A Brief History of Graphic Design Part 1

The D5 Graphic Design Blog.

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

I thought a logical place to start would be with a brief history of graphic design. I wouldn’t call this a definitive handbook on the history of graphic design but I sure will try and clear up any confusion as to what ‘graphic design’ is, where it came from and all the main ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ that so persistently confuse people.

Early History

We start in 1800’s france with a rather famous artist; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was an inbred alcoholic who died at the tender age of 36 shortly after being sent to a sanatorium. He is however commonly accredited ‘Inventor of the Modern Poster’ along with similar post impressionist artists including Jules Chéret AKA ‘Godfather of the Poster’. ‘Post impressionism’ by the way refers to artists after Manet, a more traditional impressionist artist. Post impressionists still used real world subjects, vivid colour & heavy brush strokes but tended to distort form and colour for expressive effect.

Though these artists are infinitely important with regards to the birth of graphic design, they cannot be held solely responsible. It was the industrial advancements made at the time such as print making & lithography that make graphic design what it is today. Ah mass production what would we do without you?

Toulouse-Lautrec & Chéret may have been putting in all the hard graft back in the early days of graphic design but to them it was art. It wasn’t until WIlliam Morris an English textiles designer came along in 1891 that the term ‘Graphic Design’ was used. Morris ‘pioneered the distinction between fine art and graphic design’. Morris founded ‘The Kelmscott Press’ a major player in early british mass print production.

The Bauhaus Movement

The term Bauhaus is one of those terms that gets thrown around rather tediously. Anyone wanting to sound ‘creative’ or ‘arty’ has this term at their disposal. They are confident that anyone with enough patience to listen to them won’t understand it’s origins and they can walk away feeling all clever and ‘cool’.

When you drive through Germany you see the word everywhere. Simply put it’s just German for ‘building school’. (literal translation: ‘House of Construction’.) However the Bauhaus creatives and their wannabe friends are often referring to is Staatliches Bauhaus. Originally in Weimar and founded by architect Walter Gropius. Staatliches Bauhaus ironically didn’t originally teach architecture but rather a ‘total work of art’ in which all art subjects eventually including architecture would be taught together.


This brings us to the term ‘Modernism’. Bauhaus was founded after the first world war and all the left wing Germans at the time rejoiced, celebrating the end of the German monarchy and a hell of a lot of conservative censorship which brought an influx of experimentation within the arts. While modernism had already made an impact it wasn’t until the radical thinking that went on in Bauhaus Weimar and it’s tendency toward functionality and simplification and it’s acknowledgement of mass production that modernism would really affect the way people lived.

But what does this all have to do with graphic design? Still relatively new at the time Bauhaus Weimar was the first place graphic design was taught as it’s own independent subject and due to it’s hugely revolutionary teachings and strong roots in modernist culture, Bauhaus, figuratively speaking, married modernism and graphic design.

So modernism: design that’s fit for a purpose. No unnecessary bells and whistles. if it’s a chair, it’s a chair, if it’ a building, it’s big and square because thats how you fit the most rooms in. And if it’s graphic design; it’s legible, bold & straight to the point.

Naturally as a graphic designer I usually avoid cliche’s however in this case I feel this is the best way to sum up modernism. Two of the greatest cliche’s of modernism are “Form follows function.” Which is actually a misquote about architecture, but a design cliche nonetheless and “Less is more”.

So next time someone says ‘I hate modern art, it could be done by children or monkeys’ you just keep quiet and smile knowing that almost every man made object in that persons life is a direct result of modernism, It was sold to them using modernist graphic design and they’re actually referring to contemporary, abstract or surrealist art.

Next week: dada, surrealism, Helvetica & post-modernism.

Here is part 2 of A Brief History Of Graphic Design

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