Welcome to an overview of Graphic Design History.

In these pages we examine the artistic, social, and technological influences on graphic design from the Industrial Revolution to the present.

I’ve collected many excellent links and resources for you to bookmark. This information only skims the surface of design history — there is so much more than can fit into a single website. For more in-depth information I highly recommend books by Philip Meggs’ History of Graphic Design and any of Steven Heller’s many books on graphic design.

I am a graphic designer.

I have a responsibility to my craft, which is the reason I’ve written this blog.

Prior to 1440 the only way to reproduce anything on paper (and remember, paper was pretty rare back then) was with tedious hand-drawn calligraphy and wood-block carvings.

In 1455, a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg published a revolutionary work – a bible using his invention of re-usable blocks of letters made from his own custom blend of metals that could withstand the pressure of a printing press. He also experimented with ink, paper, and different sorts of presses. He was able to make around 180 identical copies of the bible with this method – and it revolutionized the world.

Fifty years later, printing shops using this new technology opened in every major city in Europe. In that short  time an enormous new industry evolved with many new professions: paper manufacturers, type designers, engravers, type setters, printers, and even news papers.

(an interesting aside: there was a newsletter in 1556 in Venice that sold for one gazetta – a small coin –  which became the origin of the English word gazette, another term for newspaper).

The development of printing brought about a major change in the world. The spread of knowledge and scientific discoveries promoted more scientific development and became a milestone in the historical progress towards modern times.

We are living in a revolution.

Fast forward 550 years to now — another communication revolution on the same global scale has occurred. Now, the technology for reproducing works has become cheap enough and easy enough that anyone can publish anything to be read on paper or on personal computers. (It’s worth noting this is happening at a time when most of the world’s population can read.)

Over the last 500+ years, we have seen Western culture evolve through experiments in technology that brought photography and color to the printed page.  We have passed through a variety of styles (arts & craft, modernist, deco, etc) in response to the social and political trends of the times. Yet graphic designers are the minds and hands through which published communication travels.

Just like the communication revolution that followed Gutenberg’s work, we have entered a new era in communication. Many new industries and new professions have developed: information architects, user interface experts, application developers, and the like. And at the same time, instant grass-roots communication is becoming important. We don’t yet know where technology will take us, but we are experiencing yet another revolution in visual communication.

It is our responsibility to honor our long history of being a conduit of knowledge to the greater world. It is up to us to  resist being conned into using our talent for propaganda, for unsustainable consumption, for political fear mongers. Ours is an honorable and ancient profession of artists, writers, inventors, and skillful communicators.

We need to know where we’ve been in order to see where we are going, because it’s all interconnected. And it’s all very interesting.

Renée C. Tafoya,
Associate Professor of Art + Graphic Design
Northwest College

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