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From the 30,000 year old prehistoric wall art in France’s Chauvet Cave, to the ad you just saw in a magazine or logo emblazed on a product, graphic design permeates our lives. It’s been a part of the human experience since that first primitive person discovered they could make marks on the walls in their cavernous home.


Chauvet – Cave Horses

A complete, detailed history of graphic design has filled numerous volumes and neither you, nor I, have that kind of time. So, this article will focus on graphic design’s more recent evolution and milestones of the 20th and 21st centuries.

But first, an acknowledgement and tip of the hat to a guy named Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden Gutenberg. That’s a heck of a mouthful and probably why he’s known simply as Gutenberg, the man who brought us a process for mass-producing movable type. He also invented the use of oil-based ink and a type of wooden printing press. Good ‘ole Gut probably got the idea from the agricultural screw presses of the period. When he put them all together, he became the father of modern printing, something for which every graphic designer is indebted to him. Gut went on to print the The Gutenberg Bible. It shot to number one on the bestseller charts.


Johannes Gutenberg

Fast forward to the latter 19th century.

People were tired of the staunch formality of the Victorian Era. Fashion was, at best, uncomfortable, as were many social beliefs and attitudes. They were ready for a change and a big one at that.

Art, architecture, graphic design and literature were in the midst of a drastic transformation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This post-industrial revolution period spawned the avant-garde and modernist movements. They, in turn, influenced several other movements over the years all of which influenced today’s graphic design in one way or another.

Art Nouveau

The Industrial Revolution and its aftermath changed pretty much everything. Modes of visual communication were no exception. Shortly afterward, the ideas and influence of writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had people looking forward to the wonders technology would bring.

In the 1890s, art, architecture and interior design brought forth many new and unconventional ideas that were a refreshing break from historic academic art and its neoclassical influences. Art nouveau gained popularity. It was a bridge, of sorts, between two very different notions – neoclassical and modern. Art nouveau sought to emphasize warm, fluid, natural forms over the cold and rigid influences of the Industrial Revolution and Victorian era.


Alfons Mucha – 1898 – Dance


La Libre Esthétique salon annuel,
Exhibition poster, 1898

Nature was the inspiration for Art nouveau, shown in its use of softer forms, curved lines, plants, flowers, vines, insects, etc. Architects jumping on the art nouveau bandwagon sought to harmonize their designs with nature and the natural environment. Artists and artisans tapped art nouveau elements for their works and also everyday objects such as utensils, silverware and tableware, fabrics, jewelry and the like. A few of the better-known artists of the day include Aubrey Beardsley; Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Much More Than Flowery Curves

The early 20th century wasn’t all about flowers and flowing forms, though. It was a time of social and political unrest expressed in the art, graphics, architecture, literature and other creative mediums of the time. It was the time of several design movements, defined by public declarations and bold manifestos. While some chose to seek expanding the frontiers of aesthetic experience, others sought social and political reform. Their methods and mediums included literature, posters, architecture and the applied art of everyday objects.

The Rise Of The Avant-Garde And Modernism

Although its roots are found in military terminology, particularly vanguard, a term meaning an advance or front guard, avant-garde came to mean people whose work was slightly left of the accepted center, experimental, new and unique. At times, exciting, other times, dangerous. Its practitioners were bold and courageous, tossing aside conventional social standards, practices and beliefs.

Alongside the avant-garde were the modernists who believed in the power of human beings to improve their environment. With the aid of technology, scientific knowledge and experimentation, modernists sought to rebel against the formal attitudes and historical influences, traditions and attitudes of the Victorian era. They promoted their modern worldview with new social, political and economic attitudes.


Beginning in Russia, circa 1914, constructionists used art and design as a voice and tool for social change. In Russia’s case, it was a tool for the construction of a Socialist state. Artist and graphic designers sought to create works that would take the viewer out of their traditional setting and make them an active participant in the artwork. Their blending of art with political engagement reflected the revolutionary attitude of the time and the violent uprising that was to come.

A major player and influencer at the time was Russian-born, Lazar Markovich Lissitzky, known to many as simply El Lissitzky. He was a multitalented artist, designer, photographer, typographer, and architect. El Lissitzky greatly influenced the Bauhaus and constructivist movements. He also experimented with production techniques and stylistic devices that would go on to dominate 20th century graphic design.


Malevich Krasnodar

Other Significant Movements of the Early 20th century

The early 20th century certainly wasn’t boring when it came to art and design movements. The avant-garde and modernism not only broke ground for art nouveau and constructivism; they were also a springboard for design movements including Dada, Futurism, Bauhaus and Art Deco.

Collectively, these movements, styles or trends reflected an attitude of change and the adoption of technologies that would [hopefully] benefit mankind. The automobile, airplane, telephone, wide access to electricity, etc. also meant people needed to devise new systems of social life and behaviors that played nice with these new technologies.

Art Deco

Most people today, even if they have no connection to art, design or architecture, can identify the art deco style. The movement is associated with the carefree 1920s, a time when skirts were short and parties were long, people danced the Charleston and listened to jazz. Many saw this post-World War I period as a time that would usher in a new and prosperous age. Art deco reflected these hopes and attitudes … in a rather grandiose manner that oozed wealth.

The style tapped elements of futurism and cubism, along with others from painting styles of the time. Deco elements are easily identified – zigzags, dynamic curves, chevron patterns, sunbursts and stepped forms are common to designs of the time. Bold color palettes were also used to define the style. Art deco colors are often bright pink, coral red, yellow, blue and pastel greens, often found in tropical art. Art deco typically used materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer, inlaid wood and sharkskin.


Jacques_Doucet’s hôtel particulier stairs,
33 rue Saint James, Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1929 Photograph by Pierre Legrain

The 1980s brought with it a resurgence of this bold, forward-thinking style. The T.V. show, Miami Vice, with its South Beach backdrop, became a teacher for the masses when it came to all that was deco. Miami’s South Beach district is home to the largest collection of art deco architecture in the United States.

Ukrainian-French poster and typeface designer, A.M. Cassandre, was an important figure in art deco. He designed the typefaces Bifur in 1929, the sans-serif Acier Noir in 1935, and in 1937 an all-purpose, although often decorative, typestyle called Peignot. Peignot is often used in cinema and television. It was used for the Beatles 1965 movie, Help! and went on to adorn the credits of the movie, Love Story and the title of the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the1970s.

Cassandre opened an ad agency, Alliance Graphique, where he created a series of posters for his client, the Dubonnet wine company. In a form follows function triumph, Cassandre designed these deco style posters to be seen by people passing by in streamlined trains and automobiles.



All good things must come to an end and it was the same for art deco. Although the movement was a casualty of World War II, the style is still popular and continues to influence graphic designers today.

Beyond Art Deco/strong>

On the heels of art deco’s perception of wealth and prosperity was The Great Depression in the U.S during the 1930s. While it was an enormously difficult era for many Americans, it was also a time when graphic design shined and creativity was on the fast track. Much of this was due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s creation of the Work Projects Administration, commonly known as the WPA.


Salut Au Monde
WPA poster

The WPA was established when the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 in an effort to create jobs for the hordes of unemployed citizens. The WPA is primarily known for the construction of public buildings and roads. However, a lesser know offshoot, Federal Project Number One created opportunities for many creative individuals in music, theater and drama, literature and, yes, graphic design. The most notable of which are the poster designs of the WPA. Many of these designers tapped elements from earlier design movements and influences in their works for the WPA. Graphic designers of the WPA included Katherine Milhous, Erik Hans Krause, Vera Bock and Anthony Velonis among others.


WPA poster

Graphic design continued to evolve in the modern style after World War II. The 1950s saw the rise of the Swiss Style also called the International Typographic Style, given its emphasis on typography. The Swiss style focused on the grid system to provide order and structure to a design. It was also known for sans-serif typefaces, primarily the utilitarian Helvetica which was introduced in 1957. Yes, it’s hard to believe there actually was a time before Helvetica.

The Swiss / International Typographic style made a lot of sense when used in visual communications during the globalization of the post-war marketplace. Its tight structure projects a sense of clarity and simplicity while rapidly getting to the point of a design’s message.

The 1960s may have seen the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but it also saw a rise in consumerism; pop culture; the youth movement; feminist movement and the Black movement, all punctuated by the Vietnam War. Psychedelia was a cultural revolution in music, fashion, language, art, literature and philosophy. Graphic design followed its lead with poster designs that sought to emulate the psychedelic drug experience of hallucinogens such as LSD. In many ways, psychedelic art and design was a throw back to art nouveau’s fluid curves and shapes, but also emphasized intense colors that simulated movement and hand-drawn, smoke-like lettering.

Wes Wilson was not only the leading designer of psychedelic posters, he’s credited with inventing the style. Many of his poster designs were created to promote rock concerts at Bill Graham’s venue, The Fillmore, in San Francisco. The pop and op art movements of the 1960 also included innovators Jasper Johns; Robert Rauschenberg; Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

On the graphic design front during the 1950 –1960 were several noted designers including: Paul Rand, one of the originators of the Swiss style; Alexey Brodovich, whose editorial design work with Harper’s Bazaar magazine is timeless; Bradbury Thompson and his devotion to form and structure that continues to influence graphic designers; Saul Bass and his innovative motion picture title design; Herb Lubalin and his publication design and typographical works, along with designing ITC’s Avant Garde typestyle; Milton Glaser and his iconic “I [heart] Love New York logo as well as his now famous, multi-colored Bob Dylan profile poster (Which, by the way, Dylan initially rejected in favor of a typographic treatment for his book jacket.)

Graphic Design Meets Computer Technology

Everything changed in 1984 when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the first Apple Macintosh computer. Graphic design entered the computer age where designers could set their own type and play with layouts on screen. Computers enabled faster workflow and, as a result, the opportunity to experiment and break boundaries that had previously hampered design possibilities.

The so-called Father of Grunge, David Carson, authored and published The End of Print in 1995. This groundbreaking book changed the public face of graphic design, according to Newsweek Magazine. Carson’s work in Beach Culture, Surfer and Ray Gun magazines demonstrated his ideas for experimental typography that were deemed innovative, even by those who didn’t like the style. Many designers and critics accused Carson of being “flippant and destroying the communicative basis of design.” Still, grunge entered the mainstream with designers working in advertising, print, the Web and motion pictures imitating his techniques.

Computer-based design also brought attention to April Greiman, whose pioneering work with computers and digital design helped to establish new standards and possibilities. Greiman is credited with establishing the New Wave design style in the US during the late 70s and early 80s with Wolfgang Weingart.

Like the designers and movements that came before, New Wave desired change. Those who aligned with it rejected the strict grid-based design of the Swiss and international typographic style. New Wave design’s use of inconsistent letterspacing, varying type weights within single words and type set at unusual angles broke traditional rules and created a new interpretation of typography and graphic design.

Today, graphic design is much more than ink on a printed page. It encompasses digital and Web design along with user interface design, 3-D, gaming and motion graphics. None of it would be possible if not for the designers who courageously paved the way for us.

Over the years, graphic design has certainly evolved and so has our professional description. In the past we were known as graphic artists and commercial artists.

Graphic design has become so broad that some designers believe the title graphic designer no longer accurately describes our profession, what we do and the value we bring to our clients’ tables. As such, many have begun to call themselves communication designers rather than graphic designers.

Whatever you choose to call your professional self, those who take the time to learn and understand their professional roots are the ones who will take graphic design into its next incarnation. What that will be is anyone’s guess, but if history teaches and guides us it will no doubt involve a hefty dose of change, breaking the existing rules and social beliefs while riding the technological wave to parts as yet, unknown.

Enjoy the ride!

Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.” ~ William Wordsworth