Graphic Design – Where it all Began

In this sophisticated age of instant imagery and mind-bogglingly slick marketing, you’d think the concept of graphic design is the creative domain of these modern times.

But you’d be wrong.

The trend-setters of the art nouveau movement, the fashionistas of London’s Carnaby Street in the trendy sixties and the gadget-inventing geeks of Silicon Valley, might have seen themselves as pioneering innovators when, in fact, they’ve all gate-crashed the visual communications party. Graphic design was getting its act together long before then.

The modern graphics, branding and digital marketing with which we are familiar, is merely the latest step in a graphical evolution that can trace its roots back to some of the world’s most ancient civilisations – when they had absolutely no exposure to technology at all.

When we speak of graphic design, what we are referring to is “visual communication” – a term that means giving form to information. It could be the design of a company logo, advertisement, sales brochure or website. But the basic concept is consistent: combining visual elements of images, colours, symbols and, often, words as well.  It’s a collaborative discipline turned into an overall package by the graphic designer, which should – if it’s doing its job properly – produce impactful, persuasive messages that leave a favourable impression with the viewer.

But, as mentioned, there’s nothing new in this. Graphic design has been around in various guises for donkey’s years. Indeed, you can find examples of the art form dating back to manuscripts in ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Back then, the manuscript creators probably weren’t aware they were sowing the seeds for a future graphic design industry, but these ancient documents reveal the conscious efforts that went into blending text and imagery to convey a message or storyline in the most effective way possible.

An early example, which we’ll forgive you if you haven’t read, is the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead which contained hieroglyphic narratives, written by scribes and embellished with colourful illustrations on rolls of papyrus.

In Persia, from as early as the 10th century within their tradition of miniature painting, book manuscripts contained masterful levels of artistic and graphic technique.

What really accelerated graphics development, however, was the proliferation of wide scale book production, especially from the 15th century onwards in Britain and Europe, where typesetters would often put design into the page as they set the type.

The emergence of the Industrial Revolution opened up a swathe of new commercial opportunities, especially in the more advanced western world. As new production methods came into play, this led to the separation of design as a specific process within the medium of communication. By the late 19th century, graphic design was becoming established as a recognised industry in its own right.

From the early 20th century, the advent of advertising agencies, magazine and book publishers had specialist departments devoted to graphic interpretation Yet, interestingly, although graphic design had been practised for centuries as we have seen, the actual term ‘graphic design’ was apparently coined as recently as 1922, by a typographer called William A Dwiggins. How many of today’s graphic designers and illustrators would have heard of him!

Anyway, with the advancement of technology that occurred during the last century, the profession expanded rapidly, spawning the ubiquitous graphic design industry that we know today. Designers turned their hand to magazine pages, book covers, posters, postage stamps, record sleeves and CD covers, packaging, trademarks, corporate identity, signage, advertisements, kinetic titles for TV programmes and the motion picture industry and, most recently, websites. Where to next…..?

As technology expands at a dizzying pace and continues to play an ever greater part in our daily lives, graphic design seems as irreplaceable as ever.  It may have been “invented” long ago.  Its longevity simply confirms what a great idea it was and continues to be!