A Brief History Of Graphic Design Part 2

The D5 Graphic Design Blog.

Welcome to the second weekly instalment of The D5 Graphic Design Blog.

Last week I talked  about graphic designs’ early history, modernism and the Bauhaus movement, if you missed it, be sure to give it a quick read here. My main aim is to use the chronology of graphic design to help me explain exactly what it is, clearing up the isms’ and ists’ that so persistently confuse people.


Kandinsky – Basic Design & Advanced Theory

To pick up where we left off I’ll be starting with Wassily Kandinski. A late blooming russian artist who didn’t even pick up a paint brush or pencil until the age of 30. Kandinsky is renound in the art world as being the first ever truly abstract artist. I spoke last week about the common misconception that modern art ‘can be done by children or monkeys’, and that people that make such statements are probably refering to a more refined, obscure genre such as abstract art. I must admit I’ve stood before an original Kandinsky piece in the Guggenheim and thought to myself ‘what on earth is this?’ – but that’s exactly it, that’s exactly the visceral emotive response I should have felt. The same response people had in 1922 when Kandinsky’s visions, his bold visual statements earned him the position of design and advanced theory lecturer at the Bauhaus.

Kandinskys teachings, books and theories are still studied today and while we may question his artistic works, it was Kandinsky who wrote the first groundbreaking theories behind psychology and visual experience. He is a pioneer in relating what is seen on a canvas, wall or page to how a human mind will react. This very principle is fundamental to graphic design.

Cubism, Constructivism & Suprematism.

Kandinsky was from Russia as was the massively important artistic movement ‘Constructivism’, though it would be wrong to call Kandinsky a Constructivist artist. In fact his abstract works have been described as an expression of Kandinsky distancing himself from Constructivism and Suprematism.

Constructivists believe art had to have a direct purpose, a message. It’s not hard to see how this had a profound influence on the development of graphic design. Art works would be created to promote political messages, direct people to events and advertise products.

Suprematism, another russian art movement focused on basic geometric shapes and the relationship between a person and that shape. You can really see the seeds of graphic design fundamentals such as logotypes, iconography and semiotics taking shape here.

While these strong, shape and purpose orientated art movements were emerging from Russia, abstract works and art focussed on geometry, planes, shapes and lines were also flooding out of France. Many would say Cubism is the most influential art movement of the 20th century and when we drop artists names such as Pablo Picasso, it’s not hard to see why. Cubism is described as a representation of three dimensional form, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent it in greater context. Cubism, Constructivism and Suprematism evolved together and all had a profound influence on how shape, geometry and colour prevoke a psychological human response.

Dada & Surrealism

You might be seeing a theme here; the turn of the century brought many radical new art movements. Constructivism and Suprematism had roots in Futurism and were in the making before the first world war but were of course greatly affected by it. Dadaism was a direct result of rebellion durin and following the oppression of the first world war. As a result of the strict law and order opposed by World War 1 Dadaism aimed to  reject logic and reason in favour of nonsense. The movement emerged from Zurich in Switzerland and had notable characteristics including plenty of humour, collage style art works and general far-left political messages.

In the early 1920’s Dadaism evolved in paris into Surrealism.  Where Dadaism was focussed on absolute nonsense sometimes with political undertone, surrealists claim their work to be largely an expression of philosophical movement. The works are characterised for the most part by paintings containing striking juxtapositions, elements of surprise and again, nonsensical imagery.



Joseph Müller Brockman is one of my favourite graphic designers from history. Brockman was a swiss graphic designer and his work literally defines graphic design for me. He took Kandinsky’s geometric theories, Johannes Itten’s theory of colour the influence of Bauhaus and early Modernism, the influence of Constructivism, Suprematism and Cubism and the collage making of Dadaism and (arguably) turned it into the first comprehensive body of graphic design works. Graphic design as we know it today can be seen clearly in Brockman’s work. His written works such as ‘Grid Systems’ and ‘The History of the Poster’ are invaluable graphic design handbooks still used thoroughly today. That is of course if you are passionate enough about your work to shell out £80 on a very concise little 41 year old book. I’m proud to say I have a copy of ‘The History of the Poster’ sat beside me as I type. Brockman wrote these fundamental texts later in his career but it was his earlier involvement with the birth of Swiss Style or ‘The International Style’ that would earn him his throne in the hall of graphic design royalty.

‘Swiss style’ or ‘The International Style’

Following the second world war a certain aesthetic emerged from Switzerland. Dubbed  ‘Swiss Style’ the graphic design at the time was focussed on legibility, clarity, symmetry and form. It stressed an absolute and universal style of graphic design. In graphic design terms ‘Modernism’ is epitomised by the Swiss Style.

Armin Hoffman

Armin Hoffman

In order to explain exactly what Swiss Style is I’ll need to introduce you to a few legendary graphic designers; Firstly Armin Hoffman. Hoffman taught typography in his hometown at the Basel School of Design. He has been described as ‘The best Typographic designer ever.” Typography is a vitally important part of Swiss Style, Modernism and graphic design as a whole. His style does not rely on colour for emphasis or theme, instead it leans heavily toward the use of typographic hierarchy, size, semiotics and iconography. Hoffman suggests a ‘trivialisation of colour’ led to this particular style.

Alexey Brodovitch

Brodovitch was the master of white space. He was an influential photographer, artistic director and editorial designer. Brodovitch drew inspiration from Surrealism, Dadaism and all the other strage kinds of art going around at the time. Brodovitch’s most prominent role was that of artistic director for Harpers Bazaar. He designed the iconic Bazaar logo using the font family ‘Didot’ which is now a standard for fashion magazines and any typography associated with fashion.

Paul Rand Logos
Paul Rand

A well known American graphic designer. Rand is best known for his corporate logo design. It’s not hard to see why, his logo work is reflected in most modern corporate design. His work really does speak for itself. Yale, IBM and UPS  still use the logo’s he designed for them back in the 50’s & 60’s.

He (Rand) almost singlehandedly convinced business that design was an effective tool. [. . .] Anyone designing in the 1950s and 1960s owed much to Rand, who largely made it possible for us to work. He more than anyone else made the profession reputable. We went from being commercial artists to being graphic designers largely on his merits. – Louis Danziger (Graphic Designer)


It’s well known that Helvetica is regarded as a graphic designers best friend, but why? Helvetica was designed to compete with ‘Akzidenz-Grotesk’ – a popular swiss typeface being used heavily by designers wanting to achieve that ‘Swiss Style’ aesthetic, which was becoming extremely popular with emerging companies in the USA. Helvetica was designed by Max Meidinger and Eduard Hoffmann in 1957 for the ‘Haas Type Foundry’ in Switzerland. Originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, Stemel, Haas Type Foundry’s sister company renamed the typeface to appeal to the American market. ‘Helvetica’ comes from the latin for ‘Swiss’ – which explains it’s initial popularity. But what is it about the typeface that makes it so useable? Helvetica is a geometric font, it’s mathematically calculated in terms of letter spacing and form; this makes it a very tidy, neat font. If you look carefully you’ll notice that all the letter’s terminals (the edges at the very ends of letters) are either horizontal or vertical, again, adding to the typefaces neatness. Helvetica is also designed, purposefully not to give any meaning through it’s form. So where a spiky font would  give off connotations of danger or fear, Helvetica presents itself plainly, with no intrinsic message.

In the same way Alexey Brodovitch decided not to use colour to give meaning, Helvetica gives the designer the option not to use typeface to give meaning, instead allowing him to be more creative with size, image, semiotics, colour, composition and iconography. Helvetica defines Swiss Style and made the popular look universally accessible.

Here’s a quiz on Helvetica you can do, based on the information above you should be able to answer them all correctly. (Tip 1 Horizontal and vertical terminals.) (Tip 2 Helvetica looks better.) CLICK!


As with every turning point in the history of art & design we see more rebellion, this time in the 1980’s with the birth of Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism is mostly a rejection of Modernism. The logical, legible, clean, structured aesthetic of Modernism is rejected by Post-Modernism in favour of abstract form, peculiar shapes and crazy typefaces. Unlike Surrealists and Dadaists, Post-Modernists reject the style of their predecessor for a very valid reason, that it is impersonal, not humorous and simply not fun.

So where Modernists said ‘form follows function’, Post-Modernists said ‘function follows form’. They created things that they thought looked nice, exciting or interesting and dealt with it’s function later. It is their argument that graphic design’s purpose is to draw attention to a work before instructing the intended action of said work.

Post-Modernism certainly had an effect on the graphic world, it was the look of punk and anything ‘alternative’ today seems to take design inspiration from it. Ironic really that there is a pre-defined look for rebellion.

Next week: Neo-Modernism, Metamodernism, the ‘New Digital Aesthetic’ & futurology.


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