Key Moments in Graphic Design History

A Timeline of Events That Shaped Modern Design

France, reconstruction of bull rock paintings of Lascaux caves
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Graphic design has a long and interesting history and it all began with the first words and pictures. From early developments in printing to the emergence of distinct styles in design during the 20th century, let's take a look at the major events and movements that shaped graphic design.

Early Innovations in Visual Communication and Printing

15,000 - 10,000 BC: The first known visual communication, with pictographs and symbols in the Lascaux caves in southern France.

3600 BC: The Blau Monument is considered to be the oldest artifact known to combine words and pictures. They are thought to be from the Iraq area.

105 AD: Chinese government official Ts’ai Lun is credited with inventing paper.

1045 AD: Pi Sheng, a Chinese alchemist, invents movable type, which allows characters to be individually placed for printing.

1276: Printing arrives in Europe with a paper mill in Fabriano, Italy.

1450: Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenburg is credited with perfecting the system for printing type in books.

1460: Albrecht Pfister becomes the first to add illustrations to a printed book.

Revolutionary Changes to Typeface

1470: Nicolas Jenson, considered one of history’s greatest typeface designers, sets news standard for the Roman type.

1530: Claude Garamond opens the first type foundry, developing and selling fonts to printers.

1722: The first Caslon Old Style font is developed. It would later be used for the printing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Industrial Revolution

1760: The Industrial Revolution begins and sets the stage for advances in graphic design production.

1796: Author Aloys Senefelder develops lithography. This was the first "planographic" printing method employed, meaning it used a flat surface and set the stage for modern offset printing.

1800: Lord Stanhope invents the first printing press made of all cast-iron parts. It required one-tenth of the manual labor of previous presses and doubled the possible paper size.

1816: The first sans-serif font makes a subtle entrance as one line of a book.

Design Comes Into Its Own

1861: Williams Morris, who became a highly influential figure in design history, sets up his art decorating firm. He was a major player in the British Arts and Crafts Movement.

1869: N.W. Ayer & Son is founded. Considered the first advertising agency, they pioneered the open contract and utilized fine art in design.

1880: The development of halftone screen allows for the first photo to be printed with a full range of tones.

1890: The Art Nouveau movement begins and it changes design forever. It made its way into all types of commercial design and utilized all types of arts. The style continued through 1920.

Modern Design Styles Emerge

1900: The Futurism style of design emerges. Influenced by cubism and technology, it dropped all the traditional features and concentrated on clean, sharp, straight lines. It was popular through the 1930s.

1910: A style called Early Modern developed. It uses photos rather than illustrations and a minimalistic, geometric design sense.

The style was popular until around 1935.

1910: Hero Realism is influenced by the wars and continues through the 1940s. This style relied heavily on realistic illustrations of people and a strong message: think Rosie the Riveter.

1919: Bauhaus opens. The German design school quickly became the powerhouse of modern design, often employing Art Deco and what would become the Swiss styles.

1920: Art Deco graphic design, with its bold geometrics and high contrast emerges alongside the fine art. It lacks the depth of other styles and is used through the Roaring Twenties and into the 40s.

Styles Closely Follow Pop Culture 

1932: The Times New Roman typeface is created by Stanley Morrison. It was commissioned by the "Times of London."

1940: Negative space and clean designs formulated the Swiss style of design.

Sans serif fonts and asymmetrical layouts were often preferred. It had a long popularity and was seen often until the 1980s.

1945: The Late Modern movement arises and follows up on the geometrics of Art Deco. This style is informal and drops conventional layouts. It was common through the 1960s.

1947: Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand releases his first book, "Thoughts on Design." His work would influence every modern designer to come after him.

1950: Kitsch emerges and becomes most notable in the often overdramatic movie posters of the day. High contrast and bold colors, fantastic imagery, and illustrations of dramatically posed people were common in this style.

1957: Helvetica is developed by Max Miedinger. It rapidly became a popular and standard typeface.

1959: The first issue of "Communication Arts" is released. This design magazine would quickly become an industry standard and features the best work of modern designers.

1968: Inspired by hallucinations, the Psychedelic style emerges and plays to the counter culture. Swirls, obscure fonts transformed into shapes, and bright colors permeated the often hard-to-read designs.

1970: Illustrations that revolved around collage became popular in the Post-Modern movement. The overlaid elements and impulsive feel was common through the 80s.

The Digital Revolution

1990: The first version of Adobe Photoshop is released, creating a revolution in the way graphic designers work.

2000: Grunge design emerged along with the punk rock scene as more designs used texture to portray a dirty feeling. This style remained popular through the 2010s.

2010: What became known as the Flat style plays off the minimalist feel with sharp lines and surprising twists like the excessive use of negative space.

2016:  Abstract Swiss continues the minimalist trend, distorting and deconstructing design in ways that seem random.

2017: Cinemagraphs emerge -- photographs where one small movement is made -- to grab viewers' attention in the clutter of on-screen marketing.

Source:

Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis. “Meggs’ History of Graphic Design.” Fourth Edition. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2006.