Graphic of the late 19th and early 20th

Graphic design, the art and profession of selecting and arranging visual elements—such as typography, images, symbols, and colours—to convey a message to an audience.

Sometimes graphic design is called “visual communications,” a term that emphasizes its function of giving form—e.g., the design of a book, advertisement, logo, or Web site—to information. An important part of the designer’s task is to combine visual and verbal elements into an ordered and effective whole. Graphic design is therefore a collaborative discipline: writers produce words and photographers and illustrators create images that the designer incorporates into a complete visual communication.The evolution of graphic design as a practice and profession has been closely bound to technological innovations, societal needs, and the visual imagination of practitioners. Graphic design has been practiced in various forms throughout history; indeed, strong examples of graphic design date back to manuscripts in ancient China, Egypt, and Greece.

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As printing and book production developed in the 15th century, advances in graphic design developed alongside it over subsequent centuries, with compositors and typesetters often designing pages as they set the type. In the late 19th century, graphic design emerged as a distinct profession in the West, in part because of the job specialization process that occurred there, and in part because of the new technologies and commercial possibilities brought about by the Industrial Revolution. New production methods led to the separation of the design of a communication medium (e.g., a poster) from its actual production.

Increasingly, over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advertising agencies, book publishers, and magazines hired art directors who organized all visual elements of the communication and brought them into a harmonious whole, creating an expression appropriate to the content. In 1922 typographer William A. Dwiggins coined the term graphic design to identify the emerging field. Throughout the 20th century, the technology available to designers continued to advance rapidly, as did the artistic and commercial possibilities for design.

The profession expanded enormously, and graphic designers created, among other things, magazine pages, book jackets, posters, compact-disc covers, postage stamps, packaging, trademarks, signs, advertisements, kinetic titles for television programs and motion pictures, and Websites. By the turn of the 21st century, graphic design had become a global profession, as advanced technology and industry spread throughout the world. Typography is discussed in this essay as an element of the overall design of a visual communication; for a complete history, see typography. Similarly, the evolution of the printing process is discussed in this essay as it relates to developments in graphic design.

Printing, traditionally, a technique for applying under pressure a certain quantity of colouring agent onto a specified surface to form a body of text or an illustration. Certain modern processes for reproducing texts and illustrations, however, are no longer dependent on the mechanical concept of pressure or even on the material concept of colouring agent. In the 17th century, English printmaking produced a portrait engraver of considerable stature, William Faithorne. He studied in France and initially was under the influence of Mellan and Nanteuil; in his late work, however, he developed a style independent of theirs.

Faithorne was England’s only major native printmaker during this period, when most prints were reproductive engravings. By the end of the century, engraving was in total decline, replaced by the fashionable mezzotint. Throughout history, technological inventions have shaped the development of graphic art. In 2500 BC, the Egyptians used graphic symbols to communicate their thoughts in a written form known as hieroglyphics. The Egyptians wrote and illustrated narratives on rolls of papyrus to share the stories and art with others.

During the Middle Ages, scribes manually copied each individual page of manuscripts to maintain their sacred teachings. The scribes would leave marked sections of the page available for artists to insert drawings and decorations. Using art alongside the carefully lettered text enhanced the religious reading experience. Johannes Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical device known as the printing press in 1450, the first outside of Asia.

His printing press facilitated the mass-production of text and graphic art and eventually, replaced manual transcriptions altogether. Again during the Renaissance years, graphic art in the form of printing played a major role in the spread of classical learning in Europe. Within these manuscripts, book designers focused heavily on typeface. Due to the development of larger fonts during the Industrial Revolution, posters became a popular form of graphic art used to communicate the latest information as well as to advertise the latest products and services. The invention and popularity of film and television changed graphic art through the additional aspect of motion as advertising agencies attempted to use kinetics to their advantage.

The next major change in graphic arts came when the personal computer was invented in the twentieth century. Powerful computer software enables artists to manipulate images in a much faster and simpler way than the skills of board artists prior to the 1990s. With quick calculations, computers easily recolor, scale, rotate, and rearrange images if the programs are known. The scientific investigations into legibility has influenced such things as the design of street signs. New York City is in the process of changing out all of its street signs bearing all capital letters for replacement with signs bearing only upper and lower case letters.

They estimate that the increased legibility will facilitate way-finding and reduce crashes and injuries significantly.The design styles are different because the viewers’ needs were different. You couldn’t, for instance, take the neon geometric patterns of the 80s and use them to instill a sense of patriotism in people after World War II. Taking a look at some of the iconic designs through the decades, it’s easy to see how much graphic design has evolved as the world around us changed.

Here are some designs that stand out to me (for better or worse) from each decade. The most notable examples of graphic design in the 40s can be split into two groups. World War II designs, especially propaganda posters, and the advertising boom that followed the war. Design in general during this time became more in-your face in terms of graphics, icons and text.

Less copy was being included, and instead, ads were relying on huge, often startling slogans. Design in the 50s had a bit of everything. The entire decade was packed full of interesting and often bizarre designs. Sex in advertising became huge, especially with the publication of the first issue of Playboy magazine. Sex was used frequently to sell everything from cigarettes to socks. There was an overall theme of “happy, beautiful people” in advertising, so if there happened to be a product that a sexy woman couldn’t sell, a smiling family around a dinner table seemed to do the trick. The kitschier the better! It’s hard to think of a decade that tried harder to be cool, (to varying levels of success) than the 1980s.

This was an interesting time for design and had its own very distinct style. Think geometric patterns, complementary color schemes and technology as a glimpse into the future. (Seriously, people in the 80s loved to depict the future.)


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