Graphic Design 4 M1

Brief: Complete the course “Learning Graphic Design History” by Sean Adams (LinkedIn Learning). Draw a horizontal timeline and make rough notes on the timeline as the course goes on. 

General takeaway:

  • Graphic design – not just the construction of graphics. To have an impact on people, an understanding of society, culture, economy, and ecological factors is required.
  • Always question the status quo: is there a better way?
  • Design reflects on the period in which it was created.
Timeline of design history

American wood-type posters (1820–1880)

  • Hand-drawn books and scripts > 1450: Gutenberg’s movable type press
  • Letterforms made of metal had a size limitation before breaking
  • 1828: Darius Wells, US, made oversized letterforms out of wood, could create giant posters
  • At first, a mix of smaller metal type with large wood type
  • Fancy typefaces, rules, and dingbats were decor elements (images were hard to print)
  • Chaotic design, yet human/organic touch – trendy today
  • Economical option for smaller quantities

Victorian advertising (1830–1900)

  • The genesis of modern advertising and design.
  • Mass production created competition – the ads needed to stand out.
  • New machines could handle finer printing, allowing more creativity.
  • TOV: Clear class structure, sexual restraint, and a strict code of conduct. Optimism.
  • Elaborate ornamentation & mixing of styles from other cultures reinforced the British empire’s colonial strength.

La Belle Époque (1870–1914)

  • New prosperity, luxury goods, entertainment > demand for advertising
  • Jules Cherét: father of the modern poster
    • exaggerated lighting, movement
    • hand-drawn painted letterforms integrated into the illustration
    • Cherettes: women depicted in a new and modern way
  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:
    • inspired by Japanese woodblock printing (flat forms, simplicity)
    • less refined, looser approach than Cherét
    • extensive use of negative space
  • Paris brimming with excitement and energy, reflected in the poster art
  • The energetic image-driven design replaced the informational and static posters from before

Gallery of posters:

Art Nouveau (1880–1914)

The machine made was celebrated for “making everyone’s life better” – in reality there were crowded slums, a massive increase in urban pollution, bad-quality products, child labour, and the slow removal of all things handmade. Art Nouveau, or The New Art, was a style that sought to counter this.

  • solutions based on nature and an idealized agricultural medieval life
  • the forms are typically fluid and flat, influenced by the Japanese woodblock
  • the idea of a return to natural forms also influenced architects, product designers, and furniture makers

Arts and crafts (1880–1910)

  • rejected the industrial revolution’s bad qualities
  • embraced the idea of the artist and worker coming together to make a unique object of beauty
  • intricate hand-drawn patterns based on natural forms
  • the designers filled the negative space with patterns and decorations
  • a commitment of design to quality

Today, good designers and printers strive to create the highest quality product, obsessing over every detail.

Plakatstil / German posters (1905–1915)

  • the start of a brand new century – new and fresh approaches, the world of medieval poetry and complex patterns had no place in this brave new world
  • strong, vivid colours
  • abstract and flat pattern
  • simple shapes
  • implied form shaped by negative space
  • rejection of anything decorative
  • design should be minimal and clear, getting to the core of the communication
  • the first designers to work with a modern corporative identity – symbols and shapes
  • less is more

WW I propaganda (1914–1918)

  • new, cost-efficient printing technologies allowed for the mass production of posters
  • the first time the power of design was used in a mass scale (TV, Internet, and radio combined)

The European avant-garde (1909–1923)

  • Futurists: wanted changes, quickly and violently
    • destroy the old world, celebrate the new industrial society: speed, machines, war, and revolution
    • used typography, energetic forms, and chaotic composition to communicate their idea of the new world
    • hated harmony and classical forms for “recreating the past and pacifying the masses”
    • enlisted in war and the movement literally died out
  • The Dada movement: pacifists
    • rejected reason and logic, interested in nonsense, irrationality, and intuition
    • worked to shock the bourgeoisie, or middle class, population (art was considered bourgeoisie, so they made anti-art)
    • abolition of logic, social hierarchies, memory, and the future
    • work was random and improvised
    • later, many of the designers and artists shifted towards ideas such as Surrealism or Modernism

The Futurist and Dada movements changed the way we look at typography. Type was not simply a choice of a legible typeface or a way to decorate a poster; it was a picture of a word. Typography could be expressive and dynamic or, like an illustration, used solely as a compositional element.

Constructivist design / The Soviet revolution (1917–1930)

  • the modern graphic design originated in this period
  • graphic design was not a form of art; there was no room for personal expression (handmade/decorative ornamental design was symbolic of the aristocracy’s oppression)
  • geometric, bold, and simple shapes rather than a representative illustration
  • sans serif typography, rejecting decorative fonts
  • photography replaced illustration; photomontage, overprinting
  • a shift toward the function of something rather than simply the aesthetics

Late 1920s: the Soviet political structure considered the Constructivists to be radical intellectuals and the work to be a representation of capitalist cosmopolitan culture; design should be realistic and not abstract. Many of the designers left for Germany and the United States. Their stylistic influence is seen today – the concepts of functionalism, design for the common man, abstract geometric symbols, and the preference for photography are their strongest legacy.

De Stijl (1917–1931)

  • rebuild the world merging math + harmony
  • abstract geometry based on mathematical proportions are universal forms, not owned by an individual designer
  • limited palettes, no personal or national identity
  • sans-serif fonts
  • large amounts of whitespace

Across many design forms: graphic design, architecture, product design, and fine art. A utopian philosophy – about the human condition, society and our ability to live together in a peaceful and harmonious culture.

The Bauhaus (1919–1931)

Most design education is based on the Bauhaus teaching method, where all the previous movements and styles came together. At the core was the idea that design could make the world a better place.

Four pillars:

  1. A designer should strive for the highest quality and craftsmanship – perfect geometric forms, and highly refined typography.
  2. Less is more – ornament was corrupt and unnecessary.
  3. Work should be true to its materials – wood should look like wood, and steel should look like steel.
  4. Form follows function – the design of something should be functional, never decorative.

Graphic design focused on typography, shape and colour.

  • bold, clear, simple sans-serif fonts
  • grids and the Golden Section
  • every element, from a word to a hairline rule, existed to serve a function, from indicating where a letter begins on a letterhead to organizing text into the legible blocks
  • design solutions favoured photography due to its realism – experimental photography with unusual points of view, montage and darkroom techniques
  • colours followed De Stijl movement’s idea that black, white, and primary colours were universal and not attached to any specific political party or nationality
  • Itten and Klee

Die Neue Typographie (1923–1940)

  • clarity, not decoration – typography’s most important job is to relay information as efficiently as possible
  • asymmetry for better hierarchy
  • use of negative space
  • rules, bars, circles, and boxes aided efficient reading and expressed a kinetic energy
  • sans-serif fonts, preferably one font in a range of weights and sizes
  • no room for expressive and personal work
  • photography was favoured as representational and precise, while illustration was subjective
  • limited colour palettes – mostly black, white, red, and yellow

The great age of posters (1928–1939)

  • a softer, more elegant approach than The Bauhaus
  • improved printing technologies allowed for finer tonal values, gradations, shadows, fine lines, finer typography, and a larger variety of colours
  • designed for maximum impact when seen briefly from a moving car, bus, or train
  • Cassandre:
    • minimal and iconic imagery
    • repeating abstract & simple geometric shapes
    • exaggerated scale
    • negative space defines shapes
    • underlying grid
    • colours and tones have high contrast
    • details of an image are deleted
    • little or no text
    • subtle gradations


The American magazine (1933–1965)

Magazines: features that exist to sell ads. A change from a dense, text-filled magazine (1920s) to a highly-illustrated, energetic one.

  • ideas from the European avant-garde, tailored to an American audience:
    • the geometry of the Bauhaus
    • the drama of French poster design
    • the dynamic forms of Constructivism
  • dramatic negative space, geometric forms, graphic photography and experimental typography
  • Bauhaus photography – unexpected photographic cropping and point of view
  • Bauhaus avant-garde typography – clear typefaces and strong shapes
  • composition and scale
  • play with montage, mixing typography and photography

American Modernism (1933–1945)

The Federal Art Project was initiated by Roosevelt as part of the Works Progress Administration, battling unemployment during the Depression. It employed designers, illustrators, photographers, sculptors, and painters.

  • introduced modernism to a broader audience through posters
  • speak to the masses in the least elitist way possible
  • the imagery was representational but not overly realistic
  • integrated simple forms and geometric shapes with clear iconography and symbols
  • pure colours were easier to reproduce with offset and silk-screen printing and communicated hope and progress

WW II Axis powers (1933–1945)

  • Germany:
    • Goebbels used films, books and graphic design to communicate
    • the Nazi party adopted many of the modernist ideas, such as simple messages, iconography and strong forms
    • later this changed to a more traditional and illustrative approach preferred by Hitler
    • by the mid-1930s, the typography was regulated to only using the official Germanic black letter typefaces

WW II Allied powers (1933–1945)

  • Norman Rockwell’s posters may seem traditional and representative but they incorporate modernist concepts:
    • specific symbols included to strengthen the message
    • perspective is skewed to create room for the elements
    • there are no parts of the poster that do not contribute to the message
  • Other designers were inspired by European avant-garde, using simplified shapes, iconic imagery, and patriotic colours

Post-war optimism (1946–1964)

Continental USA was untouched by war, wartime restrictions on purchasing were removed, and the consumer market exploded.

  • explore new ways of communicating
  • modernism integrated into mainstream design
  • the public wanted fresh, new clean and simple solutions for graphic design, architecture and products
  • designers such as Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Saul Bass, Louis Danziger and Alvin Lustig used the Bauhaus concepts as a stylistic approach
  • simplicity and the less is more approach was employed, but exuberant colours and forms replaced the clinical perfection of disciplined modernism
  • printing technology was less accurate than today – simpler tones like a solid magenta reproduced better than a subtle and complex colour

Graphic design emerged as a profession in the 1950s. Before the war, graphic designers were considered commercial artists or art directors.

The fused metaphor (1945–1970)

  • 19th century: design primarily text-based; text and pattern were the only elements for communication
  • 1930s: combination of text and image; both tell the story
  • 1950s: a singular image as the primary element; must communicate an idea and tell the entire story
  • Symbols and metaphorical images – like a symbol of a heart – are fairly universal and faster to read than words.
  • The fused metaphor samples: filmstrip+flags (international film festival), brush+painted flag (US art exhibition), pencil+flag (US architects).
  • A viewer needs to decode the metaphors as riddles – the more time spent with the image, the better it will be remembered. The discovery of the meaning provides a sense of delight, as in, “Of course, now I get it.”

The New York School (1950–1965)

  • a commitment to the Modernist ideas of “less is more,” functionalism, and the use of images and geometric forms to convey a message
  • placed importance on the work being egalitarian, open and direct
  • common cultural symbols combined with verbiage to tell a new story, a symbiotic relationship between word and image
  • the poster for “Love in the Afternoon” doesn’t show a literal image of people engaged in illicit activity – the naughtiness is suggested with a hand closing the blind, the first step if one were to have an affair in the afternoon
  • simplicity, honesty, humour, and intelligence

Swiss typography (1955–1975)

Today, we take for granted that we set up a grid for layout, use The Golden Sections for proportion, and maintain mathematical consistency with type sizes. These are all the result of Swiss typography.

  • the International Style, or Swiss Typography, predominated European graphic design
  • a style that relied on order, mathematical proportions, and a rigid grid structure
  • typography and visual elements were scaled mathematically rather than intuitively
  • typography should be dynamic and functional, with only a single sans-serif typeface
  • flush-left, ragged right-alignment was preferred

American corporate identity (1950–1975)

Before the 1950s, corporate identity was a rather casual affair. Divisions often created their own version of logo and were autonomous in their design choices. Creating a cohesive identity program meant that an entire company now used one business card or letterhead design, allowing for centralized purchasing of printing and reducing costs. In marketing, one logo and visual style maintained a clear and unified message in a competitive landscape.

  • Logos designed in the 1950s and 60s were hard-edged and simple. Reproduction quality was variable, and sharp and clean forms work best across the spectrum.
  • Paul Rand recognized the power of the shortened acronym.
  • Large scale identity systems introduce the identity manual – a cohesive system with a set of rules for usage.

Protest (1963–1975)

During WW II, women and minorities experienced new freedoms – after the war, this changed as millions of troops were demobilized and absorbed back into the economy, and everyone else was told to go back to the old ways. By the mid-1960s, society exploded.

  • political activism has been a part of graphic design for centuries
  • graphic designers used their skills to communicate issues around civil rights, the antiwar movement, the environment, and women’s issues
  • the design of protest worked best when it was direct and to the point, with little chance of misinterpretation
  • non-designers also created much of the protest work – these publications were printed on small presses and the point was not high-end aesthetics and refinement but the urgency of the message
  • slick graphics were identified as being mainstream or Madison Avenue establishment
  • a new raw aesthetic emerged that treated design as an ephemeral messaging tool, rather than a piece of art

Fillmore posters and the counter-culture (1965–1970)

San Francisco was the port where many young men and women were discharged after WW II. Those that didn’t feel that they fit in back on the farm or the small town, stayed. The beat movement grew in the 1950s; the city became a haven for artists and writers, and by 1966, San Franciso was the epicenter of the counter-culture revolution.

A small group of designers began making posters to promote events at the Fillmore auditorium in 1966 – this was the height of the American corporate identity, Swiss typography and international style, but the Fillmore posters are 180 degrees from these:

  • a fluid and complex style
  • legible Swiss modernism was rejected in favour of a more organic and less rigid experience, with stylistic connections to Art Nouveau
  • amplified by the use of hallucinogenic drugs and other substances
  • a strong connection to the ideas of Art Nouveau, rejecting hard-edged modernism and consumer-driven culture
  • much of the work was silk screened or printed on small presses, often turned around quickly
  • typography was typically hand drawn – type setting was expensive, plus it gave the work a personal and organic approach
  • the colours vibrate and clash, often creating optical illusions

The Fillmore poster movement became the look of a new generation, and for the first time, posters were designed to be viewed in a personal rather than a public setting.

Typographic eclecticism (1963–1975)

Much of the design world in the 1960s and 1970s embraced Swiss modernism and Helvetica, another group of designers turned to an eclectic approach. Unlike the Fillmore posters, this work was rooted in ideas of decoration, expressive form, and the human touch, rather than rebellion and drugs. The best solutions took the forms and images from Victorian design and repurposed them for a contemporary audience.

Technology is a strong component of the shift as phototypesetting became the prevalent way of getting type. For decades, type was set in metal. With phototypesetting, a system existed that used a negative and film technology to generate letterforms – the finest of hairline rules, ultra-tight letter spacing, and highly complex letterforms could be generated and used by a designer.

Illustration began to replace photography as a way of embracing a warmer, less clinical and functional tone.

Swiss typography is considered to be aimed at a small elite, while Typographic Eclecticism is warmer and appeals to a wider mass audience.

The golden age of album design (1963–1985)

The designers of the late 1960s and 1970s working in this field were the first rockstar graphic designers. Other designers knew them by name, and they were promoted along with the covers. The styles were loose and open-ended. One cover might be modernist and simple; another, complex and decorative. There was no attachment to a specific idea. Budgets were large, and a designer could hire the best illustrators and photographers.

Japanese design (1950–1990)

  • Previous to WW II, Japan had remained fairly isolated and traditional. After WW II, the MacArthur Plan revived the Japanese economy and introduced social changes. Modernity and technology was embraced.
  • By the 1960s, Japanese design reflected an integration of Western ideas into a Japanese aesthetic.
  • From the mid-1960s to the 1970s, a new Japanese aesthetic emerged. It maintained ties to Swiss modernism and a preference for neutral geometric forms. Japanese techniques such as flattened shapes and high contrast were combined with a connection to mathematical proportions and minimal symbols.
  • Contemporary Japanese design combines the traditions and methods of Japan with modern ideas.

Yusaku Kamekura was an influential design leader in Japan. He worked to change the idea that the applied art such as graphic design was inferior to fine art. He founded the Japan Advertising Club and strengthened the position of graphic design as a professional discipline.

Punk and new wave (1973–1986)

Swiss typography and the International Style gave no allowance for anything unexpected, intuitive or playful. By the mid-1960s, a younger group of Swiss designers began to break some of the rules, inspired by the US typographic eclecticism of the 1960s:

  • explored the complexity of form, rather than rigid simplicity, and the layering of form and space
  • merged motion and dimension with information and concept
  • questioned the rules of typography – why was it wrong to change the weight of a typeface mid-sentence? Were there different ways to create a hierarchy with open letter spacing, angles and unexpected composition?
  • used film positives and negatives and typography to overlap information and texture
  • exposed the process and showed the half-tone docs, cut lines, and typographic accidents
  • colour palettes were inspired by Mexican, South American and Asian influences

The New Wave movement combined the functionalism of the Bauhaus, the energy of Constructivism, and the rigour of Swiss modernism. The addition of radical experimentation, expressive typography, and a high-tech colour palette created the movement. More importantly, it introduced a new approach that accepted intuition and play.

Low-Tech Seattle (1985–present)

Seattle, in the late 1980s and 90s, was a nexus of energy and movement in music and design. As the music scene exploded, the design world responded and created a unique style specific to that time and place.

  • the posters typically have low budgets and tight turnaround times
  • combines found images from books and low-end cultures, such as a 1970s catalogue from Sears, with bold typography
  • related to how the musicians wore thrift store items – no conscious attempt to create an appealing fashion; all about being cheap and durable, appealed to those focused on authenticity in their music
  • found imagery, raw typography, and a sense of immediacy
  • often with a wry sense of humour
  • an attitude of “we like it and that’s what matters”

Here less was not more – less was a bore. The success of this work is its lack of self-importance – ephemeral items that will be used and discarded, and don’t carry the weight of being high art or precious. Energetic, raw, and unapologetic.

Post-modernism (1977–present)

By the mid-1970s, modernism seemed to have run its course – the new generation was interested in self-expression and intuition. Graphic designers began exploring ideas such as decoration, pop culture, and historical, classical forms. The term applied to this is postmodernism.

  • form does not follow function – design can be expressive and ignore the function
  • elements can be appropriated from anywhere
  • typography can be self-referential and have alternative meanings
  • irony is a large component – the piece might borrow an idea from somewhere else and treat it satirically; or it may be ironic itself, mimicking another piece of design
  • relentless attention to the written language: words could be reconstructed to change the meaning, or broken apart to highlight a meaning – the representation of a word was more important than the information

Vernacular design refers to the language of common design. Rather than presenting the world in Helvetica, post-modern design borrowed from the language of the street. Typography borrowed from a car wash sign was as relevant as refined Caslon.

All work in the postmodern genre was designed to be analyzed from a historical, semiotic, and psychological point of view. The meaning of a collaged image, letter-spaced typography and colours was dissected and examined.

Low-Tech Seattle (1985–present)

Seattle, in the late 1980s and 90s, was a nexus of energy and movement in music and design. As the music scene exploded, the design world responded and created a unique style specific to that time and place.

  • the posters typically have low budgets and tight turnaround times
  • combines found images from books and low-end cultures, such as a 1970s catalogue from Sears, with bold typography
  • related to how the musicians wore thrift store items – no conscious attempt to create an appealing fashion; all about being cheap and durable, appealed to those focused on authenticity in their music
  • found imagery, raw typography, and a sense of immediacy
  • often with a wry sense of humour
  • an attitude of “we like it and that’s what matters”

Here less was not more – less was a bore. The success of this work is its lack of self-importance. These are ephemeral items that will be used and discarded. They don’t carry the weight of being high art or precious. They are energetic, raw, and unapologetic.

Digital revolution (1984–1994)

The Mac was released in 1984, revolutionizing the entire design industry.

  • The initial options were primitive: Helvetica or Times Roman, bitmapped images, and slow processing. Early work took the language of the medium, the bitmap, and exaggerated it – images were pixelated or degenerated. Digital errors in typography were highlighted. The idea of accident and imperfection was incorporated into the design.
  • The digital medium enhanced the idea of new-wave typography and three-dimensional space. Typography became radically three-dimensional and layered. A solution that would have required days of creating with multiple layers of physical films could now be easily created and manipulated.
  • Democratization of design: anyone could design an invitation, logo, or flyer. A clear split occurred between civilians who made low-end design such as in-house newsletters and high-end design created by trained designers.
  • Font design moved from the control of a small group of highly trained experts to a discipline open to everyone.

Perhaps the most revolutionary shift in graphic design was the change from a designer as an art director to an editor and creator.

California Design, West Coast shift (1984–present)

After WW II, many designers made the move from New York and Europe to the West Coast, seeing the opportunity to work in new ways in a less crowded design marketplace. Isolation created community. Designers in LA and SanFran gathered together in informal meetings where they shared ideas and techniques. With less competition, they openly collaborated and worked as a whole to succeed.

The ethos of teaching was inherent in the California design scene since the 1940s. On the East Coast, teaching was a secondary profession that a designer might do after retiring, or something to do if one had extra time. In California, it was a given that education was integral to the profession. This led to a flourishing of work that was fresh and unexpected.

By the 1960s, the surf and skate culture influenced designers with a casual attitude and DIY approach. These posters introduced concepts that would be used by the Fillmore posters in San Francisco and typographic eclecticism in New York a few years later.

The entertainment industry provided an opportunity to work in different media. Saul Bass’s film titles revolutionized moviemaking. His graphic and minimal sensibility created titles that are imitated today.

In the 1980s, the New Wave movement flourished in California. The work took post-modern forms and mixed classical typography, flat shapes, illustration, and photography. The result was work that might have been done at the Bauhaus if the Bauhaus had been somewhere sunny.

Today, the largest percentage of designers in the US work on the West Coast. The values of education, exploration, and freedom nurtured the industry, creating an international influence.


The history of graphic design is complex and multilayered. Graphic design history is the concrete history of our culture. If reflects the attitudes, beliefs and events of a time and place. The artifacts designers created are the physical manifestations of a time. A poster from the Futurists is about more than energetic lines and colors. It reflects a society grappling with new inventions and ideas.

The best graphic design works at a visceral level, speaking to the viewer emotionally. Graphic design history tells us who we were and not what we thought, but what we felt.