The history of graphic design

Graphic Design

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Communication through images is graphic design. Knowing important design trends from the past will help you understand how to influence them in the future. Let’s explore the extensive history of design.

What is graphic design?

Let’s start by outlining the definition of graphic design. The broad category of “graphic design” is sometimes used to group together several design disciplines, such as digital and web design. Traditional graphic design, however, focuses on print media, including logo and branding as well as posters, book covers, magazine layouts, ads, and package designs.

In essence, a graphic designer uses typography in conjunction with visual content, such as photographs or illustrations, to convey a message. The secret is in the talking. But where did graphic design originate from in the first place, and how did it change over time?

A prologue to graphic design

Let’s start with the oldest form of visual and written language and how we sent our message through the discovery of printing before we go into the specific art and design movements that had a significant role in the visual style of graphic design as we know it.

The first signs of visual communication

Graphic design’s roots can be found in prehistoric cave paintings from about 38,000 BC, according to historians. These prehistoric cave paintings served as a means of intergenerational communication.

These cave paintings primarily depicted animals, handprints, weapons, and other hunting-related imagery. Humans were obviously communicating visually even though their exact message was unknown.

The beginning of a visual language

The visual depiction of the alphabet in the language is the next step in the evolution of graphic design. Writing is attributed to the Sumerians, who lived between 3300 and 3000 BC. These earliest kinds of writing were pictographs, which were pictures of actual things. The earliest stages of graphic design are already in use.

The invention of printing

Of course, graphic design is impossible without the development of printing. China began using woodblock printing to stamp designs on silk clothing in 200 CE, and then on paper. The first moveable type printing press was created by Bi Sheng in 1040 using porcelain.

In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type to Europe, enabling Western civilization to mass communication. With the invention of the Gutenberg press, literacy and literature became more widely available, affordable, and accessible. People no longer had to rely on extensive scholarly book reproductions. The Gutenberg press paved the way for greater commercial applications of design, ushering in the modern era of graphic design.

How the industrial revolution evolved graphic design

During the industrial revolution, which lasted from around 1760 to 1840, new technologies were introduced to boost the productivity and efficiency of manufacturing operations like lithography.

In the printing process known as lithography, your design is inked onto a stone or metal surface before being transferred to a piece of paper. This ultimately gave rise to chromolithography, which is lithography with color.

The first graphic design agency

The painter Koloman Moser, the architect Josef Hoffmann, and the patron Fritz Waerndorfer founded the Wiener Werkstätte, or Vienna Workshop, in 1903.

The Werkstätte brought together designers, artists, and architects who worked in the fields of furniture, fashion, graphic arts, silver, ceramics, and ceramics. They are credited as being a modern design pioneer and early inspirations for Bauhaus and Art Deco. They affected design standards for future generations as one of the first teams of professional artists.

Art and design movements

Now that you are aware of the earliest forms of written and visual communication, you can better understand how graphic design got its start. Let’s examine some major art trends that had a major impact on the development of graphic design as we know it today.

You could observe how these artistic movements shape fashion and how some of them even resurface. To understand where these trends come from and how to incorporate them into your designs, it’s critical to have a firm grasp of design history.

Art Nouveau

From the 1880s until the First World War, western Europe and the United States had a boom in Art Nouveau (“New Art”). It was an intentional endeavor to eschew 19th-century historical aesthetics.

Art Nouveau designers aimed to resurrect excellent craftsmanship, elevate the craft, and provide a really modern design that represented the utility of the objects they were producing. Instead of using solid, uniform shapes, the style favors organic, asymmetrical linework, which is used in posters, illustrations, jewelry, interior design, and even building.


Beginning in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the Bauhaus movement had a significant impact on art and design. Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus school, which gave rise to a new way of thinking.

Six months after the end of World War I, the school urged designers and artists to utilize their skills to mend the society that had been torn apart. The triangle, square, and circle of the Bauhaus grammar reflected this going-back-to-the-roots attitude. They questioned everything, even the conventional approach to education.

They blended traditional and avant-garde design elements with arts and crafts. The minimalism, geometric shapes, and straightforward typography of Bauhaus design were all used. Although the Bauhaus bubble only lasted for 14 years, its influence can still be seen in almost all facets of modern life.

Art Deco

The 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs and Industriels Modernes in Paris is when Art Deco first appeared.

Art Deco design is the pinnacle of style, refinement, and elegance. Simple designs, stylized and geometric decoration, and lavish use of pricey materials—both natural and synthetic—are all hallmarks of Art Deco.

Art Deco, which encompasses everything from architecture to furniture to clothing to sculpture, captures the extravagant mood of the 1930s. The style was used in the creation of the Rockefeller Center, Chrysler Building, and Empire State Building.

Swiss Design (The International Typography Style)

This movement, which builds on the rational mindset of the Bauhaus, is all about use and universality. In the 1920s, the Netherlands, Germany, and Russia all saw the emergence of this fashion, which was later developed in Switzerland in the 1950s. The Swiss Design or the International Typographic Style are terms for the Modernist movement that designers created.

Logical, modular grid systems offered a disciplined foundation for aligning various elements, which is currently thought to be necessary for the majority of graphic design types. Realistic photography and impartial sans-serif typefaces like Helvetica were favored over more emotional graphics.

Swiss style is typically minimalist. In branding, user interface design, and packaging, minimalism is making a comeback. Influential businesses like Apple and Google, which value a simple, uncluttered look above ornament and decoration, are driving this trend. The usage of grids by the Swiss Design movement is a significant contribution. Without one, can you imagine designing for the web?

Pop Art

Pop Art was primarily a British and American cultural phenomenon that took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lawrence Alloway gave it the moniker because of the way it glorified popular culture and gave ordinary, frequently uninteresting materials iconic status.

Pop art emerged as a rebellion against prevailing theories of art, culture, and conventional notions of what art ought to be. Hollywood films, advertisements, product packaging, popular music, and comic books were among the sources of inspiration, which rejected the pretenses of “fine art” in favor of strong, graphic prints.


Modernism was opposed by postmodernism. Postmodernism emerged from skepticism and suspicion of reason, whereas modernism was founded on idealism and reason. Modernists favored simplicity and clarity. Postmodernists valued several, frequently incompatible layers of meaning.

Young designers in the movement questioned the Modernism-derived Swiss Design Style’s “form follows function” tenet (or International Typography Style). The use of collage, distortion, bold colors and abstract typography by designers defied established design conventions.

April Grisman gained notoriety for her postmodern experimentation in the late 1970s thanks to her vibrant collage style and novel use of typography.

The digital age

The development of digital technologies gave rise to a brand-new, revolutionary method of producing graphic design. Apple unveiled the Macintosh computer in 1984. It employed a straightforward, approachable interface that welcomed users and said “Hello,” encouraging them to become creators.

In 1990, Photoshop was introduced as a graphics editing program that anybody could use to modify photos and create eye-catching designs. The general public now has access to graphic art because of simple tools like Microsoft Paint.

How art movements influence design trends

These are but a few of the numerous art movements that have existed over time. Do you ever think about how one art trend may have impacted another? For example, the Swiss Design style may have had a popularity for a while before postmodernism appeared and utterly turned the world of art and design on its head.

Similar to fashion trends, some will last for a while before being replaced by something new. Do you recall the gradients and bevels that were used in early iPhone app designs? With time, a flat design style took the place of this fashion in design.

Logo and identity design

An essential subset of graphic design is logo and branding design. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to identify businesses, groups, or our preferred brands. We’ll discuss the significance of signage, the earliest logos ever made, and one of the greats of corporate logo design in this section.


Signage conveys a message using both symbols and words. They are crucial to assisting individuals in navigating space and are frequently presented as navigational information. Billboards and murals are examples of large-scale signage, whereas street signs are examples of smaller signage. But like with graphic design, communication is the key.

The Greeks and Romans created some of the earliest examples of contemporary signage by carving symbols into stone or terra cotta. Signs were frequently used to demonstrate participation in particular organizations, such as religious affiliations. After the Middle Ages, trade increased and so did the demand for signs. King Richard III of England enacted a rule in 1389 requiring all businesses that sold ale to post signs outside their structures.

The first logo

A logo is a graphic mark, emblem, or symbol that is used to identify something. A company’s logo is now considered to be its trademark or brand. Seals, coins, coats of arms, watermarks, and other artifacts are only a few examples of early examples of logos.

The Bass red triangle for The Bass Brewery was the first logo ever to be protected by a trademark in 1876. It had a red triangle with the word “Bass” written in a script resembling that of Coca-Cola.

With the development of television and other forms of mass communication, this tendency of trademarking corporation logos remained steady. Since their inception, logos have been used to visually, and oftentimes without words, communicate a brand’s message.

Paul Rand reinvents the corporate logo

One of the designers who helped shape the field was Paul Rand. He redefined the company logo, and no graphic design history would be complete without discussing this. He is well-known for redesigning the logos for brands including IBM, Westinghouse, ABC, NEXT, and UPS.

According to Donald Albrecht, “the copywriter was the lead before Paul Rand.” The copywriter would provide the words that would decide the ad’s layout, frequently using one of many templates or pre-established layouts. Later, by commercial painters who often basically depicted whatever the copy was describing, the visuals would be completed.

Rand aimed to tackle the work with a fundamentally fresh perspective. He believed that the placement of words and graphics on the page determined how effective an advertisement would be. Rand created a symbol by combining words and images.

Rand introduced form, an essential new component of commercial art. Rand made his compositions stand out from the cluttered material around them by reducing copy and including white space. He infused advertising with art.

The future of graphic design

Graphic design has changed over time, becoming more specialized as new design sectors have become necessary. The foundation of graphic design used to be advertising and print design. Numerous new design fields have emerged as a result of the development of computers, Photoshop, and the Internet. To mention a few, there are product design, web design, interactive design, and UX and UI design. These are all specialized areas of the design industry, but graphic design is where it all began.

What about the future of design now that you are aware of the lengthy history of graphic design? How can you develop as a designer, be ready for how the design will change as trends change in the future, and remain in demand as a designer? To understand the craft and business of web design, have a look at one of our courses. If you want to succeed as a freelancer, you’ll develop high-value talents in both design and business.

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