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Chapter 1. Design History

1.1 Introduction

Alex Hass

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the unique attributes of major modern graphic design styles, beginning with William Morris. The design styles discussed will be those that have a presence or an influence in our current visual culture:
    • Morris
    • Werkbund
    • Bauhaus
    • Dada
    • International Typographic Style (ITS)
    • Late Modern
    • Post Modern
  • Evaluate the influence of past design styles on one another
  • Explain the influence of culture on major modern graphic design styles
  • Identify the cross-cultural influences of visual culture that impacted graphic design style
  • Identify the technological influences that affected and advanced graphic design

Industrial Revolution Overview

The Craftsman

Before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840 in Britain) most aspects of design and all aspects of production were commonly united in the person of the craftsman. The tailor, mason, cobbler, potter, brewer, and any other kind of craftsman integrated their personal design aesthetic into each stage of product development. In print, this meant that the printer designed the fonts, the page size, and the layout of the book or broadsheet; the printer chose (even at times made) the paper and ran the press and bindery. Unity of design was implicit.

Typography in this pre-industrial era was predominantly used for books and broadsheets. The visual flavour of the fonts was based on the historic styles of western cultural tradition — roman, black letter, italic, and grotesque fonts were the mainstay of the industry. Typography was naturally small scale — needed only for sheets and pages — and was only large when it was chiseled into buildings and monuments.

Technological Shift

The Industrial Revolution radically changed the structure of society, socially and economically, by moving vast numbers of the population from agrarian-based subsistence living to cities where manufacturing anchored and dominated employment and wealth. Agrarian-based society was tied to an aristocracy overseeing the land and controlling and directing production through the use of human labour. In contrast, urban production, though still very much in need of human labour (female and child labour in particular was in huge demand), was dominated by the mechanized production of goods, directed and controlled by industrialists instead of the aristocracy. The factories were powered initially by steam, and eventually by gasoline and electricity. These new manufacturing models were dominated by an engineering mentality that valued optimization of mechanical processes for high yields and introduced a compartmentalized approach to production.

Design and Production Separate

The design process was separated from the production-based process for a number of reasons. Primary was the efficiency-oriented mindset of the manufacturers who were focused on creating products with low unit costs and high yield outcomes, rather than on pleasing aesthetics or high-quality materials. Design process is time consuming and was considered unnecessary for each production stage of manufactured goods.

Manufactured products were intended for the working and middle classes, and high-quality output was not a goal. These products were never intended to vie for the attention of the upper classes — enticing them away from the services and bespoke products of the craftsman (a contemporary example is Tip Top Tailors attracting Savile Row customers). Rather, they supplied common people with goods they had not been able to afford before. This efficient line of thinking created the still existing equation of minimal design plus low material integrity equalling low-cost products.

Design, rather than being a part of each step of production (implicit in the craftsman’s approach), was added for form development and when a product needed more appeal for the masses — usually during the later stages of production through decorative additions. Design was now directed by the parameters and constraints of the manufacturing process and its needs.

Advertising Emerges

Despite low product standards, the high quantities and low costs of manufactured goods “stimulated a mass market and even greater demand” (Meggs & Purvis, 2011, p. 127). The historic role of graphic design for broadsheets and books expanded at this point to include advertising. Each company and product needed exposure to sell these manufactured products to the mass market — no earlier method of promotion could communicate to this number of people.

The design aesthetic of these times was relatively untouched by stylistic cohesion or design philosophy. Industrialists used a pastiche of historic styles that aspired to make their products look more upscale, but did not go as far as to create a new visual language. This was a strategy that made sense and has since been repeated (consider early computer design aesthetics). Usually, when a new medium or communication strategy is developed (advertising in print and the posters of the Industrial Revolution), it uses visual and language styles that people are already familiar with, and introduces a new way to deliver the message. Too much change alienates, but novelty of delivery works by adding a twist on the shoulders of an already familiar form.

Font Explosion

In addition to its new role in promoting products to the mass market, graphic design moved forward with an explosion of new font designs as well as new production methods. The design of fonts had earlier been linked to the pragmatic and cultural objectives of producing books and broadsheets. With large format posters and numerous other print components, text needed to do much more than represent a phonetic symbol. Innovations in production affected — perhaps infected — printers with the pioneer spirit of the times, and all products and their potential were examined and re-evaluated. This attitude naturally included the function and design of fonts and the methods used to reproduce them. Text was often the only material used to promote its subject and became integral to a visual communication. Jobbing printers who used either letterpress or lithographic presses pushed the boundaries of both, competing with each other by introducing innovations and, in turn, pushing artists and type foundries to create more products they could use. An entirely new font category, slab serif — sometimes called Egyptian — was created. Thousands of new fonts emerged to meet the demand of the marketplace.


In addition to font development, the Industrial Age also contributed the photograph and ultimately its use in books and advertising. Photography (for print design) was originally used as a research tool in developing engravings, but this was costly and time consuming. Numerous inventors searched for ways to integrate photography into the press process since the early years of its development in the 1830s. Photo engraving eventually arrived in 1871 using negatives and plates. From that time forward, photography has been used to conceptually and contextually support the communication of graphic design in its many forms.


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1.1 Introduction by Alex Hass is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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