Get your pencils ready! We’re about to embark on an in-depth lesson about the history of graphic design. Why? Because graphic design exists everywhere around us—on web pages, social sites, mobile apps, business logos, billboards, TV commercials, restaurant signs, paper flyers, and more. And if you’re using graphic design to fuel your business, reach marketing objectives, and engage audiences, it helps to know how this artform evolved and where it might be headed.
First, let’s nail down a comprehensive definition. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, graphic design is “the art or profession of using design elements (such as typography and images) to convey information or create an effect.”
Historians can trace the origins of graphic design all the way back to cave paintings in 38,000 BCE. However, with a focus on business and marketing, we’re going to start our lesson with the first instance of graphic design as we know it today.
So, without further ado, let’s take a trip through history to explore the beginnings of graphic design, discover how it led us to where we are now, and consider what the future of graphic design might look like.
The history of graphic design
The term “graphic design” first appeared in a 1922 essay by William Addison Dwiggins called “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design.” As a book designer, Dwiggins coined the term to explain how he organized and managed visuals in his works.
Still, we can go back even further than that for our history of graphic design.
1760s: The Industrial Revolution and lithography
The Industrial Revolution, which sparked in the late 1700s, brought with it new technologies for increasing the efficiency and production of manufacturing processes—including design. As one professor noted in his lecture on the history of design systems, “Graphic design is a relatively young way of expression, primarily a response to the needs of the industrial revolution.”
Lithography was of these biggest design exports of the Industrial Revolution. Invented by Alois Senefelder, lithography is a method of printing that involves inking your design into a stone or metal surface, and transferring it to a sheet of paper. This innovation also gave way to chromolithography, which is simply lithography but with colored prints.
Here, for example, is a chromolithographic poster advertising a train system in Boston.
With this new method at their fingertips, people could easily design eye-catching posters for products, events, political movements, and even home decor. Lithography also freed artists from the constraints of the printing press, allowing them to hand-craft and mass-produce their own designs, instead of only using pre-cut blocks of text and imagery.
Create your own eye-catching posters with the Colorful Paint Splatter Art Children's Fundraiser Poster or the Yellow Painting Conference Poster.
1890s: Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a global design movement that heavily influenced architecture, fashion, and graphic design in the late 19th century. As stated on the Tate Museum website, art nouveau is characterized by sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes based on plant forms.”
You’ve definitely seen art nouveau posters in the wild, like this famous one from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1893. It depicts a dance performing at the Jardin de Paris.
Art nouveau was significant because it encouraged artists to convey their subjects not exactly as they are, but rather through interpretive forms of expression, movement, and abstract representation.
1903: Wiener Werkstätte
At the birth of the 20th century, painter Koloman Moser and architect Josef Hoffmann founded the Wiener Werkstätte, meaning “Vienna workshop” to be a “productive cooperative of artisans” who valued high-quality craftsmanship.
In response to increasing industrialization, this collective prioritized individual expression and avant-garde creations. However, it did spark a trend of design characterized by its geometry and modernism, and “square style,” as in this poster:
These stark patterns and sharp lines even foreshadow the digital designs and graphic templates yet to come.
Modern graphic design as we know it today can be traced back to the Bauhaus school in Germany. Founded by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus launched a new way of thinking that combined arts and crafts, classical and avant-garde styles, form and function. Bauhaus designs incorporated minimalism, geometric shapes, and simplistic, new typefaces.
As Meaghan O'Neill wrote for Architectural Digest, “The result revolutionized how ordinary people experienced everyday life through the objects they touched, used, and relied on. If you've ever admired a teapot from Target or appreciated the elegance of an iPhone, you already inherently understand the Bauhaus's impact.”
1947: Paul Rand’s corporate logos
Paul Rand redefined advertising when he helped some of America’s biggest corporations shape their brand identities with logos. Think IBM, UPS, ABC, and American Express—all huge companies that were transformed by Rand’s designs. In fact, the IBM logo he created in the 1970s is still in use today—proving that effective design doesn’t just bridge the gap between companies and people, but also stands the test of time.
“Rand's ads have words and pictures, but they're all fused into one symbol,” said Donald Albrecht, curator of a Rand exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. “He thought he was bringing art to advertising.”
He was—and the effects of his work are still seen today in how brands market themselves and engage consumers with the power of just one symbol.
Postmodernism emerged as an evolution from and rebellion against modernist ideas. By its very nature, postmodernism doesn’t subscribe to a certain set of ideals. But postmodern designs often questioned authority, flipped ideas on their heads, and approached all that came before with skepticism and irony.
In the history of graphic design, this movement is often associated with others such as conceptualism and pop art. So in this era, you’ll see Andy Warhol deconstructing American icons like Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe portraits. And you’ll see Jackson Pollock ditching his easel for more experimental and expressionistic forms of painting.
1990s: Digital tools
In the late 20th century, digital tools took the pencils and paintbrushes from our hands, and provided new, revolutionary ways of creating and distributing graphic designs. Photoshop, for example, launched in 1990, as a graphics editing platform that anyone could use to build professional-grade designs. More rudimentary programs like Microsoft Paint also made graphic art accessible to the masses.
Even the way we interact with graphic design changed. In 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer. It contained a simple, user-friendly interface and said “Hello”—introducing us to computerized world that was created for consumers and that invited consumers be creator themselves.
The present of graphic design
Now that we’ve covered the history of graphic design, it’s time to look at where graphic design stands today. One could argue that graphic design is more prevalent in our lives than ever before. Graphics greet us on every social network, mobile app, and webpage. And marketers and businesses use design every day to grow their brands and forge connections with audiences across the world.
Just look at the statistics. More than 50% of marketers are prioritizing the creation of visual content. Instagram—an entirely visual platform—is the fastest growing social network. Over 70% of people have increased their online video viewing as platforms like Facebook continue to prioritize video creation and distribution. And more than 41% of marketers say original graphics like infographics perform best.
As our lives become saturated with content at every turn, designers are unsurprisingly using formats like infographics and videos to cut through the noise. There also seems to be a trend of minimalist, eye-catching designs with sans-serif typographies and heavy influences from earlier movements like the Bauhaus and Wiener Werkstätte, as seen in these posters that UK-based designer Mike Kus created for Getty Images.
The future of graphic design
One word can sum up the projected future of graphic design: interactivity. It’s likely to be a future full of designs that invite the user to play, discover, and build their own experiences.
We’re already seeing this with responsive designs, which change based on use behavior; think widgets that minimize and expand as your scroll or move your cursor across a page. And we’re seeing interactivity in increasingly popular design formats like data visualizations, social videos, and movable, 360-degree images.
Still, the biggest untapped potential for design lies in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which fuse the digital world with the real world. These technologies can build more immersive experiences that transform the way people consume entertainment, shop, play games, communicate with friends and family, and interact with brands. Pokémon Go, for instance, used AR to overlay gameplay onto the world in front of us. Going forward, 68% of people even see VR becoming part of everyday life.
For designers, however, this means they have new skills to develop.
As Margaret Andersen wrote for Eye on Design, “From a design perspective, VR’s 360 environment has the potential to radically redefine our understanding of typography, layout, and how we visually communicate information. However, unless graphic designers are well versed in programming languages like C# to code in Unity—the game engine that powers most VR apps—executing those new ideas becomes a major uphill battle.”
That’s why Madrid-based graphic design studio Relajaelcoco created Singularity—to help merge traditional graphic design with VR technologies. Built for the Oculus Rift VR headsets, Singularity provides an “abstract, geometric and colorful representation of how a superhuman intelligence would rapidly evolve to make sense of the world around it.”
What would Walter Gropius and Josef Hoffmann have to say about that? They might not have even imagined a world where people could interact with design this way. But it’s obvious that the history of graphic design has led us to this point.
Standing on the shoulders of the giants before them, today’s graphic designers are faced with the immense challenge of learning these new technologies and the unprecedented opportunity to make graphic design more accessible and engaging than ever before.