Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started


Lesson Info

The History of Graphic Design

I'm gonna kind of take you through a very very abridged sort of track through the ages. Just so you kind of get a sense of how far we've come in a number of centuries. So first I'm gonna wiz through a very very large chunk which is Prehistory to the enlightenment. (audience laughing) (coughs) I know you're laughing because that's about 36,000 years. (audience laughing) (laughs) Which is quite a long period of time. Graphic design as a profession and as formalized educational program in service to the profession is relatively recent. It's only about a 150 years old. If that and really only about 100 as we'll talk about. So we'll get to step in. So human beings from the time we started living together in little groups and then larger groups had been making images of some kind or another. What you're looking at on the left are cave paintings dating to about 35,000 or 36,000 BC. that were painted with natural pigments on the walls of the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet. And below that a s...

eries of pictograms and up until about six or 7,000 years ago, give or take the kinds of communications that were visual that people made were entirely pictorial. So it wasn't really until there was a need in living together in beginning to construct kind of the processes of civilization, trading, bartering, developing law, having discussions in public forums, having pronouncements, being having to record information for instructions about certain skills, or to let people know that there's something important was happening. It wasn't until then that written language came about. In the top right, what you're looking at is a very very early form of writing. That is the direct ancestor of the alphabet that we use today and it's called Cuneiform. Developed by the Sumerians who were a group of people living in Mesopotamia which is now around present day Iraq, around five or 6,000 BC. And just as a disclaimer, I fully acknowledge that the Asian writing systems had really been in development a ways before that but my focus here is essentially on Western, European, and American graphic design. Just for your purposes, no disrespect. So on the top, the Cuneiform writing is made initially by, essentially translating these sorts of pictograms which represented sort of large ideas. It phrases concepts, actions, objects. Some rituals, some abstract into kind of phonetic sounds that is trying to take the form of certain kind of a figure and relate it to the sound that was used or the sounds that were used to speak that or to identify that verbally. And then to kind of make a kind of a symbol out of it. And over a course of a couple thousand years, the number of symbols that were translated went from about 20,000 or so which is a lot to kind of learn to become literate down to about by the time the Sumerians were done with it. And the importance of that is that as the number of characters decreases and their use becomes more flexible, that is you can take a different sound nuggets, sound symbols, and put them together to make a greater variety of words, it's modular which is how English and all the other contemporary languages function and the European languages. And then over the course of another couple thousand, few hundred years, 1500, 2,000 years, we arrived at the kind of pinnacle of the design of what we refer to as the modern alphabet or the Roman alphabet. Simply because it was the Romans at the height of their empire that standardized, edited, and sort of finalized or evolved the style of those letters using a very very specific kind of geometric form and structure that would unify all of the letters in the alphabet so that they would create a cohesive line. So that reading fluidly was encouraged. And so that everything held together kind of stylistically. Now the Roman Empire came to a grinding crash in in a Common Era as a result of a number of what we refer to as Barbarian invasions. And what happened there essentially was that the Roman Empire collapsed and what was essentially a standard unified culture that spanned from the South of England to the North of Africa to the Iberian Peninsula and over to Asia Minor or what is now Turkey, broke up into a number of warring kind of feudal states. Basically, lands conquered by a warrior who became a king, had an army of soldiers and then rented out that land and gave protection to a number of peasants who had worked the land, provide resources, animal husbandry, farming and so on, in return for that protection. Because of that fracture and because of the warring for resources in between, all of the learning of Rome and that standardized alphabet kind of disappeared. And what happens though over that time period, over the course of that four, 500 years, is that the only people who are actually doing any writing and who are then also literate who can really read anything are the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church which is the one sort of institution that sort of survived the fall of the empire. And essentially held Europe together in a kind of a cultural construct. But along that way, because everyone was so insular, really the only thing that the clergy were writing, these monks huddled over desks in flea and rat infested shacks and Abbies where the gospels. And as they copied them as part of kind of a meditative process, and also for furthering the gospels for dissemination, is that as each generation copied a copy. And then copied a copy of a copy is that the writing styles began to kind of change. And within about a 100 years, the number of styles and the difference visually between them became so extreme that the clergy of one Abby could not read the writings of the gospels of the Abby over the hill. But during that time, a lot of very very interesting things were produced. All these work, so that you are seeing here is essentially, it's ecclesiastical in nature. This is the only kind of design production and the only kind of communication that's going on during the Middle Ages which is what we call the time following the fall of the Roman Empire. And you may be familiar with this sort of kind of a page which comes from a book which is an illuminated manuscript. That is, it's a gospel that has been decorated with colored paints written by hand and then embellished with gold with gold leaf and sometimes encrusted with semi-precious stones. On the right, as the Middle Ages were on, there is a kind of a move towards a more secular culture as result of certain kinds of commercial trade routes opening up and then the crusades in which Europe essentially went out into the world, left your behind, went to the Middle East for a purpose, warfare. And in doing that, discovered a lot of the technology and learning and art that have been kind of speared it away from the Roman times. Brought that back and that leads us directly into soon to be the Renaissance. But then began to produce graphical material for sometimes for entertainment but usually with or some kind of sort of intellectual learning and so on. And on the right is a woodcut book that was produced again by hand. So again all of these is produced by hand. Cut individually, painstakingly and then printed one at a time by ink in the surface so it's a very tedious and also expensive process. And in 1445, this man here, Johannes Gutenberg, who is kind of jack of all trades, in Mainz, Germany, sort of coupled together a bunch of different kinds of technologies. A cheese press and making lampblack and some Alchemy. And discovered and steel cutting and lead casting. And discovered a way to make individual slugs of individual letters in the Alphabet, what's called a lead type or movable type. And this allowed printers to compose a page of text very very quickly, rapidly. And then by virtue of the press mechanism to create hundreds of impressions in a much shorter time. So instead of a book taking three or four months to produce, as it did in 1442, it now would take about a week. And in that week, you could produce not just one but a couple of hundred copies. And so that allowed information to kind of flow outward into the world. Literacy rates increased, it aid in commerce. And on the right is the first, the first known printed book that's a copy of the Bible that Gutenberg set himself. And so, you see, then in a very very rapid period of time, as the technology becomes dissimilated, is that the design of pages begins to become more ornate, more elegant. You find differentiation in sizes in order to establish the kind of a reading order hierarchy. You have the creation of the first newspaper. In France, in 1782, typefaces themselves become steadily more stylized but also sharper easier to read. And then innovations in printing like the lithography press allowed for finer detail to be achieved. And that brings us then to the industrial revolution. So in 1790s, the steam engine was invented. And allowed mechanical processes like printing, or like textile weaving to be mechanized, that is to operate in a kind of an automatic way under some kind of outside force, in this case steam, eventually other kinds of fuels like coal and then electricity. And that just sped up production. It allowed for things like postage stamps to be printed in the millions. This is the first postage stamp called the Penny Black which was produced in England in the 1820s. You have another invention which is photography. That is, the ability to render three dimensional image from light exposure to a chemically suffused plate or surface. And then to able to make multiple copies of that. Photography wouldn't really revolutionize graphic design until about 100 years later. For the most part, up until the 19-- up until about 1910, 1915, photography was really used as a source for illustration or for painting. And then sometime to document stuff in the world, political events. But usually, if the documentation was going to appear in newspaper, it would serve as the basis for an illustration, engraving that someone would do instead. And on the right is an evolution of type setting. It's a machine that allows a typesetter or a printer not to have to compose a page of text with individual letters at a time but to be able to actually type on a keyboard, a full sentence to a particular width and then by typing, would set up these kind of empty matrices or molds. That the lead would then be cast into and you would cast an entire line of type, hence, liner type. So you could actually sort of quadruple the production time. The first one of those machines was used by the New York Tribune in 1886. And the rest what they say is history. Now all this production, all of this manufacturing, all of this industry is creating products. And people who are working in the factories and under a horrifying conditions. And then there, they've got some leisure time. And they are trying to make their horrible disease ridden crowded smoky polluted lives better so they wanna go out and buy products. And it's the industrial revolution that really kicks this kind of consumer-based, sort of market-based economy into gear. So manufacturers of course are competing with each other for these sort of resources for the consumers and they begin to advertise their products. First in small hand bills which were essentially like flyers that will be handed out. To small posters that we posted and eventually til it's larger and larger formats. Not only did that create a kind of a wave, of a kind of a bombardment and kind of visual pollution of advertising material, posted and billboard and hung and stacked on almost every surface of your environment. As you see in London in 1890, sorry in 1850. But because so many people were doing it, and because there was this kind of aesthetic idea on a part of a consumer's, who wanted nice things that stuff had to be really ornate and decorative and highly stylized in order to seem like it was the same sort of stuff that richer people could get. Is that you get this kind of mish mash of eclectic styles of typography, of images, of symbols being come just sort of willy-nilly sort of mashed up together. And so there's a real kind of degradation in the quality of graphic design and also of many other products that were being produced by machine. And so there is a group of people who decided that they are going to fight against that. They were known as the arts and crafts movement. And that movement, in order to kind of go forward, decided to take a look back to the Medieval Period when they thought up the time, when they thought that things were really better. Where designer and the maker, the crafts person were one and the same and that each one knew the ins and outs of aesthetics as well as mechanical processes or production or craftsmanship. And so they use the Medieval, the Medieval sort of language of woodcut and of illuminated manuscript as a base. But they also introduced a lot of new kinds of thinking into it. One is a kind of a fitness to purpose that is you choose the images or the elements for a reason and that reason is based on what the content is. And the seconds that all the parts within the design object should be related to each other that they should be speaking with one kind of visual voice. That you're creating a kind of a language and all the parts are interrelated. And Timothy, if you don't mind me jumping in real quick. I just wanna share and point out, that we have some awesome engagement happening in the chatroom right now. Scooby says this, "History stuff is very interesting." Jen Lavender says, "I love the story behind the story. The history is fun." Scooby continues to say, "Hadn't planned to watch but dammit now I'm hooked. And I'll have to find something for supper in the freezer." (audience and host laughing) so that just goes to show you that we have some really good engagement and there go ahead jump in there in the chatroom. We have our, over there host Chris Jennings and there are also, chat with people around the world. Tell us where you're tuning in. From what it is that you like to see today. And also, if you have any questions that you'd like to ask Timothy while we're live. There's an ask icon that you can click. And also vote on the little up arrows so we know what questions to target cause we do get a lot of those. Thanks. Well, I'll chime in while we're chiming in. I never knew that about the arts and crafts movement. And it seems like that's something graphic designers have wrestled with throughout our modern times of people doing with the wild designs. And them saying, "No, there's a system or ... Trying to rain it in. Great! It's interesting is that you know as we go through this, you'll see and hopefully I will make clear to you that, you know, aesthetics, notions of beauty or notions of goodness or strength in visual form change a lot overtime and it's all about context. Whatever's going on in the society, politically, philosophically, in terms of commerce and the way that people interact culturally, informs those decisions and design at this particular stage really because of the arts and crafts movement, takes on a highly philosophical and also a spiritual kind of a level. The arts and crafts artist in particular William Morris, who's page spread you're seeing on the right. Who's really the kind of the uber sort of arts and crafter if you will. Really saw design as a vehicle for social and moral uplift. He was also active as a socialist. And a sort of for labor rights and also for public education. So design begins to take on a kind of a social agenda that is philosophically underpinned as a way of again, kind of elevating society at large of making life better. And that is, and another thing that is happening there is that there is a kind of a refutation or a rebuke to industrialization, is that the laws of nature is something that's informing the visual language. And you'll notice that from this very kind of stilted mechanical, very hard edged, sort of conglomeration of borders and elements and details and sharp escutcheons. And stuff is that, things had become very very fluid. Both the arts and crafts designers as well as those who you are seeing here. In the the art Nouveau here in France which is a kind of an evolution of the arts and crafts ideal were looking to natural forms as inspiration for composition to natural gesture in image making. The sense of painterly hand. And both of those, these designers were ... As well as other Art Nouveau designers were also heavily influenced by this which is a Japanese woodblock print which is referred to as Ukiyo-e which Europe had become introduced to ones Commander Perry opened Japan to the world in the late 1880s. And so what's important about this is that it introduce a kind of a new way of thinking about space. Where the Japanese image makers were not necessarily entirely concerned with reproducing the natural world visually as though it's actually being perceived, is that it represents the sort of the natural world with the empirical world but it also lives, the image lives as an entity on to itself. It has its own life and so it's graphical relationships also are considered of equal importance. So you get this kind of weird sort of flattening out in this reverberation back and forth between sort of understanding a physical scene or a figure. And then also a flat graphic pattern. And you'll see this kind of reduction happening as we sort of, and evolving over the course of the next few, a couple years. And that brings us to the 20th century. So, that kind of reduction begins to really take hold of designers. This idea of abstracting the visual form, of cutting down to essentials. And also of sort of steadily now that kind of as an aesthetic idea and a philosophy of fitness to purpose. And the unified language has kind of become the norm. Has started to filter out into the mainstream. Is that they're also, now, is trying to look at embracing industry again. Is that design can be a vehicle, not only for art and philosophy and literature, but also for products that are released, you know, things that people use everyday. And so the goal of these designers who are referred to as the Secessionist in the Vienna, began to move a little bit away from sort of a strict Art Nouveau. Even though you can see the kind of the floral or natural reference towards a much more rational or kind of sort of standardized kind of geometric presentation. Where the space begins to flatten out. Pictorial matter becomes highly symbolic in its visual quality, much more geometric. And you'll see also kind of the introduction of what's referred to as a Sans Serif typeface. This family Akzidenz Grotesk is the first family of that kind that was introduced, released for wide usage by the Berthold Type Foundry in 1896. Sans Serif of typeface is one in which there are no little feet on the bottoms of the strokes. So it's a very very modern clean pair down, very bold kind of type of typographic texture. So there's something very very contemporary about that at the time. And we still sort of jump to Sans Serif typefaces for projects when we're trying to communicate, sort of, something contemporary or something modern in feeling. And we turn to Sans Serif typefaces when we're trying to convey something of a classical or historical or a more kind of authoritative or academic nature. And you see the same kind of reduction also happening in this advertisement for cigarettes by Lucian Bernhard from 1906. Please forgive me if I forgot the date off of couple of years. Right around the turn of the century to a kind of a direct sort of near direct descendant. And all of these designers are really sort of descendants of Morris. And Morris and the arts and crafts movement are often considered the kind of the Genesis of modernism. That's Modernism with the capital M. This is under Peter Behrens, had been an artist colony that was frequented by William Morris and a number of other artist from the Secession. And he was essentially trained also as a kind of jack of all trades. As an architect, as an industrial designer, as a type designer, as a book designer, as a print maker, and brought all of those skills to bear in a kind of the pinnacle of sort of graphic design, sort of a milestone or graphic design work and thinking which is his branding and product identity for the German electrical company in 1906 when he was named a director. And so these are a couple of elements from what is essentially the first corporate identity or branding program known. In which he has developed the logo, a corporate typeface, a graphical language of lines and certain kinds of spacial breaks, organization of information for sell sheets, for products. He designed all of the products. He designed the factories, the buildings, the machines that tooled the products. All of the storefronts, all the shop interiors, all of the printed literature, all the posters, and communications. So Behrens is kind of sort of figure head in design history. Also around the turn of the century, you have this sudden explosion of experimentation in art and design. And they really sort of played off of each other. A lot of designer were fine artists at one point were worked in fine arts media as well as in printing communications. A lot of fine artists also produce printed communications, posters, and pamphlets and so on. And these are a number of experiments, the number of movements is endless. There's expressionism and cubism and futurism, and Dada and De Stijl which is Dutch. And kind of conceptualism that really spoke about this kind of excitement about the new age. About trying to find a language of communicating, of making forum and even of using written language. That would express how kind of exciting the turn of the century was. You have to keep in mind that within a 10 year period, you have the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, so mass communication. You know, to talk, film, and there's a lot going on. And the experiments of the Avant-garde were part of that. That language got kind of built into the sort of the practice and thinking. And so I'm gonna kind of move through this a little bit more quickly. That evolution continues, I'll stop here just before scooting along. I just wanna go faster and then, there's something really important. And that would be this work which is from the Bauhaus. After the first World War, as Europe began, tried to reconstruct the idea of instituting a kind of a formal program for designers and artists kind of came into being. The Bauhaus was a school that was dedicated to the kind of establishing formal principles in a formal educational process in design of all kinds. It was multidisciplinary. It was headed by a man who had been first a student and then a working apprentice of Peter Behrens. A man by the name Walter Gropius. Who enlisted a number of recognized leaders in painting and architecture stage design, print making, and so on to have the school. Graphic designers who have been studying ... Who have studied at the undergraduate level, for the past 80 years, since 1919, will recognize, exercises like this as well as collage exercises like this which are part in parcel of the design education today. The Bauhaus model is a very much in effect. And is considered sort of another one of those kind of milestones. They began to also look at typography as a kind of an image-based material. That it not only was communicating on a verbal level but that by affecting its visual form, very purposely, very decisively in terms of how large and small or bold or light things were. How you separated information or grouped it together. That you could not only create an incredibly dynamic experience but that you could actually help people get into the information faster and lead them through it much more easily. The work of the Bauhaus was picked up on and then evolved by Jan Tschichold who was a German typesetter working in Berlin. And he's responsible for a kind of really standardizing what the Bauhaus was experimenting with in a kind of pedagogical or academic level in very very small and isolated kinds of commissions. And really bringing that out into the mainstream. He produced this publication, elementary typography in as an insert for the magazine that he was interning at. And then essentially became a rock star. Tschichold is kind of incredibly important. And really what he advocated was this kind of visual approach to the organization of type and also working with material in an asymmetrical configuration, to pull out, to remove text and images from the kind of the confining box or everything having to line up around the center and read only in one direction down. So that you could really do the information a service. To be able to highlight or emphasize or downplay different levels of information, different informational components. And to achieve a much more dynamic sort of liberating kind of use of space in the page. Modernism in full swing goes through a number of kinds of evolutions. These are examples of what we refer to as art deco, a kind of more stylized, a little bit more fancier, little sexier kind of modernism. That has its space in France but also has also showed up in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. A lot of sort of streamlining a visual form as kind of luminous shading that suggests motion and light playing on metal surfaces. Modernism in America at least behind a little bit of a hard edged kind of varied didactic Sturm und Drang kind of geometry. Makes use of it but it's a little bit more playful mixes that geometry up with some stereotype faces with weird letter forms or graphic elements as backgrounds in a kind of a layered way. And is very usually maybe a little bit less neutral, a little bit more not only playful in a visual way but playful conceptually. And really looking at sort of messaging. After the second World War, another period of reconstruction. Leads designers to try to find the kind of a universal language. Particularly in Switzerland, Germany, and Milan, but most notably Switzerland. Designers were very very conscious of the fact that much of what have lead to the second World War was really based on kind of regional of ethnic difference about sort of specificity. About sort of ausenem or other. And so their goal was to create a kind of an international or universal language by pairing down graphic styles to very journalistic, very understandable, very descriptive kinds of imagery. Instituting a very strict geometry, usually based on a grid. And then also using only specifically Sans Serif of typefaces, very very clean and kind of stylistically unified look. And these are some of the examples of what are referred to as international style which is you know still a kind of idea that is approached today. But rather than being a kind of an overall movement that all designers work under is its sort of neutral qualities and its distilled and very programmatic nature. Is often sort of used by and sort of associated with, corporate design with business. Because of the sense of credibility, of authority, of ease of use that those particular kinds of approaches yield in. In the late 60s, designers became very very involved in promoting themselves as strategists, as specialists, and as professionals. The same kind of level as doctors and lawyers that businesses would turn to to solve their communications needs. And it's during this time and into the 1970s that the idea of corporate identity of really kind of branding a company or an organization in totally comes into being. On the right are some graphic designers in their office in 1966 who would come to work in white lab coats in order to project the seriousness and the sort of the not so artistic but educated and specialized nature of their understanding, of the skills that they are providing. Of course there was a backlash. And with the turbulence of the 60s, with youth culture, the various civil rights movements, with the advent of rock and roll, the acknowledgement that not all people are the same. That there wasn't one culture or one society. Particularly in America but several or many. And very often at that time in conflict began to give rise to a number different kinds of approaches as a backlash to the international style which these designers began to kind of, feel was co-opted by the corporate establishment. And so the international style that cleanliness became a kind of the badge of the man of the corporate world. And so they began to fight against that. So you find during this period, a lot of very very kind of conceptual writing as well as image use that kind of hearkens back to surrealism and some of the Avant-garde movements. You find an interest in historicism where a lot of designers turn to previous periods styles began to kind of subvert them or reinterpret them in a kind of a more contemporary way. And in a much more decorative and kind of conceptual or evocative way. You have a kind of a weird movement that sort of slid in called psychedelia which was very closely wrapped up with the kind of the folk rock movement of late 60s and Haight-Ashbury especially here in San Francisco, particularly here in San Francisco and also at music festivals like New Port, the New Port Folk Festival out East which is also a kind of a play, a kind of a weird hi breed of Art Nouveau that sort of curving sort of whiplashy organicism and a little bit of Secession repetition patterns. About with a kind of drug induced coloration. And then once again in Switzerland, another kind of a backlash designers at a number of schools there particularly at The Basel School of Design, began to investigate the sort of the core, the rigor of the modernism that they had been introduced to during through the international style. But then really taking that kind of knowledge that understanding about how form works in space. And applying it in a much more dynamic and much more expressive and evocative way where there was a personality to the work, where there were suggestions or illusions to the different kinds of cultural ideas or philosophies where there was an under story as well as the direct information that they are presenting. And then that kind of steps to the high gear, all of those kinds of deconstructions and reconstructions of this and that with the other together. As really facilitated by the appearance of digital graphics technology in the 1980s. Which will again here is the first system interface in pure black or white no grey values from the Macintosh plus released in 1984. And on the right, attempts by designers to a respond to that. Technology is often is always one of the driving forces behind how visual language changes from era to era. As a new tool comes into existence, image makers, designers are enthralled, fascinated by the, what can I do with this, what's possible. Sometimes it goes to a period, this exploration goes through a period of kind of ugliness, almost kind of a Victorians, sort of barfing up of all kinds of weird possibilities which happened in the 1980s and 90s where you get kind of weird references to Dada and Surrealism and some poster design from the 1920s and 30s. But here are some of the first typefaces that were designed for as bitmap forms without smooth edges for use on the screen notably by Zuzana Licko who is one of the few really prominent female graphic designers who's made her mark in history at least up until that time which is unfortunate. And that kind of, that sort of mannered modernism as kind of sort of explosive layer to multi contextual, post structural kind of painterly quality of space became a kind of an idea. Adding to that and evolving further was the introduction of the internet. That is the screen-based interactive medium with which we're all familiar. This is an early page of from a search engine in I think 1992. No images, no moving text, no graphics of any kind. But on the right, within a few years, the possibility of creating very complex kind of three dimensional visualizations of data and information flying through space and interactive environment. And it's this kind of world that we're living in. So with that technology, all kinds of new possibilities for in areas of practice have opened up as you saw.

You don’t need to be a trained pro to make great designs. In this class, Timothy Samara will explain the fundamentals of graphic design and help you get started. You’ll learn about:

The skills essential for graphic design
Which tools designers use
How to manage the creative process

Timothy will demonstrate a design project from start to finish and provide a thorough introduction to the design principles professionals rely on everyday. You’ll learn the basics of:

  • Space and form
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

You’ll see how these theories apply to real-world projects and how they impact the overall design.

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo – this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence.



  • Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!
  • Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.
  • I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.