Design, Graphic Design

Evolution of Graphic Design (Part 1)

The graphic design that we know today is an output of centuries of evolution. For any graphic design enthusiast, it’s imperative to understand the journey of graphic design over centuries to have a deeper knowledge of the visual culture. The history of graphic design is a history of cultural expression, reflecting not only what people of a particular geography thought during a given time period, but also how they felt and understood the elements.

This is the first post of a series of four posts about a brief history of graphic design – from where it began, the movements, historical events and school of thoughts that changed the way design was created and interpreted and how we reached the design as we know today.

So, brace yourself. A super long history lesson is coming!

The origin

Graphic design is an ancient art dating back to prehistoric times. It can encompass the entire history of the art ever produced on the planet. The first visuals are known to be more than 44,000 years old. The earliest known cave paintings are adorned in the limestone Caves in the Maros-Pangkep karst in Indonesia. Some other examples of cave painting are Lascaux caves, Serra da Capivara National Park, Bhimbetka, Magura Cave and Laas Gaal.

Lascaux caves in Southern France – also nicknamed as prehistoric Sistine Chapel’ for the fine imagery and aesthetics. Most of the paintings consisted of geometric shapes and hand stencils and depicts the times and lives of the inhabitants of those eras. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Let’s fast-forward the time machine for several thousand years from the prehistoric era. The Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia during the bronze age and the settlement led to the birth of a human civilization which created the need for the record keeping of the happenings and for the continuation of knowledge. It started with inscription on clay tablets using a wooden stylus. The language script consisted of symbols and pictographs. Few hundred years later, the pictographs changed into more substantial and abstract writing form called Cuneiform (Latin word for wedge-shaped).

The Blau monument is considered to be the first artefact to use both words and pictures on it.
(Image source: Wikimedia)

Among the most interesting and revealing artefacts discovered from ancient Mesopotamia are the objects known as cylinder seals (known as Kishib in Sumerian) — the impression stamps, intricate in design, used throughout the Mesopotamian region.

Manuscript and hieroglyphic writing in the middle ages — While the term is comparatively a new, the early creators weren’t deliberately creating the ‘graphic designs’, yet the manuscripts presented a unique blend of text and imagery, placed aesthetically to convey the message. Illustrated manuscripts route back to ancient China, Rome, Greece and Egypt.

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is one of the brilliant examples of early graphic design.
(Image source: Wikipedia)

Invention of paper and printing

The Chinese developed paper made from organic fibres by 105 CE. This paper provided an economical surface for writing or printing. In 1040, Bi Sheng invented the world’s first movable type printing press out of porcelain that gave designers/artists a new room to play around with types and illustrations. In 1450s, Gutenberg invented a method of printing text from raised alphabet characters cast on movable metal types (which served as the base for modern printing styles). After this, printed books began to replace costly handmade manuscript books. When the type was printed, spaces were left for the illustrators to add pictures, decorate initials and other material by hand.

Good to know information
During the Middle Ages, the aristocrats developed heraldic crests that helped them in identifying enemies and friends (basically the wolf for the Starks and lions of the Lannisters).

In 1389, King Richard II of England passed a law requiring establishments that brewed beer to hang a sign indicating what they did. This led to businesses differentiating themselves by adding heraldic images to their signs. These images turned to names that led to the development of brand loyalty amongst the patrons for their favorite brewer.


Renaissance is the period between 14th to 15th century (specific to Italy). However, in today’s world, it is considered to be the transitional event between the medieval ages to the modern world. The Italian artists completely changed how the types, illustrations, page layouts, ornamentation, signages worked.

It was during this time that Nicholas Jensen — one of history’s greatest typeface designers, made a remarkable designed outstanding Greek and Gothic fonts. Later, he and other designers started using trademarks on their works, which later came to be known as logos.

On the left: illuminated letters by Nicholas Jensen; on the right: trademark symbols used by various artists (Image courtesy: Pinterest)

The designer of the italic typeface was a man named Francesco da Bologna (Griffo). His style survives today as the book text face Bembo and is widely used by modern-day graphic designers.

A series of design innovations, including the title page, roman and italic type, printed page numbers, woodblock and cast metal ornaments, and innovative approaches to the layout of illustrations with type, enabled the Italian printers of the Renaissance to create the basic format of the typographic book as we know it today.

After the Italian Renaissance started to fade after the sack of Rome in 1527, then begin the ‘Golden era of French typography’. Geoffrey Tory and the typeface designer Claude Garamond created visual forms that were reproduced for over two hundred years. In fact, the Garamond typeface is one of the most widely used text font used by designers today.

On the left: Excerpt from Champfleury by Geoffroy Tory; on the right: Typeface by Claude Garamond.
(Image courtesy: Flickr)

During the 17th century, there wasn’t much innovation as there was an abundant stock of ornaments, punches, matrixes, and woodblocks. It was during this time period that North America witnessed printing for the first time when a British locksmith named Stephen Daye came to the new world to establish a printing press, ending up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The first printing was in early 1639 and the first book to be designed and printed in the English American colonies was called The Whole Book of Psalms.
(Image courtesy:

Industrial revolution

The graphic design witnessed intense commercialization during the industrial revolution. The typography changed to the larger and bolder fonts and slab serifs. The early 1800 typographic innovation of sans-serif type had been an important part of graphic design for the centuries to come.

It was the era of inventions. The invention of photography expanded the expressive capabilities of designers and the ability to reprint photos allowed them to use it beyond reference and take their designs even further to the masses.

This era belonged to the new technologies, imaginative forms, and new functions for graphic design. The eventual ability to use color within designs meant that designers needed to focus on creating a visual hierarchy and composition emphasis to create a clear message. This laid the foundation of the new-age graphic design.

The next post will cover the time period from 1870-1930. Stay tuned!

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