According to the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule), 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. In other words, a large portion of results are driven by a small percentage of producers. That’s true in any industry, and it’s definitely true when you look at the evolution of graphic design.
The graphic design industry has grown leaps and bounds since its inception, and it’s thanks in large part to the graphic designers on this list.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular graphic designers in history, their contribution to the graphic design industry as a whole, and how those contributions still effect graphic design today.
“We are all born with genius. It's like our fairy godmother. But what happens in life is that we stop listening to our inner voices, and we no longer have access to this extraordinary ability to create poetry.” - Milton Glaser
Milton Glaser is an American graphic designer with one of the most impressive resumes in history. In addition to co-founding New York Magazine in 1968, Glaser also rolled out some of the most iconic designs of the following decades, including the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, the Brooklyn Brewery logo, and, most notably the I Heart New York logo—which Glaser was commissioned to design as a way to increase tourism to New York City in the 1970s. Glaser sketched the original design in the back of a taxi cab—and today, the logo has become a pop culture icon synonymous with everything New York City has to offer.
In 2009, Glaser received the National Medal of Arts, an award that recognizes outstanding achievements and support to the arts in the United States. He is the first graphic designer in history to receive the award.
“Everything is design. Everything!” - Paul Rand
For brands, there’s no design asset more important than the logo. A logo acts as a face for the company, telling their customers who they are, what they’re about, and why they should work with them. From a design perspective, a logo can make or break a business, and no one has been responsible for ensuring more brands “making it” than Paul Rand.
Paul Rand has designed some of the corporate world’s most enduring and recognizable icons, including IBM, UPS, ABC, Enron, and Morningstar, Inc.
Rand is known for his minimalist style, which he claimed was the secret to designing logos that would withstand the test of time. Some have criticized what they call a simplistic approach to design, but as Rand himself said, “ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting.”
“I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” - Saul Bass
When it comes to film, there has never been a designer more influential, revered, and well-known than Saul Bass.
You might not know his name, but his work designing title sequences and movie posters has been featured in some of the most iconic films of the 20th century. Bass is the talent behind the famous (not to mention haunting) film poster for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the opening sequences to an array of masterpieces from Alfred Hitchcock (including North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho) and Martin Scorsese films (including Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino).
“It is very important to embrace failure and to do a lot of stuff—as much stuff as possible—with as little fear as possible. It’s much, much better to wind up with a lot of crap having tried it than to overthink in the beginning and not do it.” - Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan Sagmeister, co-founder of New York-based design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, is a designer renowned for his work in the music industry, including branding, poster design, packaging design, and graphics. Over the years, he’s worked with some of the biggest names in music, including The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Talking Heads.
Sagmeister has received multiple accolades for his work, most notably seven Grammy Award nominations and two wins—one for Best Boxed or Limited Edition Package for his work on Talking Heads’ box set, Once in a Lifetime, in 2005 and another for Best Recording Package for his work on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today in 2010.
“It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad in order to get good.” - Paula Scher
Paula Scher is a force to be reckoned with. The designer first gained notoriety at CBS Records, where she was responsible for designing upwards of 150 album covers a year, including some of the most iconic album covers of the 1970s and 80s (like Boston’s Boston and Eric Gale’s Ginseng Woman).
In the 90s, Scher moved away from the music industry to focus on identity and branding systems, most notably for cultural institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.
Today, Scher is a sought-after art educator (she has taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Yale University, and the Tyler School of Art, among others) and a principal at design firm Pentagram, where she continues to work on high-profile projects (including the 2012 redesign of the Microsoft Windows 8 Logo).
“I'm a big believer in the emotion of design, and the message that's sent before somebody begins to read, before they get the rest of the information; what is the emotional response they get to the product, to the story, to the painting—whatever it is.” - David Carson
One of the magazine world’s biggest influences, designer and art director David Carson first gained notoriety at Ray Gun, an alternative music magazine. During his tenure, Carson became known for ushering in the “grunge typography” era of design, which was categorized by a dirty aesthetic and non-traditional use of photography, layouts, and typography, creating a “grungy” feel that aligned with the alternative scene of the 1990s.
In 1997, Carson was tapped to design the cover for Blue, a new adventure magazine. The first issue’s cover was named one of the top 40 magazine covers of the past 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
“Designers actually can change the world for the better by making the complicated simple and finding beauty in truth.” - Michael Bierut
Michael Bierut is a designer who has a long reach in the design world. Along with Paula Scher, Michael Bierut is also a principal at design firm Pentagram, where he has worked with an impressive list of high-profile clients including The New York Times, Saks Fifth Avenue, Mastercard, and MIT Media Lab.
Known for his work in typography and identity design, Bierut’s most recognizable project in recent years was the “H” logo design for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 US presidential campaign.
“Design is a response to a specific problem. You are given a problem to solve, and then you let the problem itself tell you what your solution is.” - Chip Kidd
You can’t talk about book cover design without mentioning Chip Kidd. Chip revolutionized the publishing industry with his book jackets, working with some of the world’s most notable authors, including Michael Crichton, Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Haruki Murakami, and Augusten Burroughs.
While a number of Kidd’s covers have gained notoriety, his most famous is the Jurassic Park cover, which had such an impact that the design was carried over to market the film version (and used as the logo for the theme park within the film). Kidd has also gained notoriety for his wide variety of design styles; instead of having a “signature” look, his book jackets transcend styles, with everything from minimalism to pop art to photo-centric design represented in his portfolio.
“Design is more than just a few tricks to the eye. It's a few tricks to the brain.” - Neville Brody
Punk rock had The Ramones—and graphic design has Neville Brody. This London-based designer turned the design world on its head in the 1980s by refusing to play by the rules and creating edgy, experimental designs that would become some of the most enduring of the era.
Brody is most widely known for his work as creative director at The Face magazine as well as his edgy album cover design for notable 80s bands like Depeche Mode and Cabaret Voltaire.
Brody continues to be an influence in the design world today; in addition to running Brody Associates, a design firm specializing in “identity, typography, and creative direction across all platforms,” his work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and he is currently a professor at the Royal College of Art in London, UK.
“If your mind is too open people can throw all kinds of rubbish into it.” - Alan Fletcher
In Alan Fletcher’s obituary in 2006, The Daily Telegraph described him as "the most highly regarded graphic designer of his generation, and probably one of the most prolific". And over a decade later, that still rings true.
Fletcher’s career spanned over decades, but he’s most well-known for founding design firm Pentagram, which remains one of the most highly respected and prolific firms in the world. While at Pentagram, Fletcher designed some of the era’s most iconic and celebrated logos, including the “V&A” logo for Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the world’s leading art and design museums. The museum still uses the iconic logo design today—30 years after Fletcher’s original design.
“Do the work that feeds your soul, not your ego.” - Jessica Walsh
At 32 years old, Jessica Walsh is the youngest designer on this list—but her influence is no less impactful.
Upon graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, Walsh began her career interning with Paula Scher at Pentagram. Following her internship, she took a role as associate art director at the now-defunct Print Magazine, where she quickly gained notoriety in the design world for her colorful images and unique blend of photography, painting, and digital design.
In 2010, Walsh met Stefan Sagmeister, who offered her a role at his design firm, Sagmeister, Inc. Within two years—and at the age of 25—Walsh was offered a partner position. Today, she is a partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, where she works with a number of high-profile clients including The New York Times, Barney’s, and Jay-Z.
“But I knew intuitively that I had such a great dichotomy to work with. I had a computer machine thing and a natural piece of fruit. I told Regis that if we don't somehow use the fruit, the apple, we'd lose a whole lot of the fun-ness of the idea. In fact, this logo we all know today would never have happened if I listened to everybody.” - Rob Janoff
There’s only one thing you need to know about Rob Janoff that speaks to the immense influence he’s had on the graphic design industry (and the world in general). Janoff designed what is, arguably, the most recognizable and influential corporate logo in history—the Apple logo.
Janoff was the design genius behind Apple’s iconic rainbow-striped apple logo, which the company used from 1977 to 1997. And while Apple has since dropped the rainbow color palette in favor of sleeker neutrals, the overall logo stays true to Janoff’s original design.
“Creative people have to believe in the value of their work. If you don’t have any belief then you can’t give anything—designing is an act of giving, and a belief in the value of the work fuels the desire to express something.” - Peter Saville
Records may be a thing of the past—but Peter Saville’s record sleeve designs are still regarded as some of the best in the music industry.
In the 1970s, Saville worked for Factory Records, where he designed record sleeves (heavily influenced by modernism) for a roster of Factory Records artists, including Joy Division and New Order. In 1979, Saville took over as the art director at Dindisc, where he continued his album design work for high-profile musicians like Wham!, Ultravox, and Peter Gabriel.
After his work in the music industry, Saville went on to heavily influence the fashion world, where his clients have included names like Christian Dior, Stella McCartney, and Calvin Klein. Saville’s recent work includes a redesign of Burberry’s logo in 2018.
“If you can design one thing, you can design everything.” - Massimo Vignelli
In the 1960s, Italian designer Massimo Vignelli moved to New York City to launch the American arm of Unimark International, which would go on to become one of the largest and most successful design firms in the world. While Vignelli worked on a number of impressive projects, his most influential—and most enduring—is his design of the New York City Subway Map.
Vignelli’s 1972 subway map design is widely regarded a landmark in modernist design. Vignelli would go on to create a commemorative redesign of the map in 2008—which was then commissioned by the MTA for use on their website, where it’s still used today.
If there were three words we could use to describe Carolyn Davidson’s impact on the design world, they would be this: Just Do It.
Davidson is the design genius behind Nike’s iconic swoosh logo. Back in 1971, Davidson was an art student at Portland State University. Needing cash to pay for an oil paints class, she agreed to do side work for professor Phil Knight, designing a logo for his new side venture. Well, that side venture would go on to be Nike—and Davidson’s logo design would go on to be one of the most recognizable corporate symbols of the 20th century.
Davidson was paid only $35 for the original logo design. But when Nike went public almost a decade later, Knight rewarded her with 500 shares of stock—which Davidson never sold and, today, is worth upwards of $1 million dollars.
Get out there and build your own iconic designs
The designers on this list have made some of history’s most recognized and impactful contributions to the design community. But every one of them started off as a new designer with an idea. So, if you’re a new designer with an idea of your own, remember—there’s no reason your designs can’t be iconic, too. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and get designing!