100+ years of graphic design

we’ve been around for a while now, but certainly not a century yet!

DwigginsThe studio has been thriving since 1992. I mean I have begun a series on great art directors of the past, starting at the turn of 20th century transitioning to the modern era, the influence of which continues to this day. First, William Morris, then Czech artist Alphonse Mucha who flourished in the brief period known to art history as Art Nouveau. A decade or so later the term “graphic design” was introduced by William Addison Dwiggins, an American type designer, calligrapher and illustrator who did much to reform book design after his collaboration with publisher Alfred Knopf.

The roots of graphic design as the discipline we know today go back to prehistory, from Cro-Magnon cave art 43,000 years ago and Sumerian cuneiform more than 5,000 years ago to the invention of printing with wood blocks in the Tang dynasty period of China (618-907 AD) and illuminated manuscripts like The Lindisfarne Gospels at left, circa 700 AD almost 100 years before the Vikings began their raids of England.

Fast forward 1,200 years to the end of the 19th century, when developing industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities led artists to concern with the contrast between the vanishing old world and the challenges of the Machine Age. Disillusionment with reason spawned interest in the irrational and the instinctive. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis became a major cultural factor. This blog series begins its overview at this point in the timeline.

Western culture (rapidly becoming worldwide, however) has been philosophically materialistic since the so-called Age of Enlightenment in Europe of the late 17th century when the rational mind and individualism became emphasized over tradition, hence the images we’re immersed in today reflect supply and demand for material objects as opposed to, for example, the 12th century when religion dominated European life. Rather than express a political point of a view on that, I hope only to share an appreciation of the talent and technical skill which informs the mediascape which virtually everyone within range of Western civilization consumes. I will leave it to you the reader to form your own opinion once you’ve had this brief overview.

I will say, however, that it seems to me artists and designers have contributed to culture in a somewhat independent manner. I mean that they worship at the altar of beauty first, and secondly at the altar of worldly prosperity (though I sometimes wonder about Michelangelo). FlammarionThe ones I think of as art directors have functioned as middlemen between corporations and the public, whether the corporate body was religious or secular, so in subsequent posts I intend to look even further back in time as well to celebrate the role of the graphic designer on the world stage, or rather behind the scenes most of the time, that creature who delights in skilfully arranging words and pictures in the service of clarity.

Artists of all types, including illustrators, who have the most relevance for graphic design, have the job of envisioning our world, communicators of the invisible. That may sound a bit grandiose at first, but communication means the difference between success and failure in any enterprise.

In addition to exploring the profound influence the juxtaposition of words and images has on culture, I will offer relevant tips and insights based on decades of experience as a graphic designer, so you’re invited to return often for new blogs.

All of the work seen in our portfolios is synergistic, the result of collaboration between writers, designers, illustrators, publishers, editors, programmers, printers and, most importantly, the clients. As always, your point of view is welcome, so please email.

~ Robert Grey