Cassandre. Both produced outstanding posters advertising rail travel and luxury liner voyages. Cassandre’s most famous single work was the poster of the Normandie. The prow of the ship pushes forward out of the picture as the majestic giant dwarfs the sma ll tug beneath it, suggesting to the viewer that the Normandie certainly had strength and elegance. The poster masterpiece for Fritz Lang’s movie was Metropolis one of the best examples of bold Exoressionist graphic design.
Art Deco themes
The common ground that all designers of this period shared was simplicity, the use of a bold image and a clear legible typeface that got the message across at a single glance.
The expressive nature of publicity during the 1930’s, the decade of Art Deco and economic depression can be attributed in part to the migration of fine artists to into the service of industry. Due to the adverse economy, painters, sculptors, and print mak ers sought work in the design professions. This era, prior to England’s involvement in World War 11, is characterised by a blurring of the distinctions between fine and commercial art. As a result the graphic imagery emanating from the 1930’s was notable for its remarkable strength and competency. Technically the 1930’s saw the invention of Xerography, inkless printing, the fore-runner of the current photo copier.
The rise of National Socialism in Germany and Fascism in Italy culminating in World War 11 obliterated all avant-garde graphics and typography. Everything went back to “retrospective” styling, the perceived strength in national harmony. In Germany the Naz is romanticised a medieval revival of German Gothic whilst in Italy Roman Classicalism was revered and imposed.
Post War Era
As industry recovered from the Second World War so the demand for printed material rose to new heights. The post war era saw the rise of wealth and consumerism in America in stark contrast to the coupon-ruled Britain and damaged, demoralised Europe. The m ultiplying mass of business communications and packaging added to the growth in consumer publishing. The USA led the way as far as design is concerned. This was due to the country’s advanced attitude towards industrial and business organisation and to the presence there of a wealthy mass market eager to consume its exciting new products. The 1950’s saw the rise of the American School of Graphic Impressionism characterised by an attempt to use popular imagery in fine art. Swiss-style rationalism was domina nt in advertising for Helvetica, Univers (in four weights), Optima and Palatino. Photo setting made “hot-metal” obsolete as film imitated the operation of type setting in hot metal thus accelerating production.
The second half of the Twentieth Century
The 1960’s are often characterised by the use of “cold type” referring to the technology of photo-setting processes being established in the printing industry. The late 1950’s saw a rush towards numerous photo composition machines with unpredictable chang es. This forced the consumer to accept some loss of the finer qualities of hot metal for price and other non aesthetic reasons. All of this was encouraging for those seeking novelty but dispiriting for those concerned with traditional detail. Poor fit of letters and ugly letterforms began to appear, fed by foundries and printers who expected to generate a whole range of point sizes from a single matrix.
Impact of computers
The earliest electronic digital computers were in operation around the 1940’s. Computerised graphic technology was developed in the early 1950’s, but it was not really artwork but mostly computer aided design and manufacture used in such situations as fli ght simulators and scans of the internal anatomy of human bodies. The first artistic experiments with computers took place in early 1960’s. Most of these creations were the work of scientists, not artists, which led to a more technical than artistic style .
During the 1960’s computers began to have an impact on graphic design by offering systems programmed to assist with justification of setting, and using memories that can summon up an image on a cathode ray tube (screen) as reference. But reliance on this early system brought problems. The operators were unable to control spacing and word breaks that a good compositor in hot-metal could have supplied earlier. Never the less hot metal was ousted by the effects of lower costs and the convenience of cold type .
Counter cultural diversity
Other technological advances that affected graphic design included the launch in 1961 by IBM of the Selectric golfball type writer, which offered an office machine with the capability of changing its characters to a different face and size. Also in 1961 the introduction of “dry” transfer lettering by Letraset, a clean simple lettering system that had immediate appeal to graphic designers paved the way for the desktop publishing systems of today. Letraset’s library of faces soon grew, taking licences from original foundries.
The quick success of dry transfer lettering led to a sense of fun in type face design, creating special effects through distortion and trickery, by cutting or tearing type to produce sci-fi effects, shivering typefaces like Alaska, Arthritis, Narcotic etc . Rules about the relationship between type and image were challenged, conventions about using or not using certain kinds of typefaces were abandoned. Fantastic design break throughs were promoted through the cinema with classics such as the credits for t he James Bond series. The counter culture of the 1960’s, particularly rock music developed its own graphic communications. Under ground magazines, notably Oz, challenged legibility in their illustrative collages of text, photography and striking use of pr ocess colour. It was the posters of San Francisco music scene that set the pace and took the psychedelic expressiveness furthest. The styling of these posters was a rejection of the straightjacket establishment values of type. Neville Brody a British grap hic designer used Apple Macintosh™ computers and digital typography to develop in Britain, a design style now known as the “Punk Movement”. His work for the The Face magazine, using low-resolution type faces, deconstructivism became popular in the 1980’s. Parallel to this movement was the space race between the USA and The USSR, epitomised by the fashion for apparently machine readable lettering, OCR-A, OCR-B, EI 3B and Letraset’s Countdown.
Graphic design in the 1970s
In the 1970’s a technological revolution was bursting onto the typographic scene as mentioned above in the form of the computer. It was affecting every one, from designers to type manufacturers. The earliest computer based typesetters were a hybrid of pho tocomposition and, and by the 1980’s pure digital output. None of these early machines handled graphics well and each machine had their own font formats. The 1970’s resolved the aridity of computer design solutions by collaborating with professional artists, especially for the rapidly growing 3-D environments. By the 1980’s many partially and fully animated graphics and films containing hyper-realistic co mputer animation of complexly detailed models were produced.
By the late 1980’s the development of desktop publishing changed the face of the graphic and printing industry world wide. At the same time ‘Post Script™ emerged as the de facto standard for digital typesetting, due mainly to its inclusion in the Apple La serwriter™ printer and its ability to handle graphics well. Apple Macintosh™ computers with their WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) display, and Aldus/Adobe™’s Pagemaker® , the first desktop publishing programme, the ground work was laid for the curr ent computer-based typesetting domination. The digital computer technology has changed the face of graphic design forever.
The availability of such programmes as QuarkXpress®, Photoshop®, Illustrator®, Freehand® and Fontographer® developed specially for graphic design, has expanded the world of graphics and type design from a few original graphic design houses and type foundries to a burgeoning number of new digital font manufacturers and graphic designers.
To sum up computers have had the most recent and profound effect on graphic design. Simplifying the most tedious processes, like page layout issues, eg justification, inserting columns, headings, editing and a variety of typefaces to choose from. Digital format lends itself to editing and flexibility. Cheap desktop publishing is now a very real option.
Internet and the future
The Internet, developed in the 1960’s and 70’s,was originally based on the US Military and academic networks. The Net comprises of a vast number of computers of all shapes and sizes connected through a massive network. Today the Internet runs commercially , connecting most of the world’s universities, businesses, corporations and millions of individuals worldwide. Tim Berners Lee is generally credited with being the architect of the World Wide Web. He and Robert Caillan authored a design document proposing the framework for a distributed hyper-text system. In a little over six years the Web has developed into one of the largest “libraries” of information the world has known.
The rapid unparalleled growth of the Internet has made it one of the mediums with the most potentially effective communication tools in the future. The Internet signals the most social and economic changes since the Industrial Revolution. It is estimated that by the year 2000 there will between 2 and 10 billion images on-line.
Future of graphics
Graphic Design is really a product of the 20th Century, and has been heavily influenced by advances in photography, colour reproduction and computer aided design. The future of graphic design is exciting and completely open ended.
Dean Donaldson, 2001
I acknowledge Mary Jane Griggs (Arts and Media Department, Riverina Institute of TAFE, Albury Campus, Australia) as the basis of this document used in replication for educational purposes only.)