Why graphic design still matters in the 21st century

Late in the 20th century, increasingly accomplished graphic-design activity began to appear in developing nations. These advancements occurred because of a number of factors, including expanded access to professional education at local schools and abroad, the increased availability of computer and printing technology, and a growing base of industrial, cultural, and communications-industry clients.




Early developments


In the first decade of the 20th century, the experiments with pure form begun in the 1890s continued and evolved. Although the Glasgow group received a cool reception in the British Isles, designers in Austria and Germany were inspired by their move toward geometric structure and simplicity of form. In Austria, a group of young artists led by Gustav Klimt broke with the Künstlerhaus in 1897 and formed the Vienna Secession. These artists and architects rejected academic traditions and sought new modes of expression. In their exhibition posters and layouts and illustrations for the Secession magazine, Ver Sacrum, members pushed graphic design in uncharted aesthetic directions. Koloman Moser’s poster for the 13th Secession exhibition (1902) blends three figures, lettering, and geometric ornament into a modular whole. The work is composed of horizontal, vertical, and circular lines that define flat shapes of red, blue, and white. Moser and architect Josef Hoffmann were instrumental in establishing the Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshops”), which produced furniture and design objects.


The German school of poster design called Plakatstil (“Poster Style”) similarly continued the exploration of pure form. Initiated by Lucian Bernhard with his first poster in 1905, Plakatstil was characterized by a simple visual language of sign and shape. Designers reduced images of products to elemental, symbolic shapes that were placed over a flat background colour, and they lettered the product name in bold shapes. Plakatstil gained numerous adherents, including Hans Rudi Erdt, Julius Gipkens, and Julius Klinger.



Modernist experiments between the world wars


Building upon the formal design experiments from the beginning of the century, between the world wars, European graphic designers utilized the new forms, organization of visual space, and expressive approaches to colour of such avant-garde movements as Cubism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Futurism, Suprematism, and Surrealism. Inspired by these movements, graphic designers increasingly pursued the most elemental forms of design. Such a concern with the essential formal elements of a medium characterizes the Modernist experiments prevalent in all the arts of the period.


One pioneer of this approach was an American working in England, E. McKnight Kauffer, who was one of the first designers to understand how the elemental symbolic forms of Cubist and Futurist painting could be applied to the communicative medium of graphic design. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, his posters, book jackets, and other graphics achieved an immediacy and vitality well-suited to the fast-paced urban environment in which his visual communications were experienced.



Graphic design, 1945–75

The International Typographic Style


After World War II, designers in Switzerland and Germany codified Modernist graphic design into a cohesive movement called Swiss Design, or the International Typographic Style. These designers sought a neutral and objective approach that emphasized rational planning and de-emphasized the subjective, or individual, expression. They constructed modular grids of horizontal and vertical lines and used them as a structure to regularize and align the elements in their designs. These designers preferred photography (another technical advance that drove the development of graphic design) as a source for imagery because of its machine-made precision and its ability to make an unbiased record of the subject. They created asymmetrical layouts, and they embraced the prewar designers’ preference for sans-serif typefaces. The elemental forms of the style possessed harmony and clarity, and adherents considered these forms to be an appropriate expression of the postwar scientific and technological age.


Josef Müller-Brockmann was a leading designer, educator, and writer who helped define this style. His poster, publication, and advertising designs are paradigms of the movement. In a long series of Zürich concert posters, Müller-Brockmann used colour, an arrangement of elemental geometric forms, and type to express the structural and rhythmic qualities of music. A 1955 poster for a concert featuring music by Igor Stravinsky, Wolfgang Fortner, and Alban Berg demonstrates these properties, along with Müller-Brockmann’s belief that using one typeface in two sizes (display and text) makes the message clear and accessible to the audience.






Postwar graphic design in the United States


While designers in Europe were forging the International Typographic Style into a cohesive movement, American designers were synthesizing concepts from modern art into highly individualistic and expressive visual statements. From the 1940s through the 1960s, New York City was a major centre for innovation in design as well as the fine arts.


During the 1940s, Paul Rand emerged as an American designer with a personal and innovative approach to modern design. Rand understood the vitality and symbolic power of colour and shape in the work of artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Pablo Picasso. In a 1947 poster promoting New York subway advertising, for example, Rand created a design from elemental geometric forms and colours that can be read as both an abstracted figure as well as a target, conveying the concept that one can “hit the bull’s-eye,” or reach potential audiences for plays, stores, and other goods and services by advertising in the subway. An ordinary message is rendered extraordinary through the power of visual forms and symbols. Rand’s work spanned a range of graphic media including advertising, book jackets, children’s books, corporate literature (such as annual reports), packaging, posters, trademarks, and typefaces.



The digital revolution


Until the late 20th century, the graphic-design discipline had been based on handicraft processes: layouts were drawn by hand in order to visualize a design; type was specified and ordered from a typesetter; and type proofs and photostats of images were assembled in position on heavy paper or board for photographic reproduction and platemaking. Over the course of the 1980s and early ’90s, however, rapid advances in digital computer hardware and software radically altered graphic design.


Software for Apple’s 1984 Macintosh computer, such as the MacPaint™ program by computer programmer Bill Atkinson and graphic designer Susan Kare, had a revolutionary human interface. Tool icons controlled by a mouse or graphics tablet enabled designers and artists to use computer graphics in an intuitive manner. The Postscript™ page-description language from Adobe Systems, Inc., enabled pages of type and images to be assembled into graphic designs on screen. By the mid-1990s, the transition of graphic design from a drafting-table activity to an onscreen computer activity was virtually complete.


Digital computers placed typesetting tools into the hands of individual designers, and so a period of experimentation occurred in the design of new and unusual typefaces and page layouts. Type and images were layered, fragmented, and dismembered; type columns were overlapped and run at very long or short line lengths; and the sizes, weights, and typefaces were often changed within single headlines, columns, and words. Much of this research took place in design education at art schools and universities. American designer David Carson—art director of Beach Culture magazine in 1989–91, Surfer in 1991–92, and Ray Gun magazine in 1992–96—captured the imagination of a youthful audience by taking such an experimental approach into publication design.


Rapid advances in onscreen software also enabled designers to make elements transparent; to stretch, scale, and bend elements; to layer type and images in space; and to combine imagery into complex montages. For example, in a United States postage stamp from 1998, designers Ethel Kessler and Greg Berger digitally montaged John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted with a photograph of New York’s Central Park, a site plan, and botanical art to commemorate the landscape architect. Together these images evoke a rich expression of Olmsted’s life and work.


Because of the international appeal and reach of the Internet, the graphic-design profession is becoming increasingly global in scope. Moreover, the integration of motion graphics, animation, video feeds, and music into Web-site design has brought about the merging of traditional print and broadcast media. As kinetic media expand from motion pictures and basic television to scores of cable-television channels, video games, and animated Web sites, motion graphics are becoming an increasingly important area of graphic design.

In the 21st century, graphic design is ubiquitous; it is a major component of our complex print and electronic information systems. It permeates contemporary society, delivering information, product identification, entertainment, and persuasive messages. The relentless advance of technology has changed dramatically the way graphic designs are created and distributed to a mass audience. However, the fundamental role of the graphic designer—giving expressive form and clarity of content to communicative messages—remains the same.