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The History of Graphic Design

Lesson 3 from: Graphic Design Fundamentals

Timothy Samara

The History of Graphic Design

Lesson 3 from: Graphic Design Fundamentals

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

3. The History of Graphic Design

Lesson Info

The History of Graphic Design

I'm gonna kinda take you through a very, very abridged sort of track through the ages just so you can kind of get a sense of sort of how far we've come. In a number of centuries. So first I'm gonna wiz through a very large chunk which is Prehistory to the enlightenment. (laughing) I know you're laughing because that's about 36,000 years, which is quite a long period of time. Graphic design, as a profession, and as a sort of formalized educational program, in service to the profession, is relatively recent, it's only about 150 years old, if that, and really only about 100, as we'll talk about. So, we'll get to stepping. So, human beings from the time they started living together in little groups, and then larger groups, have 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 BCE, that were painted with natural pigments on the walls of the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet. And below that is theories of pictograms...

. And up until about 6 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, and living together, and beginning to construct, kind of the processes of civilization. Trading, bartering, developing law, having discussions in public forums, having pronouncements, having to record information for instructions about certain skills or to let people know that 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 that's called Cuneiform, developed by the Sumerians who were a group of people living in Mesopotamia, which is now, around present day, Iraq, around 5 or 6,000 BCE. And just as a disclaimer, I fully acknowledge that the Asian writing systems have really been in development a ways before that. But my focus here is, essentially, on Western and European/American graphic design. Just for our purposes, no disrespect. So on the top there, the Cuneiform writing was made initially by, essentially translating, these sorts of pictograms, which represented sort of large ideas, phrases, concepts, actions, objects, some rituals, some abstract, into kind of phonetic sounds, that is trying to take the form of a certain kind of a figure and relate it to the the sound that was used, or the sounds that were used, to speak that, or to identify that verbally. And then to make a kind of a symbol out of it. And over the 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 150 by the time the Sumerians were done with it. The importance of that is that as the number of characters decreases, and their use becomes for flexible, that is you can take a different sound nuggets, sound symbols, and put them together to make a greater variety if words, it's modular. Which is how English, and all the other contemporary languages function into European languages. And then over the course of another few hundred years, 1500, 2000 years, we arrive at the 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 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 476, in a common era, as a result of a number of what we'd refer to as barbarian invasions. And what happened there, esentially, is that the Roman empire collapsed. 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 futile states. Basically lands conquered by a warrior, became a king, had an army of soldiers, and then rented out that land and gave protection to a number of peasants who would work 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. What happens over that time period, over the course of that 4 or 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 institution that survived the fall of the empire. And held Europe together in a cultural construct. But along that way, because everyone was so insular, the only thing the clergy were writing, these monks huddled over desks in flea and rat infested shacks and abbeys, were the gospels. And as they copied them, as part 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 change. And within about 100 years, the number of styles, and the difference, visually, between them became so extreme, that the clergy of one abbey could not read the writings of the gospels of the abbey over the hill. But during that time, a lot of very, very interesting things are produced. All of this work that you're seeing here is essentially, it's ecclesiastical in nature. This is the only kind of design production, the only kind of communication that is 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 kind of a page, which comes from a book which is an illuminated manuscript that is a gospel that has been decorated with colored paints, written by hand and then embellished with gold leaf and sometimes encrusted with semi-precious stones. On the right, as the middle ages wore on, there is a move towards a more secular culture as a result of certain kind of commercial trade routes opening up and then the Crusades, in which Europe essentially went out into the world, left Europe 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 had been spirited away from the Roman times, brought that back, and that leads us directly into, soon to be, the Renaissance. But they began to produce graphical material sometimes for entertainment, but usually for some kind of intellectual learning and so on. And on the right is a woodcut book that was produced, again, by hand, so again, all of this is produced by hand. Cut, individually, painstakingly, and then printed one at a time by inking the surface, so it's a very tedious and also expensive process. In 1445, this man here, Johannes Gutenberg, who is kind of jack of all trades in Mainz, Germany, sort of cobbled together a bunch of different kinds of technologies, a cheese press and making lamplac, and some alchemy, discovered steel cutting, and lead casting, and discovered a way to make individual slugs of individual letters in the alphabet, what's called lead type, or moveable 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 flow outward into the world, literacy rates increased, it aided in commerce, and on the right is the first known printed book that's a copy of the bible, that Gutenberg set himself. And so, you see again, in very, very rapid period of time, as the technology becomes assimilated, is that the design of pages begins to become more ornate, more elegant, you find differentiation in sizes, in order to establish a reading order or 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 now into the Industrial Revolution. So in the 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 a three dimensional image from light exposure to a chemically suffused plate or surface and then to be 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 about 1910, photography was really used as a source for illustration or for painting, and then sometimes to document stuff in the world, political events, but usually if the documentation was going to appear in a newspaper, it would serve as the basis for an illustration engraving that someone would do instead. On the right is an evolution of typesetting. It's a machine that allows a typesetter, or 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 empty matrix or molds that the lead would then be cast into and you would cast an entire line of type, hence linotype. So you can actually quadruple the production time. The first one of those machines was used by the New York Tribune in 1886 and the rest, as they say, is history. Now all this production, all this manufacturing, all of this industry, is creating products and people are working in factories under horrifying conditions, and then they've got some leisure time and they're trying to make their horrible, disease ridden, crowded, smokey 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, market based economy into gear. Manufacturers, of course, are competing with each other for these resources for the consumers. And they begin to advertise their products. First in small hand bills, which are essentially like fliers that would be handed out, to small posters that we'd post, and eventually to much larger and larger formats. Not only did that create a kind of wave, a kind of bombardment, and visual pollution, of advertising material, posted and billboarded, and hung and stacked on almost every surface of the urban environment, as you see in London in 1890, or sorry in 1850. But because so many people were doing it and because there was this aesthetic idea on the part of consumers 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, that you get this kind of mish mash of eclectic styles of typography, of images, of symbols, become just sort of willy nilly, sort of mashed up together. And so there's a real degradation in the quality of graphic designing, also of many other products that were being produced by machine. So there was a group of people who decided that they were going to fight against that. They were known as the Arts and Crafts Movement. And that movement, in order to go forward, decided to take a look back to the medieval period when they thought, a time when they thought that things were really better, where the designer and the maker, the crafts person, were one in 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 used the medieval 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 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 second is that all the parts within the design, the 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 inter-related. 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. Scoobie says this history stuff is very interesting. Jenn Lavender says I love the story behind the story, the history is fun. Scoobie continues to say I hadn't planned to watch but damn it now I'm hooked and I'll have to find something for supper in the freezer (laughing) so that just goes to show you that we have some really good engagement in there. Go ahead, jump in there in the chat room, we have our host Chris Jennings in there also. Chat with people around the world, tell us where you're tuning in from, what it is that you'd 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 arrow so we know what questions to target cause we do get a lot of those. Thanks 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 the wild designs, and them say no there's a system or try to reign it in. What's interesting is that as we go through this you'll see, and hopefully I will make clear to you, that aesthetics, notions of beauty or notions of goodness or strength in visual form change. A lot, over time, and it's all about context. Whatever's going on in 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 artists, 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 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 another thing that's happening there is, that there is a kind of refutation, a rebuke to industrialization, is that the loss 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 sketch-ins and stuff, is that things have become very, very fluid. Both the Arts and Crafts designers as well as those, who you're seeing here in the Art Nouveau period 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 painter at 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. Europe had become introduced to, once Commander Perry opened Japan to the world in the late 1880s, and so what's important about this is that it introduced 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, or the empirical world, but it also lives, the image lives as an entity unto itself. It has it's 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 understanding a physical theme or figure, and then also a flat graphic pattern, and you'll see this kind of reduction happening and evolving over the course of the next few, 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 sort of steadily, now, that kind of an aesthetic idea and a philosophy of fitness to purpose and a unified language has kind of become the norm, has started to filter out into the mainstream, is that they're also now starting to look at embracing the industry again, is that design can be a vehicle, not only for art and philosophy and literature, but also for products that are released, things that people use every day. And so the goal of these designers, who are referred to as secessionists in Vienna, began to move a little bit away from sort of strict Art Nouveau, even though, you can see the kind of the floral or natural reference, towards a much more rational or standarsized geometric presentation. Where the space begins to flatten out, pictorial matter becomes highly symbolic in it's visual quality, much more geometric. And you'll see also, the introduction of what's referred to as a San 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. San Serif typeface is one is which there are no little feet on the bottoms of the strokes. So it's a very, very modern, clean, pared down, very bold kind of typographic texture. So there's something very, very contemporary about that, at the time. And we still sort of jump to san serif typefaces for projects, when we're trying to communicate something contemporary, something modern in feeling, and we turn to serif typefaces when we're trying to convey something of a classical or historical or more authoritative or academic nature. And you see the same kind of reduction also happening in this advertisement for cigarettes, by Lucien Bernhard from 1906. Please forgive me if I've got the date off a couple of years Right around the turn of the century, too, a kind of a direct, or sort of near direct descendant, and all of these designers are really sort of descendants of Morris, and Morris in the Arts and Crafts Movement, are often considered the genesis of Modernism. That's Modernism with a capital M. This designer, Peter Behrens, had been at an artist colony that was frequented by William Morris and a number of other artists from the Secession and he was essentially trained also, as kind of a 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 pinnacle of sort of Graphic Design, a sort of a milestone of Graphic Design work and thinking. Which is his branding and product identity for the German Electrical Company in when he was named Director. And so these are a couple of elements from what is essentially the first corporate identity, or branding program, known, in which he's 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 the products, he designed the factories, the buildings, the machines that tooled the products, all of the storefronts, all the shop interiors, all the printed literature, all the posters, and communications. So Behrens is a kind of Figurehead in design history. Also around the turn of the century, we have this sudden explosion of experimentation in art and design. And they really sort of played off each other. A lot of designers were fine artists at one point, or worked in Fine Arts Media as well as in printed communications. A lot of fine artists also produced printed communications, posters and pamphlets and so on. And these are a number of experiments. The number of movements is endless. There's Expressionism in Cubism and Futurism, and Dada and DeStyl 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 form, and even of using written language that would express how 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, film. And there's a lot going on and the experiments of the Avant Guard were part of that. That language got kind of built in to this sort of practice and thinking. And so I'm gonna kind of move through this a little more quickly. That evolution continues, I'll stop here just before scooting along. I always 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 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 establishing formal principals and a formal educational process in design of all kinds. It was multi-disciplinary. 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 of Walter Gropius, who enlisted a number of recognized leaders in painting and architecture, stage design, print making, and so on, to head 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 and parcel of the design education today. The Bauhaus model is very much in effect and is considered sort of another one of those 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 effecting its visual form, very purposely, very decisively, in terms of how large and small, and bold and 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. He's responsible for kind of really standardizing what the Bauhaus was experimenting with on a 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 1925 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 asymmetrical configuration to pull out, to remove, text and images from the confining box of 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, liberating use of space on the page. Modernism in full swing goes through a number of evolutions. These are examples of what we refer to as Art Deco, a kind of more stylized, a little bit fancier, a little sexier kind of modernism that has it's base in France but also showed up in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. A lot of streamlining of visual forms, this kind of luminous shading that suggests motion and light playing on metal surfaces. Modernism in America leaves behind a little bit of a hard edged, very didactic, Sturm Und Drang kind of geometry makes use of that but is a little more playful, mixes that geometry up with some serif typfaces 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 messaging. After the second world war, another period of reconstruction leads designers to try to find a 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 had lead to the second world war, was really based on kind of regional or ethnic difference, about sort of specificity, about us and them or other, and so their goal was to create a kind of an international or universal language by paring 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 san serif typefaces, very, very clean and kind of stylistically unified outlook. These are some other examples of what are referred to as the International Style, which is still a kind of an idea that is approached today, but rather than being a kind of an overall movement, that all designers work under, it's sort of neutral qualities, and it's 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 approach is yielded. In the late 60s, designers became very, very involved in promoting themselves as strategists, as specialists, and as professionals of 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 into the 1970s that the idea of corporate identity, of really kind of branding a company or an organization in totality 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 not so artistic but educated and specialized nature of their understanding and of the skills that they were providing. Of course, there was a backlash, with the turbulence of the 60s, with youth culture, the various Civil Rights Movements, with the advent of Rock and Roll, the acknowledgment that not all people were the same. That there wasn't one culture, one society, particularly in America but several or many, and very often, at that time, in conflict, began to give rise to a number of different kinds of approaches as a backlash to the International Style, which these designers began to feel was co-opted by the corporate establishment. So the International Style by cleanliness became kind of a 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 conceptual writing as well as images that kind of harkens back to surrealism as some of the Avant Guard Movements. You find an interest in historicism where a lot of designers turned to previous period styles, began to kind of subvert them or reinterpret them in a more contemporary way, and in a much more decorative and conceptual or evocative way. You have a weird movement that sort of slid in called psychodelio which was very closely wrapped up with the folk rock movement of the late 60s in Haight-Ashbury, especially here in San Francisco, particularly here in San Francisco and also at music festivals like Newport, the Newport Folk Festival, out east, which is also a kind of a play, a kind of a weird hybrid of Art Nouveau, that sort of curving, sort of whip-lashy organicism, and a little bit of secession, repetition patterns, but 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 core, the rigor of the Modernism that they had been introduced to through the International Style. But then we, taking that kind of knowledge, that understanding about how form works in space, and applying it in a much more dynamic, a much more expressive and evocative way, where there is a personality to the work. Where there were suggestions or illusions to different kinds of cultural ideas or philosophies, where there was an understory as well as the direct information that they were presenting. And then that kind of steps into high gear. All of those kinds of deconstructions and reconstructions of this and that with the other together, is really facilitated by the appearance of digital graphics technology in the 1980s. What you're looking at here is the first system interface in pure black or white, no gray values from the Macintosh Plus released in 1984. And on the right attempts by designers to 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, all are enthralled, fascinated by them, what can I do with this? What's possible? Sometimes it goes through a period that's expiration goes through a period of kinda ugliness, almost a kinda Victorians, sort of barfing up of all kinds of weird possibilities, which happened in the 1980s and 90s, where you got this kind of weird references to Dada and Surealism 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's 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 sort of mannered Modernism, this kind of explosive, layered, multi contextural, post structural, kind of painterly quality of space became a kind of idea. Adding to that, and evolving it further with the introduction of the internet, there is the screen-based interactive medium with which we're all familiar. This is an early page from a search engine in I think no images, no moving text, no graphics of any kind. But on the right, within a few years the possibility of creating a very complex kind of three dimensional visualizations of data and information flying through space in an interactive environment, and it's this kind of world that we're living in. So with that technology, all kinds of new possibilities in areas of practice have opened up as you saw.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with RSVP

Syllabus - Graphic Design Fundamentals.pdf

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Ad+Poster-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Book+Web--Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Color-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Form+Image-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Identity-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Intro-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Layout-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf
Typography-Timothy Samara Presentation.pdf

Ratings and Reviews


This is more about all of your courses - It would be really nice for instructors to answer questions during break times or even after the class. There a lot a fabulous questions that I see that never get answered. I would like to go back even the next day and see a short note for at least some of those questions. Just an idea to help out this wonderful format that you have going. I am sure to make use of the promote question when I see an interesting one.


I LOVED this class! I learned so much and since I had the foresight to purchase it, I can go back for a refresher anytime I want. Plus, the downloads are spectacular! Almost a book's worth and so helpful! Thank you Timothy, you are great teacher!

a Creativelive Student

This was an outstanding course, would love to see a more in depth typography course from this guy. I'm a proffesional photographer with a formal education in design, I hardly ever use it, so I forget things, this was great both as a review, and to pinpoint things I didn't know or thought I knew. thanks once again! well done!!

Student Work