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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