When pondering the beginnings of what we now call graphic design we seem to focus strongly on its impact over the past century. Yet, this type of communication dates back to the dawn of mankind. In truth, graphic design is really about visual mass communication. When taken at its most basic principles, the impressions that are achieved through cave paintings, monumental sculptures, and even commissioned murals over the ages can be seen as graphic design. This art is a combination of capturing zeitgeist and utilizing that aesthetic to reach the masses. The message may be a personal crusade of the designer, or may be the end result of what a client wants portrayed.
Some of the main things that have changed over the course of time are the clarity of messages, the way that words and images are combined, and clearly, the media by which this is presented to the public. And, in fact, the boundaries between graphic design and functional design are getting fuzzier.
In the first century AD, China began mass producing paper and within another thousand years the first forms of movable printing type were gaining use. This would represent the initial outlet for graphic design, as media that could be mass produced and distributed for public consumption.
The advent of the Gutenberg press in the 1400s marked another pivotal point, not just because of the ease with which media could now be produced, but also with the stylization of print and development of different fonts. Graphic design began to metamorphose from what was being seen to how it was being seen, and the entrance of lithography several centuries later allowed for word and form to be more expertly combined and distributed.
Clarity Through Simplicity
At the dawn of the twentieth century, graphic design truly began to distinguish itself from other art forms by becoming a message of aesthetics itself. Art Nouveau was already exploring the boundaries of combining lines and space to evoke visceral and visual impact. This was followed closely by the Bauhaus movement, and the functionality of form found an outlet with simplicity becoming the outline for potency.
As we fast forward to modern times, we can begin to see the emergent trends of graphic design. Ultimately, it is the utilization of the most far-reaching media and the incorporation of symbolic messaging that is socially in tune and intuitively functional. More than anything, we should probably ask, what does history teach us?
Both innovation and vision play strongly into all aspects of graphic design. As technology makes media more accessible, artists are finding ways to reach a wider audience and make a more lasting impact by combining what is familiar and what is new. So, how do you enact this alchemy? Are we combining and growing? Are we “re-thinking” how to play with audience familiarity? We will all have an opportunity to “re:think” our roles of making design history at the re:think design conference, presented in conjunction with SF Design Week on June 9 at the Midway in San Francisco. Join us as we hear from legends and visionaries who are writing and rewriting the story of design.
Statement – The history of graphic design is happening all the time. What is your part in this process?