The History of Graphic Design 1890–1959 is a hefty book with an equally weighty mission – to chart the most iconic and important landmark works of the global graphic design industry. Aiming to aggregate such a wealth of work in one place, and be representative, is no small undertaking but the impressive title holds its own. Beginning with essays by the book’s author Jens Müller and fellow writer David Jury in English, French and German, the following large format pages are filled with a chronological, pictorial evolution of the medium throughout the years, a timeline of vital reference material for anyone studying, practicing or passionate about graphic design’s impact on the world. Here we publish an adapted extract from Jens’ introduction to volume one of his vast project.
The roadside billboard advertising an event, the hotel booking app, the news magazine bought at the kiosk, the arrivals and departures boards at the airport, the traffic signs on the freeway – or even this book – are but a few specific examples of the countless millions of things that have had to be created. They all belong in the world of graphic design, which for the past 150 years or so has had a dramatic impact on the way our world looks. Of course, methods of communication had been around long before this, for instance, we only have to think of Johannes Gutenberg and the printing revolution he started in the 15th century, however, the customised marketing of products and services only came into being with the industrialisation of graphic design.
The transition to the digital age once again increased the importance of visual communication. The worlds of business, science, culture, and politics could not function without professionally created design solutions, and the same is true of the public sector. Over the past 100 years, the range of available media formats has expanded considerably, and an even greater leap forward came with the breakthrough of digital media in the 1990s. Even so, the basics remained largely unchanged, whether the work of a graphic designer was to create an advertisement, such as a billboard, or a distinguishing mark, such as a logo. Other works might give directions, as in a signposting system, or provide information, as with an infographic, or again arrange texts and illustrations in proper order, such as for a magazine layout.
From the very beginnings of design history, graphic designers have taken decidedly different approaches. Even now, the profession embraces a huge spectrum of people working in their own way, from uncompromising avant-gardists to design contractors driven purely by commercial interests. In the course of history, members of both camps have been eager to innovate, as in the 1940s, for example, when leading U.S. publishers introduced state-of-the-art design to mass-market magazines, which in turn had an effect on periodicals put out by independent publishers.
Then, in the 1970s, came an era of experimentation, set against the backdrop of the British punk scene, where new visual trends emerged which in their turn reappeared in far less radical and far more commercial contexts. Accordingly, this book examines works created for the mainstream culture industry just as much as solutions intended to target small audiences in different sub-cultures.Alongside the commercially and culturally motivated fields of application, graphic design has time and again served as a driving force, giving a face to political and social issues and playing a role that should not be undervalued, especially so during turbulent times in world politics.
However, the past has shown that visual communications can be used in the cause of both good and evil. The designer Helmut Schmid’s claim that “design is attitude” and the statements in Ken Garland’s famous First Things First manifesto, published in 1964, are no less important today than they were at the time when they first appeared. It is hard to predict the direction graphic design will take from here, in terms of both content and aesthetics. With intelligent software making massive progress in every type of computer application, individual creativity, inventiveness, and the exploration of visual possibilities are likely to gain ever-increasing importance. Looking back can be both invigorating and inspiring.
The History of Graphic Design 1890–1959 is published by Taschen.