A Short History of Graphic Design


Graphic design is a field that is widely known today by people around the world, but even if it had been existing since forever, its origins had to come from somewhere. The term itself first appeared in print in the 1922 essay “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design” written by a typographer William Addison Dwiggins. Later on, “Raffe’s Graphic Design” published in 1927 was the first book title that included the words ‘graphic design’ on a cover. Although Leon Friend’s 1936 book “Graphic Design” is believed to be the earliest comprehensive description of the field, today, there are millions of publishings that focus on both its brief history and its compelling subject in general.

We’d like to think that everything that is significant in history happened during our lifetime. However, to truly grasp the bigger picture of graphic design , we should take our time to dig into its historical discoveries, starting from the very first cave paintings. This is where it all began.

Graphic Design Roots: Prehistory Age

A Short History of Graphic Design

Image source: Medium

Where should you look to find the origins of graphic design? You’ve probably heard of the Lascaux caves in Southern France, Rome’s Trajan’s Column, or the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and so on. Fast forward just a couple thousand years later, you’ll discover the Blau Monument (3100-2700 BC), a pair of inscribed stone objects from Mesopotamia which is now located in the British Museum. It’s the first known artifact to use both words and pictures on it.

We already knew that the history of graphic design didn’t kick-off with computers or any other digital means. It has been assumed that graphic design has almost no end and is strongly interwoven with human existence and culture. The traces of the earliest undisputed art originated with the Homo sapiens’ Aurignacian archaeological culture in the Upper Paleolithic. Hence, it could be said that the vague preference for aesthetics probably already emerged in the Middle Paleolithic, which was about 100,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Cave paintings 38,000 BCE

Since graphic design, in its most basic description, is the art of creating graphics on a surface, it can literally be done on canvas, paper, computer screen, stones, pottery, or even on cave walls. The other name for cave paintings is “parietal art”, and they were exhibited on cave walls, ceilings, and date back to around 38,000 BCE in Eurasia.

Around 35,000 years ago, the first cave painting “Pettakere” was made in Sulawesi, Indonesia. However, their exact purpose is still not yet entirely known by scientists. Ancient people decorated walls with paint made from dirt or charcoal mixed with spit or animal fat. What’s important is that at that time, they couldn’t write, so apart from being just a simple decoration, their designs could have probably served as a means for communication as well.

Some theories ascribe a religious or ceremonial purpose to them. The most common themes in European cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, deer, and tracings of human hands (most likely artists’ signatures) as well as abstract patterns.

Sumerian written language 3300 – 3000 BCE

At one point, writings started to appear, and one of the earliest known written languages is Sumerian. The so-called proto-literate period of Sumerian writing spans roughly 3300 to 3000 BC. In this era, records were purely logographic (icons used to represent entire words instead of phonetic sounds), and they all had phonological content.

It was underlined by researchers that this logographic way of constructing a language suggested the natural ability for humans to use visual representations to communicate complex ideas. Surprisingly enough, this natural method refers directly to the field of modern graphic design. Archaic Sumerian was the earliest stage of inscriptions with linguistic content, beginning with the Jemdet Nasr (Uruk III) era from about 3100 to 3000 BC. The oldest document of the proto-literate period was the Kish tablet.

Paper and Printing Era

A Short History of Graphic Design

Image source: ThoughtCo.

Before the idea of graphic design has proliferated to support commercial and creative endeavors such as magazines, logo designs, book covers, and outdoor advertisements up to reaching its digital forms, it first had to get familiar with paper and print! Contrary to popular belief, Gutenberg entered the playfield pretty late, since the origins of paper and graphics actually began with Chinese discoveries.

The invention of paper in 105 AD by a Chinese man was what led to the concept of printing. It was around a thousand years later, in 1045 AD, that the first moveable type was invented. In 1276, a paper mill arrived in Fabriano, Italy, and this era was known for officially kicking off the first paper mill in Europe. However, only in 1450 was the system for printing books and other forms of literature at its heights. In 1460, the first illustrations in a printed book followed.

Advancements in Chinese printing 200 CE – 1040 CE

Some of the Chinese printing discoveries included non-papyrus paper making, woodblock printing, and movable type. Since 200 CE, they were already using wood reliefs to print and stamp designs on silk clothes and later on paper. It was only in 1040 (400 years before Gutenberg) that Bi Sheng invented the world’s first movable type printing press out of porcelain.

During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), wood blocks were initially cut to print on textiles. However, they were later used to reproduce Buddhist texts. The Buddhist scripture printed in 868, was the earliest known printed book. Beginning in the 11th century, longer scrolls and books were produced, making them widely available to the masses (960–1279).

Medieval calligraphy 700 – 900

It seems as if people have always had the inherent drive towards art, and this has been evidential since the early cave paintings. As human development progressed, typography became more important, since aesthetic horizons were being broadened and the intellectual mind was increasingly eager to collect information.

This period dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. Texts in this era were still produced and replicated by hand, and the artistry in producing small portions of exquisite books was what made these items and its creators stand out of the crowd. Interestingly, in Islamic cultures for example, figurative art was seen as sacrilegious. Therefore, typography was among the few permissible ways of artistic expression at the time.

European heraldry ~1100 – 1400

A Short History of Graphic Design

Image source: Enacademic

Heraldry is a system by which coats of arms and other armorial bearings are devised, described, and regulated. In all likelihood, the first real logo, in its semantic entirety, was actually the coat of arms which became a symbol used to represent family houses or territories. During the Crusades, soldiers from different countries used them on armor and battle flags to distinguish themselves apart. As coats of arms are therefore used to represent certain values, it can be successfully compared to the modern use of a logo for brands.

Storefront signage 1389

Looking back at the 14th century, times seemed rather hard. During this era, beer and ale were commonly drunk by people, therefore King Richard II of England made a law that ale houses must have signs out front so that the public could find them easier. This allowed for various work opportunities for graphic designers at the time since pubs ‘ visual identities and drinking etiquettes were graphic products waiting to be designed. This was how the first signage that represented commerce was born.

The Birth of Graphic Design – The Industrial Revolution Era 1760 – 1800

A Short History of Graphic Design

Image source: Foundation for Economic Education

For hundreds of years, people’s lives were primarily focused on agriculture. Folks farmed small pieces of land for the subsistence of their own families, producing DIY tools, furniture, and clothing for their use or inter-neighborhood trade. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain around 1760 and from then on, it spread to other parts of the world. To put it shortly, it was a cultural and economic shift from the cottage industry to a factory-based manufacturing system. But what did this mean for the field of graphic design?

As a major turning point in the history of human mankind, it marked almost every aspect of daily life. The general mechanization acted as a strong accelerator of processes. When it comes to printing speed in 1810, industrial innovation allowed for 400 pages to be printed per hour. According to some critics, civilisation was shifting from admiring humanist values to worshiping material goods. Mass production brought the need for mass communication, therefore the nature of visual information had changed significantly during this era. Graphic communications became more important, photography was invented, while the expansion of printers, advertisement, and posters also occurred.

Growth of Graphic Design: Up until 1900s

This was when good design days came about. Gutenberg’s printing press enabled people to recreate text, art, and design on a massive scale and in a cost-effective manner. From this, companies started to learn how to grow in terms of their visual identity and how to sell with the use of it.

Invention of the Gutenberg press – 1439

What changed thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention was people’s attitude towards printed books and the press. With accessibility came all sorts of profits starting with easier mass communication and affordable knowledge and information. The year 1439 changed civilisation and shaped Western culture. Graphic design ultimately gained a supporter, with the Gutenberg press paving the way for its broad commercial use.

First logos – late 1400s

We’ve already mentioned where the roots of logos lie, but before the press arrived, it had been a whole different story. The printing industry allowed for graphic designs to be multiplied perfectly in an infinite number of times. The first logos were limited to marks on companies’ documents. Parallel to actually being used to visually represent a company, a logo was also meant to present the brand’s advancement in its printing technique. In short, how well the logo was printed reflected how well everything else was printed by them.

First print advertisements – 1620s

You know them. They are funny, and today we often laugh at them when they appear on the internet. The first printed advertisements’ amateurish style were as amusing and original as for our modern, refined perception. They appeared suddenly in massively printed newspapers. In that era, they were called “coranto”. The ads invasion happened in Europe in the early 1600s, but written advertisements initially date back to ancient Egypt. So what was all the fuss about? The thing is, this became the first time people could actually see images in mass-produced ads.

Chromolithography – 1837

The further the technological progress reached, the more the world of graphic design could develop and spread its wings. Look at the seemingly simple ability to print in color or at chromolithography for example. It dramatically changed the perspective and broaden the range of advertising possibilities – characteristic, brand-linked color schemes, color-based emotional connections, etc.

Furthermore, chromolithography enabled a higher degree of realism and attractiveness added to the simple objects of life and fashion. Until then, graphic design was solely based on shapes and marks. That’s why the message was first of all clear and informative. Later on, the graphic design field of commerce started to approach the topic based on emotional attitudes, an approach that is very well-known to us today.

Growth of Graphic design: After 1900s

In 1993, Paul Rand successfully distinguished the core of this profession: “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.”

Today’s form of graphic design began developing since the late 1800s. Whereas technological advancements of the industrial revolution era completely changed the game, the time to develop the specific tools and learn how to play with them came afterwards.

A Short History of Graphic Design

Image source: My Modern Met

In 1903, the first graphic design agency, The Wiener Werkstätte, was established. The benefit of graphic design became evident and widely recognized since then, which helped kick off an entirely new industry. The Wiener Werkstätte was the first organization of visual artists which included architects, painters, and early graphic designers. They boldly reached out to cubism and other stylistic innovations, and their symbolic accomplishments set the stage for the Bauhaus and Art Deco styles.

Staatliches Bauhaus was founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany. Another difficult German word linked to it, the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, was an artistic ideal that encompassed or synthesized existing art forms into one perfect work. The goal that was actually brought into life – Bauhaus became one of the central driving forces behind the popularization of the modernist style.

In 1922, William Addison Dwiggins explained in his book what graphic design actually was. Hence, the actual profession and the style of life in which it brings has been well-described through it. Moreover, “Thoughts on Design” by Paul Rand (the designer responsible for the logos for Ford, Westinghouse, Yale, ABC, UPS, and IBM) was published in 1947. In his book, he focused on “functional-aesthetic perfection,” an ideal balance between a logo looking good and communicating its points effectively. Up to this day, graphic designers’ books and speeches collectively happen to fuel all the creative innovations within this field.

Graphic design in this day and age

From the 1950s onwards, the Industrial Revolution became almost insignificant compared to the digital one. Instead of mass printing, humans are enjoying the continuous technological advancements, with the computer, Internet, and social networks being huge turning points to how graphic design is today.

Online platforms created many professions and opportunities for graphic designers. Meanwhile, digital softwares became more and more polished, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before.

In 1990, the first version of Adobe Photoshop was released, creating a revolution in the way graphic designers worked. Photo manipulation created a whole new subcategory of graphic design. Prior to this, only artistic collages provided the possibility to blend together elements of photography, illustration, and CGI. Now, practically everything can be done. What are the forecasts for the future then?

The above-mentioned route of surprising turns in the development of graphic design and the progression of visual communication is exciting because it shows that this field has no end. It continuously develops and changes paths, but the core idea of communication with the use of visual symbolism remains the same. Today, graphic design trends, styles, and preferences vary from designer to designer, but one thing is for sure – there is infinitely a plenitude of space for development.


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