1984 to present.

The label “digital” is an attempt to label the graphic style which emerged in the 1990s as a result of the revolutionary changes in computer technology. Digital style is not a historical movement since it is happening right now. The term “digital” will be replaced once this trend has ended and historians can view it in perspective.

The loosening of the rules of the Swiss typographic movement and a renewed interest in experimental typography has lead to an abandonment of  convention during this period. Like the psychedelic artists of the 60s, digital artists are testing the waters to see how far they can go. From April Greiman’s “hybrid imagery” to David Carson’s deconstructive page layouts, anarchy reigned supreme in the nineties.

April Greiman

April Greiman

Grieman’s 1987 life-sized centerfold for Minneapolis Walker Art Center’s Design Quarterly has become an icon of the digital era. Above, her US Postage Stamp, 1995

David Carson did not go to art school but he did earn a degree in Sociology and he was a pretty decent surfer. With a very limited exposure to formal graphic design education, he nevertheless learned enough to pursue experiments with typography. Carson created some unorthodox, interesting and highly controversial work

Ray Gun magazine cover. David Carson

The Impact of the Computer and Digital Type on Graphic Designers

Untrained designers with Photoshop have deteriorated the traditional standards of visual communication. Even many trained graphic artists  have no understanding of our long history. Combine ignorance with the ability for anyone to publish anything with inkjet printers or as webpages, and you literally have design anarchy.

1984 macintoshOnce “desktop publishing” was mainstreamed there was complete shift in the role of the graphic designer. Many design support services closed or converted to the digital technology. Graphic designers were forced to take on the roles of typesetting and pre-press production, formerly not their responsibility. The graphic designer’s thinking skills were surpassed by the need for digital expertise. As Johanna Drucker has pointed out “The tools of the designer are confused with the skills of the designer … The accessibility of production tools has undercut the design profession since anyone could make a flier or a brochure.” Designers are now required to spend thousands of dollars on constantly updating hardware and software. They must continually upgrade their skills — Designers are now at the mercy of the industries they helped develop.

Where Does That Leave Us?

So does the computer mean the end of fine design? or is the computer forcing designers to reflect on what is good, useful, and beautiful?

Designer Steven Sagmeister has this to say about the issue:

Question: Do you think designers today need more technical ability as far as using the mac and/or design applications?  If not, elaborate, and if so, what areas seem weak to you?
SS: Sadly, I think that is necessary. But only because we designers, as a profession, decided to take over other people’s jobs (color seps, type setters, retouchers) instead of concentrating on ours. In general, I think we should think more. Thinking, however, is difficult. Typesetting is easy.

Thinking is difficult. Typesetting is easy. The best digital work doesn’t look digital. Computers are logical machines, yet artists who use the computer as a creative tool are creating work that looks chaotic, anarchic, expressive, illegible. Not logical. This irony is what makes digital so interesting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Designer as Artist

The line between art and design is, once again, blurring. Just as the early Modernists explored expression through art, design, and photography, a new generation of graphic designers are merging disciplines, resulting in exciting new visual forms.  April Grieman, David Carson, and  Steven Sagmeister are at the forefront of designers who produce work with such skill and imagination that it transcends the definition of design and is appreciated for it’s beauty and emotional power.

In June 2010, John Maeda wrote an article, published in Forbes magazine, entitled “Your Life in 2020.” In it, he offers a summary of what he stands for, as a designer, an educator and a leader. Maeda believes that art and design will be the foundation of culture in the near future, as technology fades from its prominent position. “So, what will take technology’s place?” he asks, and answers: “It begins with art, design and you.”

For interviews and portfolios of influential contemporary  designers, visit the AIGA Medalists page.

I’d like to end the semester with a little film about Sagmeister. “Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far”

For on the post-modern, digital revolution more please visit:


3 Responses to Digital

  1. With thanks! Valuable information!

  2. Shawnna, I do not know of any online discussions on the history of graphic design. I wish I did. I created this blog for my graphic design students – but the idea of a discussion board is great. Perhaps it can just develop here through comments?

  3. Great blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed here? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get responses from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s