Discover how graphic design got its start, its historical significance—and its evolution into what it is today.
The history of graphic design can be traced as far back as 30,000 years, existing in the form of cave paintings and inscriptions on clay, rock, and brick. But, graphic design as we know it today didn’t really start to develop until the modern era, around the late 1800s.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1922 that the term “graphic design” even came into existence. Coined by book designer William Addison Dwiggins, the term appeared in his essay “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design” to explain how he organized and managed visuals in his work.
Today, the graphic design industry is valued at around $41.8 billion dollars globally—and it’s only expected to keep growing as technological advancements and designers continue to raise the bar and redefine what is possible.
To appreciate how far graphic design has come, let’s take a look back at the key art movements that have informed the evolution of graphic design throughout history.
First, What Is Graphic Design?
Graphic design is the art of visual communication that combines typography, imagery, color, and form to convey information to an audience. It can be produced on any kind of surface—canvas, stone, pottery—or how it’s perhaps most recognized today, on a digital screen.
Cool graphic designs of a vintage sign and poster. Images via lukeruk and Ajaibs.
Examples of graphic design can be found almost anywhere—web pages, social media sites, apps, billboards, commercials, flyers, and so on.
The Industrial Revolution (the 1760s)
When the Industrial Revolution began in the 1760s, it welcomed a new age of graphic design. Innovative technologies for increasing production and manufacturing processes developed at an unprecedented rate, including in design.
The method of lithography, for example, was one of the biggest design exports of the Industrial Revolution. Lithography was a printing technique that involved inking your design into a stone or metal surface and transferring it to a sheet of paper. This innovation gave way to chromolithography, which is essentially lithography in color.
Graphic design and production became distinct during the Industrial Revolution. Images via Doremi and monkographic
rt Nouveau (the 1890s)
Art Nouveau (New Art) exploded onto the scene in Europe and the United States from around 1890 to the First World War. As the name would suggest, this movement was a deliberate attempt to abandon the old styles of the 19th century and embrace the new.
Rather than using straight, solid shapes, Art Nouveau sought to bring modernity and elegance to design, characterized by organic forms and sinuous lines. It was a progressive stylistic movement at the time, divorced from the Industrial Revolution and the processes of mass production that proceeded it.
Art Nouveau encouraged free-flowing lines based on organic forms and curves. Images via svekloid.
Wiener Werkstätte (1903)
As more companies started to see the value in graphic design, it wasn’t long before a graphic design agency was created. Enter Austria’s Wiener Werkstätte a.k.a. “Vienna Workshop”—a productive cooperative made up of visual artists, including painters, architects, and the industry’s first graphic designers.
The organization not only shaped the industry but also contributed to the style of graphic design. Wiener Werkstätte sparked a trend of design characterized by modernism, geometry, cubism, “square style,” as depicted below, and lay the groundwork for the Bauhaus and Art Deco styles that would soon follow.
Wiener Werkstätte celebrated and embraced the beauty of geometry. Images via 5mmcryTustan, and Curly Pat
Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, the Bauhaus school in Germany was grounded in the idea of creating a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a creative ideal that encompasses and combines different art forms into one cohesive whole.
Bauhaus succeeded, producing designs that incorporated minimalism, geometric shapes, and simplistic, new typefaces to become one of the driving forces of modernist design. While the school only lasted fourteen years, its influence remains to this day.
Bauhaus ushered in the modern era of design. Images via Neo Geometric Neo Geometric, and PGMart.
rt Deco (1925)
Emerging after the First World War in 1920s Paris, Art Deco was the ultimate symbol of optimism, encapsulating the spirit of the roaring ‘20s and ‘30s. The art form influenced various creative disciplines, including design, visual arts, fashion, and architecture.
Art Deco borrows from multiple artistic influences rather than one single style. Still, despite this, Art Deco style is unified in that it evokes modernity, glamour, elegance, functionality, and the future. It’s characterized by the use of bright colors, liberal use of gold (especially in Art Deco typography), straight hard-edged smooth lines, and geometric shapes.
Art Deco was born after the First World War when design could take center stage. Images via Paslayka, NGdesignhunand Gorbash Varvara.
Paul Rand (1940s)
Paul Rand is one of the most influential graphic designers of the 21st century, and his ideas and principles continue to influence graphic designers today.
In 1947, Rand authored his first book, Thought On Design, in which he asserted that a good piece of commercial art had to be both beautiful and aesthetic. He valued aesthetic perfection and communication, which is perhaps best demonstrated in his most famous corporate logo designs, including IBM, Ford, ABC, UPS, and Yale.
Paul Rand emphasized the need for functional-aesthetic perfection in corporate design. Image via rvlsoft.
Postmodernism (the 1970s)
Modernism represented a utopian vision of human life, society, and a belief in progress. By the 1970s, artists started rebelling against the ideas of values of modernism.
Postmodernism was born on skepticism, refusing to recognize authority and any style or definition of what art should be. A new era of freedom saw artists embrace mixing different styles and media while using new unconventional, expressionist techniques.
Postmodernism shattered established ideas about art and design, bringing a new self-awareness about style itself. Images via Normformded pixto, and spatuletail
The Digital Age
The introduction of digital tools revolutionized the way we create graphic design. Up until the late 20th century, graphic design had been based on handicraft processes. However, during the 1980s and early ‘90s, rapid advancements in digital hardware and software changed graphic design forever.
By 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer, featuring a user-friendly interface and programs such as MacPaint, the world’s first widely available freeform bitmap painting program.
The advancement of digital technologies completely transformed graphic design. Image via Audio und werbung.
MacPaint paved the way for many innovations that today form the basis of programs such as Photoshop—which was also, incidentally, launched on a Mac in 1990. Photoshop, a graphics editing software, made it possible for anyone to manipulate images and make professional designs. However, basic programs like Microsoft Paint made graphic design more available to the masses.
By the mid-1990s, graphic design’s evolution from the drawing table to the digital screen was more or less complete.
Now that we’ve looked back on the rich history of graphic design, it’s perhaps prudent to ask how designers can prepare for the future.
Image via singpentinkhappy.
If the history of graphic design tells us anything, it’s that design evolves, and all the movements and styles that overlap are influenced by what came before. Continuing to grow as a multi-disciplinary designer can better prepare you for when design and trends inevitably shift.
Learn, grow, and evolve with graphic design. But, most importantly, have fun!
A little design goes a long way! Let’s keep it going:
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Cover image via Neo Geometric.
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