Final Thoughts on the History of Graphic Design

Dec 11

This reflection might be a little long, so I apologize in advance! To briefly summarize, I learned so much more than I anticipated in this class, and I think it really helped me better understand the principles of design and why they matter.

While Meggs’ History of Graphic Design  was organized chronologically, I don’t think that this organization was just because it was easiest or because it’s meant to strictly be a history lesson. Each chapter of the book gives perspective on what caused the trends/advances of each time period, and also provides insight on how each advance prepared for the next advances that are detailed in the next chapter. It’s this cause-and-effect relationship that I feel really helped me understand how design came to be what it currently is. Here are a few of the insights I gained from this class.

  • Graphic design’s history does not start with the first book or poster–it starts with the origin of writing. Writing came about as a way to visualize and memorialize complex information that is not easily remembered, like trading records or ‘how-to’ instructions. With writing came the need to organize the information so others could easily understand what the writing was communicating (i.e. graphic design).
  • Our western understanding of communication is very different from that of eastern languages, and this is not due to purely cultural reasons. Language itself is pretty similar worldwide, in that sounds are used to communicate ideas; however, the recordkeeping of language developed so differently because of the ideologies behind the writing systems. English (along with many other languages) is based on Latin characters, which are very far removed from their roots. Latin characters trace their origin back to pictographs, just as Eastern languages do. The difference is that Latin characters evolved to represent the sounds of oral language, while Eastern characters maintained the “idea” of the words rather than the sounds. This, in particular, was mind-blowing to me!
  • Graphic design as we know it today sprang from the realization of our ancestors that written communication looks and feels better with pictures. While this sounds pretty obvious in hindsight, I never really looked at graphic design in this functional way before. The art aspect of graphic design was not always a given–there was a time where graphic design really was just a record of information. Nothing more, nothing less.
  • I had already known that the Gutenberg press was what propelled graphic design to  where it is now, but I had never thought about what it really meant for society before this class. Manuscripts were so difficult and time-consuming to make before the Gutenberg press that only a select few could have access to them, and even fewer were taught how to read them. Written words were not a part of everyday life. The Gutenberg press suddenly made written language accessible to a much wider audience, and as a result, more people had the opportunity to learn to read. Technological advances, religious ideas, and even recreational activities would not be where they are today if the Gutenberg press had never been invented.
  • Photography’s role in the evolution of graphic design is something I was not aware of. I always thought of photography as something separate from printing, like it sprang into existence and then people realized photos could be inserted into type designs. That is definitely not the case! Even before photos were added to designs, printers realized that the photo-sensitive chemicals used in photography could be used to eliminate most of the manual work involved in their printing operations. Now, the vast majority of printed works are produced by offset printing, which utilizes the same photographic chemicals used when chromolithography was discovered.
  • As for the art side of graphic design, I had no idea what led to the widespread use of International Design and why its tenets are so important today. I always thought of each period of design as trends, rather than reactions to what designers had done previously. It was a real eye-opener to see how ornate Victorian and Rococo design led to the simpler Art Nouveau designs, and the messiness of Art Nouveau led to the more orderly Constructivism, and on and on. I have never enjoyed Art Nouveau or Postmodern design, but I can now appreciate what led designers of those times to create what they created.
  • I still don’t have much of a grasp on what design era we’re in right now, but I can at least see more clearly what is influencing current designers. Graphic design for publications now seems to adhere a little more closely to grid-based designs and ample use of negative space, and there is a lot of experimentation with type outside of ad design. Ad design is very grid based and full-color photography seems to be preferred over the use of a restrained color palette. I think there is a lot of style confusion going on because type and graphic tools/software are accessible to laypeople now. Only time will tell, but I feel like we’re in a period very similar to the Victorian era, where there is little inhibition with mixing styles.

I am so glad I took this class and that I didn’t rent this book. Even if artistically I am still a beginner, having the historical perspective to graphic design has already made me look at my designs with more thoughtfulness.

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Module 10 Reading: SHV Thinkbook

Dec 04

My eyes were immediately drawn to the SHV Think Book in this week’s module–I knew I needed to find out more about it. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design briefly touches on its origin, but does not really explain what makes it exemplary.

irma2_grandeAs the book states, Irma Boom developed the Think Book over five years, and its intent is to communicate the company’s history over the hundred-year span of 1896 to 1996. She worked in collaboration with art historian Johan Pijappel to ensure its accuracy and traveled to Amsterdam, Paris, London and Vienna during her research.

What makes this book a piece of art is not just its format: Boom uses a series holes in the beginning of the book that get progressively smaller to communicate the unknown future. Once the holes stop, the history begins. Her narrative is told through pictures, text, patterns, and color to create an experience for the reader. She did not provide a table of contents or number the pages, since the book itself is a journey.

tumblr_ni2tofvjar1rsqyibo1_400Irma Boom is still publishing books, and her method is just as amazing as her most famous book. She creates tiny versions of the books she is designing so she can see how her ideas work with the structure of the books. One of her most recent designs was deemed the most beautiful book in the world at the Liepzig Fair.

Sources:

Worthpoint.com

graphicdesignwomen.com

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Module 8 Reading: Akzidenz and Sans-Serifs

Nov 20

I had already been familiar with International Type Style’s fondness for sans-serifs, but I never really thought about what fonts the founders preferred to use. Helvetica is pretty much the go-to sans for grid lovers today, so I guess my mind never bothered to go much further when thinking about the beginning of international style. In Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, I was surprised to see that Helvetica didn’t go hand-in-hand with the movement, and that Akzidenz was actually the preferred font in the early years of the style.

Source: http://showinfo.rietveldacademie.nl/akzidenz-grotesk/

Source: http://showinfo.rietveldacademie.nl/akzidenz-grotesk/

We previously learned about the “invention” of sans-serifs in the letterpress days. Akzidenz first debuted in 1898. Sans-serifs, as we know from prior modules, were not used widely by graphic artists at the time; as such, the sans-serifs being produced were typically based on popular serif fonts. One website I came across actually shows the similarities between Akzidenz and its contemporaries Didot and Walbaum.

As the International Type Style gained steam, Akzidenz became popular and inspired multiple modern sans-serifs, such as Neue Haas (now Helvetica). Helvetica quickly took over Akzidenz’s spot as the “go-to” sans, and once again Akzidenz appeared to fade into graphic design history.

Source: myfonts.com

Source: myfonts.com

In truth, Akzidenz has remained a very popular font, though most would not recognize it by its name. In my search for its history, I found that Akzidenz has been adapted for modern technology and is now a best-selling font on myfonts.com. Additionally, Linotype produced their own version of Akzidenz, but called it Basic Commercial to avoid copyright issues. While Helvetica has the name recognition, Akzidenz is really the true “ultimate” sans-serif; it still fits wonderfully in modern graphic design after three centuries, competing foundries and multiple technological advances.

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Module 7 Reading: Futura

Nov 13

Source: idsgn.org

Source: idsgn.org

Futura is one of those fonts that stands out without calling attention to itself. After reading about its origin in this week’s assignment, it’s really no surprise how successful it is at conveying the purpose of the new typography movement. When I first saw the specimen in Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, I could visualize a government sign I see every now and then around town, and it made me wonder just how often it pops up in everyday life. The answer is: quite a lot!

In addition to its more generic uses, Futura is also used frequently in branding. It’s no surprise to me that many of the companies using Futura have a classic, almost elegant feel, without being ornate or gaudy. This montage is just a few of the examples I came across.

futura-origWhat I think is interesting is how different Renner’s initial drafts of Futura ended up being from what we know today. Renner appears to have taken a much more literal geometric approach to Futura. I doubt Futura would have endured and prospered the way it has had he not refined and simplified his type design.

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Module 5 Reading: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Oct 30

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is a well-known painter from France. I was surprised to see his name in Meggs’ History of Graphic Design as a printer; however, though I never connected him to print work, his Moulin Rouge poster seemed very familiar to me. I looked him up online, and sure enough he did have quite a few posters under his belt. From what it says on toulouse-lautrec-foundation.org, most of his posters were commissioned and appeared to be due his constant presence in bordellos and brothels.

Source: toulouse-lautrec-foundation.org

Source: toulouse-lautrec-foundation.org

The difference between his painting and his print work is noticeable. While his posters certainly reflected the technology and trends of the time, the lack of detail and the use of large blocks of color are in stark contrast from his delicate, careful paintings. I think that when taking both into consideration, it’s easier to see why he played such a large role in the artistic progress of the Art Nouveau era. He was able to create unique viewing experiences no matter the method of creation.

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Module 4 Reading: Lithography and Presses

Oct 23

I found the descriptions of the innovations in printing to be very interesting this module. While we had already read about hand presses, it wasn’t until our reading about the “battle” between traditional letterpresses and chromolithography that I took a deeper interest in how these different methods work.

I know that letterpresses are pretty limited in what they can do, but I still think the results can look great. I found some modern versions of the hand press for pretty cheap on dickblick.com, and a quick search on the Internet yielded some neat modern pieces others have made. Some printers are making dies from digital fonts and then pressing them on paper–it reminds me of William Morris’ reimaginings of Renaissance-era typography. If I decide to get a press, though, I would be more excited about creating with wooden dies.

Source: mcescher.com

Source: mcescher.com

My interest was also piqued when the method of lithography was described. It’s one of those methods that seems like it should have been discovered centuries ago. It’s so intuitive to use oil-based ink to create prints on wet stone, and it makes me wonder why I didn’t think of it! M.C. Escher was a lithographer, but I never knew what that meant until now. It makes his works so much more amazing to know how they were made.

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