The evolution of graphic design, as the process of visual communication, up to the present time

‘Graphic Design’ as the process of visual communication and problem-solving uses one or more of typography, photography and illustration to form visual representations of ideas and messages.  Although the term ‘Graphic Design’ only became popular from 1922 onwards (Dwiggins, 1922; Abbe, 2015), graphic design-like activities span human existence. The essence of Graphic Design is to give order to information, form to ideas, expression, and feeling to artifacts that document human experience (Meggs, Philip B., 1983).

01a5da3cce5f711f929c645d1e9a45bcGraphic design has been continuously in progress and, in a way, each time it is through technological automation that a previously established process becomes transformed. It could be seen, in a broader sense, as an increase in the automation of publishing or of visual communication itself. The change arose when there was a need for it. It is a direct result of the technology, in the form of tools, techniques, systems and processes that were put in place to increase the output of printed material.

As early as the Middle-Ages we can see that certain changes occurred that were caused by scholars who had the need for more structure and were looking for a more efficient way or method to study their texts or scriptures. So design changes were not brought about by technical innovation alone, the architecture of the book was a Medieval invention too. (Drucker, 2009) 

The written products of Medieval monasteries and courts laid the foundation for secular and commercial practices in private and public life. As scholarship increased, the form of the book developed. A radical design change occurred, as the serial (linear) access mode of the scroll shifted to the random access mode of the codex with its graphic navigational systems. Format features still integral to book design were invented, and visual knowledge was generated and sustained. The great legacy of classical and theological literature was preserved and studied, and conventions for illustration and graphic forms of information were established. The secularization of knowledge amid changing cultural conditions was marked by the emergence of publishing practices that were poised to flourish with the arrival of printing. (p 53)

In fact the transformation of graphic design into an industry has always run parallel to the evolution of ‘publishing’ or the publishing industry.

In late 19th-century Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, the first official publication of a printed design was released, marking the separation of graphic design from fine art.

This was the time of the first industrial revolution. Technology was everywhere, and as society became more and more complex and technological, there suddenly was a need to instruct and inform people. The medium was paper, with printed information that needed to be ‘designed’.

Everybody at that time used the paper medium to distribute information. The news and publishing industry, advertising, the government, all used the same medium to disseminate information.

Each new technology has seen a shift in contemporary graphic design aesthetics, and design historians have made detailed studies of the impact of each change in both working methods and materials. The development of photolithography between the 1920s and 1950s, for instance, prefigured a widespread shift to the inclusion of photographs – rather than woodcuts, etchings and hand drawn illustrations – within a range of inexpensive printed matter such as posters and magazines. Similarly, the late 1980s and 1990s saw the development of a range of previously inconceivable design methods which could be achieved only through the use of computer technology. (Noble and Bestley, 2004)

De_Vinne_1904_-_Linotype_machine_diagramDuring the early 20th century, European designers from different schools and countries including Soviet constructivists, French and German Dadaists and the Bauhaus school in Germany, embraced the experimental ideas of ‘avant-garde’ design. The study of applied arts became more and more sustained by new manifestos, theories and entirely new design and production processes. As technology developed rapidly, specially after the reaction to the horror of the First World War, these avant-garde ideas became well established in the mainstream, ushering in the new era of ‘Modernism’ in which “Make it New!” was the catch-cry of the movement’s approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past. Graphic design became heavily influenced by new inventions and non-traditional uses of photography, film and dynamic typography.

In Switzerland around 1960, before the computer made its entrance as a useful popular creative tool, designers like Karl Gerstner and Josef Müller-Brockmann defined new processes and computational grids and techniques to facilitate a better way to design. These systematic or mathematical ‘tools’ caused a revolution in the way designers used layout and typography. The Swiss school formulated the origins of a new form of hyper functionalism. Gerstner developed a comprehensive system capable of generating a broad range of design solutions, and he connected this system to the evolving field of computer programming. (Armstrong, 2009)

How much computers change – or can change – not only the procedure of the work but the work itself. (Gerstner, 1968)

Gerstner’s ‘programmes’ lay at the very foundation of how designers would later work with electronic layout systems and creative design software.

Around the same time, new trends in pop-art also started to use more technology based techniques and reproduction processes as a reaction to the explosion of reproduced images in media and society. In 1963 Andy Warhol famously told Gene Swenson of Art News that he wanted everybody to be a machine and the reason that he was painting with the use of silkscreen is that he wanted to be a machine. “I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do” (Warhol, 1964). In his studio called The Factory he started to make silkscreen prints in an automated way. In a simplified form of manufacturing, Warhol was the one to choose the subject and decide the composition but someone else did the manual work of printing and handling the artworks. Warhol would then manipulate the piece to place his mark on it as the artist.

An important note here is that with each new technological invention the so called ‘hand of the artist’ becomes less important and less visible. More time will be spent on this topic at a later stage.

With the arrival of the computer, more specifically the Apple Mac in the 1980s and 90s, designers were able to instantly see the effects of their layout or typographical changes without using ink in the process. Not only did computers greatly speed up and facilitate the traditional design process, they also gave a completely new outlook to sketching and idea formation, enabling designers to virtually create endless generations of a one work/concept with new easy to master tools as the mouse and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) software programs for the manipulation of layout, typography and vector, and of photography or bitmap images.

In such a way Graphic Design, the applied art form that in its own time emerged from new technologies in the print and publication industry had developed and shifted into what we now call Digital Design. ‘Digital Design’ is a general, cross-disciplinary term used to describe all the design that is done with the use of a computer (not to be confused with Computer-aided design (CAD) which is the use of computer systems to aid in the creation, modification, analysis, or optimization of an ‘engineering’ design. It was strongly driven by hardware innovation, the availability of constantly improved graphic software packages but would soon experience yet another technological revolution in the form of online communication possibilities such as email and the access to information on the Internet (Although the term Digital Design can be used for the design of online and new media work, it is not the same as New Media Design. It refers more to the digital aspect of the tool and can for example be used for offline and print work, for architecture and fashion design).

In a digital media process all input data are converted into numbers. In terms of communication and representational media this ‘data’ usually takes the form of qualities such as light or sound or represented space which have already been coded into a ‘cultural form’ (actual ‘analogues’), such as written text, graphs and diagrams, photographs, recorded moving images, etc. These are then processed and stored as numbers and can be output in that form from online sources, digital disks, or memory drives to be decoded and received as screen displays, dispatched again through telecommunications networks or output as ‘hard copy’. (Lister 2009)

In the early 1990s Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva, had recently developed the World Wide Web. Marc Andreessen recruited a team of programmers to create a better way to explore the Web. After two months of 80-hour weeks in the computer lab, living on chocolate chip cookies and milk, Andreessen and his team churned out a graphical browser called Mosaic, which used pictures and mouse clicks to navigate through information. This would be the beginning of an entirely new format and a new medium was born.

Graphic Design as a craft and a process to display information went way beyond what it originally was meant to do. It adapted to, or absorbed, elements from anthropology within user experience design, from Human Computer Interaction (HCI) within interaction design, from product and industrial design, from computer science within user interface design, from communication design, content creation (The designer as author, Rock, 1996), and from architecture within information architecture, and visual design.

Website design for example crosses multiple disciplines of information systems, information technology and communication design. It is a user-centered design system with several layers, also known as the five planes of user experience (Garrett, 2002). The observable content is known as the front-end or in Garrett’s terminology or the surface. The back-end is the functional design and the coding or software engineering. Depending on the size of the project, a multi-skilled individual web master, or a project manager, may be required to oversee collaboration design between group members with specialized skills. One of the manifestations of new media design has been the merging of the programming and design worlds, creating new hybrid professions and areas of expertise, skills and trans-disciplinary collaborations.

The 1990s we saw the emergence of a new breed of computational designers like John Maeda, who crossed the bridge between designers who could code and engineers who could design, combining business, design, and technology. Maeda believes that the quality of media art and design can only improve through establishing educational infrastructure in arts and technology schools that create strong, cross-disciplinary individuals.

At MIT, the full-time graduate studio that I administer attracts a uniquely gifted lot:

people who have a fundamental balance issue in the way they approach the computer as an expressive medium. On the one hand, they don’t want the programming code to get in the way of their designs or artistic desires; on the other hand, without hesitation they write sophisticated computer codes to discover new visual pathways. The two sides of their minds are in continual conflict. The conclusion is simple for them. Do both. (Maeda, 2007)

Other designers from the 90s had a more rebellious approach to design. They used their computers as a tool to break with all the rules of Graphic Design. They often digitalized everyday ‘found’ images and combined them with a free use of form and typography.


Deconstructing traditional design.

Using the Macintosh, David Carson broke free from the rules of classical graphic design and tried things with fonts that had never been done – purposely distressing them and mixing styles. As art director of Ray Gun magazine; he invented new typographical and layout techniques to create his distinctive look and usher in a new era of independent magazines. (Apple Inc., 2014) 

Peter Weibel’s 8-stage historical model of the progressive development of technologies of image production and transmission, spans around 160 years and is an important initial concept of the ideas of new media (Weibel, 1996). Surprisingly we already find ourselves in the beginning of the eight and last stage of his model. In this particular stage, related to Kurzweil’s singularity moment, humans look for sensory technologies to link the brain as directly as possible to the digital realm. Weibel’s ideas had a major influence on the evolution of interface design, and what was become user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design.

Today the new digital character and the consistent connectivity to the Internet have made new media design more accessible to everyone. It is an attempt to reach the final step in the democratization of design and creativity. New media are fundamentally participatory. Henry Jenkins (2009) has defined participatory culture as one:

    1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
    2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
    3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
    4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
    5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

This new form of social, collective or collaborative creativity, is one of the main aspects of new media that will, at a critical point, ask for a reassessment of the role of design as we experience it in society and for the revaluation of the profession of design in general. It is also one of the main questions for this research.

The online sharing culture, the ubiquitous social media channels, and the massive popularity of mobile apps that distribute media and at the same time are a tool to create, edit and publish personal media onto the same channels is changing the way designers work. This is where automation really plays the role of facilitator and gives to everybody the skill to produce creative work without much thought or effort. Or, in other words, instant results.

In his paper ‘From Borges to HTML’, Lev Manovich showed a diverse set of facets of new media. He links, for example, new media to a particular historical period that is more relevant to new media than any other – that of the 1920s (more precisely, the years between 1915 and 1928). During this period the avant-garde artists and designers invented a whole new set of visual and spatial languages and communication techniques that we still use today (Manovich, 2001).

With ‘The Language of New Media’, Manovich also did important work to define new media, what it is and what is it not. He gives a definition, claiming that the aspects of new media allow easy automation:

The numerical coding of media (p1) and the modular structure of a media object (p2) allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part. (Manovich, 2001)

The intangibility and 100% digital character of the end product in new media design, the process of working with new media theoretically allows for complete automation of the entire process of New Media Design. In light of this it must be acknowledged that brands, technology giants, digital marketing and social media companies especially are looking for ways to automate the entire online advertising process with the use of Artificial Intelligent tools, algorithms, and data mining to reach the final ability of mass customization.

Digital design is so pinpointed, straight obsessed with devices and their development, that most of the other issues and general topics of design are completely overlooked.


  2.  Mass customization is often seen as one of the main goals of Industry 4.0.

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This article is part of The Automated Designer, a research topic studied for the author’s MBA thesis paper at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership.