Good Designers Learn From History

What a wasteful child I was, unaware of what graphic design history could give.

I foolishly thought of history as dusty facts and faded images. And only the foolish child thinks history doesn’t matter, that it’s irrelevant and inessential to growth.

I browsed Meggs’ History of Graphic Design sparingly, reading not much more than the captions.

Then a few designers kept catching my eye, so it was more reading — but no longer mere captions, but the illustrious body copy that Meggs gives us in search of understanding. Then it was everything I could get my hands on.

And something fantastic started to happen — I was becoming a better designer, producing work with greater reason, stronger justification and refined meaning.

Jan Tschichold is the designer who really kicked my interest in discovering beauty of image and theory in history

Graphic Design History Gives Us Theory

History is of as much importance as theory — they should be married in the classroom and honeymoon in the studio.

“Eyes and brains have worked the same way over generations … the environment changes but the principles of visual communication survive. History helps us understand these principles.” – Principles Before Style: Questions in Design History by Richard Hollis

To truly understand and use a piece of theory properly, we need to know why it became worth knowing — in what conditions was it first developed and used, why was it successful and what was its original purpose and audience? Without this knowledge, how could we use it effectively?

Many of our ideas are well established — concerning the relationships between image and text, or colour and balance, or texture and contrast, and countless more can all be mixed in infinite possibilities — and knowing of how (and why) these ideas were developed helps us use them today. Knowing the context in which they were originally born help us see similar contexts today that the theory can perfectly be matched to.

Rather than simply borrowing style, ideas about layout can be learned and expanded upon. We can see what ideas worked and what didn’t, allowing us to skip previous mistakes and forge forward, treading on new ground in familiar shoes.

“Graphic designers should be literate in graphic design history.
Being able to design well is not always enough. Knowing the roots
of design is necessary to avoid reinvention, no less inadvertent plagiarism.”

Steven Heller — Introduction to Graphic Design History

Josef Muller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems was written in 1961 but is still considered a definitive publication on grid theory 50 years on.

Graphic Design History Gives Us A Discerning Eye

That is, an eye that can look at a piece of work today and know if it’ll hold up in two or three years. As people who have to produce artifacts that last this length or more, this is an immensely powerful trait for us to own.

This discerning eye is developed through realisation. We can look at the work of the modernists and say “Impossible! This work is too current to be 60 years old!” Or there is David Carson, a person whom many have strong opinions of (at either end of the positive/negative spectrum) whose work appears to be utterly chaotic and an insult to the audience.

The curious thing is that his wild design had philosophical elements in common with the clean and open pages of the modernists — both were primarily concerned with the interaction between the audience and the content. Their aesthetic sensibilities are worlds apart, but history allows us to find a common ground upon which they stand. And somehow this fadish design still has a charm to it over a decade later.

An unlikely association that a reading of history gives us: David Carson and the Modernists were strange bedfellows in philosophical regards — pushing against the accepted in an effort to make things better for the audience with strong relationships between form and content.

History also helps us see what won’t work. Flick through the history books and you’ll find little blips of style and expression. Work that is clearly tacky but was, at a time, considered funky and cool and great. History helps us realise what kind of funky exists only for a moment.Again, let’s think of Carson’s work and the absurd amount of deranged devoted followers it spawned.

This kind of historical education can help us understand what we are looking at and what people may think of it in years to come. It helps us notice the fad from the timeless.

Graphic Design History Gives Us An Understanding

We can see connections made, how one moment lead to the next, how style and ideas evolved and what influence social environments played.

It isn’t enough to look at Modernism and simply say “oh, they were sick of ornament”, this isn’t an understanding! This is a childish assumption. What we are able to do is throw Meggs’ to the couch and jump on Wikipedia and learn about Facism, Nazism, Germanic and European tradition, the role Blackletter played, the state of Europe at the time and on and on and on.

Then with this new knowledge in tow, we can better understand why certain decisions about cleanliness and simple, unclouded communication was strived for.

“For after all, a poster does more than simply
supply information on the goods it advertises;
it also reveals a society’s state of mind”

Armin Hofmann

Take the following:

The childish designer will be satisfied with the caption that goes with it:

Armin Hofmann, poster for the Basel theater production of Giselle, 1959. An organic, kinetic, and soft photographic image contrasts intensely with geometric, static, and hard-edged typographic shapes.

Not awful nor poorly written. But not enough! No hunger for knowledge can be quenched by this, and good designers are hungry!

Instead, let’s jump back a page or two and see what Meggs has to say about Hofmann in the body of the text:

As time passed, he evolved a design philosophy based on the elemental graphic-form language of point, line, and plane, replacing traditional pictorial ideas with a modernist aesthetic. In his work … Hofmann continues to seek a dynamic harmony, where all the parts of a design are unified. He sees the relationship of contrasting elements in the means of invigorating visual design. These contrasts include light to dark, curved lines to straight lines, form to counterform, soft to hard, and dynamic to static, with resolution achieved when the designer brings the total into an absolute harmony.

Hah! Isn’t that wonderful?! In one paragraph we have learned more about the philosophy of Armin Hofmann and his work than that small little caption could have taught us, even if we had read it a thousand times! We see that what Hofmann pieced together wasn’t just because it was nice or pretty or whatever, it was part of a larger philosophy! What’s more, it gives an idea of how you can develop your own philosophy to explore.

Now consider a few more pieces of his with the above in mind — don’t they shine much brighter?

A little more reading leads us to understand that this philosophy, mixed with others from the area, evolved and became known internationally as Swiss design. These ideas were pushed forwarded by the publication New Graphic Design (1959), edited by, amongst others, Josef Muller-Brockmann.

Had I decided to read only the caption, I would have learned little and forgotten it in moments. But having dug deeper I found so much more! I found connections and the birth of a world-changing movement! What a thread to find! And these threads are almost infinite as we dive deeper and deeper.

Up To Us

History can often be an awfully boring topic to subject ourselves to. It is not that fault of events happened, but those who speak of them.

The Secret History of Letters by Simon Loxley is a fantastic example and a must-read. A list of names, dates and images does not an interesting history make. But it isn’t always the case — some writers make it exciting, interesting and entertaining.

Though the truth is, it is often up to us to find interest in history. So pick at a loose end in which you find interest and tug and tear and pull at it until you have thread that runs through decades of ideas and beauty from which you can learn volumes — witness how our profession evolves.

“… if we understand the past, we will be better able to continue
a culture legacy of beautiful form and effective communication.
If we ignore this legacy, we run the risk of becoming buried in a
mindless morass of a commercialism whose mole-like vision
ignores human values and needs as it burrows forward into darkness..”

Philip B. Meggs

Don’t think of history as a collection of dry facts, but as the greatest teacher one could hope for.


An Introduction to the History of Graphic Design at

From 15th century typography to the digital revolution of graphic design, offers quite a wonderful taste of design history and serves its purpose well as an outline — absolutely worth checking out.

Meggs’ History of Graphic Design on
While there are now a couple other books on design history, this is the one I can personally stand by (having not read the other options, I wouldn’t suggest them to you fine folk just for an Amazon Associates link) and would be in my top five list of must-have design books!

The Secret History of Letters by Simon Loxley on
A fantastic book that is full of life and is an utter joy to read — an essential for anyone even remotely interested in typography as we are guided through the history of type design.


35 thoughts on “Good Designers Learn From History

  1. The best work I’ve seen a very nice

  2. That was really lovely, especially the idea of “treading on new ground in familiar shoes”; it sums up the whole article so neatly.

    I’ll have to dust off my old art history books tonight.

  3. I am a design student (in the apparel sense) and there is no way you can get away with creating without being informed of the history of apparel. It is essential…it follows that this post illustrates and underlines the same thing.

    Ideas, tangents, styles, a higher developed vocabulary all come with study of the history and cadence of a discipline. Graphic design is no different. The idea of no study contributes to a self imposed limit as a sort of flea in the jar– subscribing to a group think mentality, creating the same thing your peers are.

  4. Derrick Schultz September 15, 2010

    I think its also really important to remember that all design history happens within the larger landscape of cultural movements. Its a personal bias, but I always look to regional cultural bias and technological changes. Carson’s work coincided within the larger landscape of reactions to the corporate America of the 80s and the technological mastery of pasteup and the conversion to the computer. Not dissimilarly, Hoffmann’s work was the embodied expression of a post-war Switzerland ramping up industrial production and their developments of printing technology (phototype and offset printing meant you could create highly technical and “clean” layouts that had very few marks from the human hand).

    The same is true now, due to advances in social technologies our design tends to express these aspects of culture here and now (it’s a bit more global, or broken into subcultures no longer regional, but I’m sure you could trace them ). I personally find an understanding of design history and its cultural contexts allows for a sort of mental game—focusing on what they did then and why, we can make the leap to what cultural shifts we have now and what we can do to expose them and develop them. There’s nothing aesthetic there per se, but its a conceptual parallel that could rarely develop without a sense of how it was used before.

  5. Alex, I’m so glad you picked up that book. I too believe am a better designer after reading Meggs’ book. I feel infused with ammo – armed with broader vision and more precise targeting!

    In fact, I’m currently reworking a logo I did based on this quote from Saul Bass: “a trademark must be readily understood yet possess elements of metaphor or ambiguity that will attract the viewer again and again”. I now demand no less of my work in light of such a statement.

  6. History is an important part of design. We are told to take influence from everywhere and that shouldn’t be restricted to the here and now, we would take things from our history and re interpret them for the present day coming up with something completely different but using the history of graphic design.

    Its not about how pretty the pictures are, it should be about the concept and where an idea stems from, this can get lost some times and the aesthetics take over.

  7. I remember in school having to learn art history, and at first I never really understood. Yes it was interesting to learn about the masters before us, but I couldn’t figure out the connection. I was more interested in design history when we learnt about it, but still wasn’t sure of the connection. I knew which styles I liked, but out of that grew nothing.

    Now that I’ve been out of school, I’m starting to see the benefit of it all. I’ve recently been diving more into history, reading the thoughts and ideals of the designers before us. I find that it’s been a great help in clearing up my thoughts and process. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post, and I couldn’t agree with you more… excellent job…. and stunning site.

  8. Edreas
    Thank you :)

    That’s a good way to tell if it’s been too long since you’ve flicked through a good history book – how thick the dust is ;)

    Tyrone Spencer
    It’s the group mentality that worries me quite a bit these days –  so much of what we see is just repetition of what else is being created at this moment. It’s starting to ease off a little, but I worry that’s because there is so much source material these days that there’s fads within fads within fads that it’s hard to tell what is original and what’s .. well, more fad.

    You raise a great point about history giving discipline a flow/weight. I remember reading some time ago that Architecture and Graphic Design are very similar in many ways, but one of the reason the former is taken more seriously is because of the heavier weight it is given because of the appreciation its practitioners have for history. Granted, the work of architects is needed to last longer and avoid fad with more gusto, but, as you said, the differences between design disciplines are often only skin deep.

    Derrick Schultz
    The way in which design sits in the larger picture of societal history is something I find a heck of a lot of fun to think about. I’m glad you brought up Carson – being a child of the eighties and early nineties, it was easy for me to grasp what ‘grunge’ was because of the music I listened to from the same time. As soon as I heard the term ‘grunge’ in relation to design, i instantly went to the grunge of Nirvana and had a grasp of what the style (or movement, or response) was.

    And having found a lot of interest in design from around the 1920s-1960s, its next to impossible to understand it fully without considering the Wars and their impact on society/art/communication/mentalities.

    I think that’s what a good history text will cover – it won’t just talk of events pertaining directly to graphic design, but what influenced, even by gentle massage, the work.

    Unfortunately for me, I’m not yet at a point where I can have a good look at what’s happening now and see the shifts occurring (culturally, aesthetically and expressively) – at least not on the same level as you.

    Jessica Carvalho
    Meggs’ sits proudly alongside Bringhurt’s text as my two favourite design books. I’ve got one or two other history books but rather than read them for what they are, I’m always finding my self comparing them to Meggs’.

    If for nothing else, it’s just learning about other designers that makes the reading of history so important. Why not learn from those that came before us?

    Stephanie Webb
    Exactly! The problem with looking around us for influence is that we end up repeating what’s repeated already and no progression is had within our skillet as individuals or within the community as a whole.

    I have a vague memory of reading that one of the ‘must-haves’ for being a partner at Pentagram is a strong understanding and appreciation of history… need more be said? hehe :)

    Kyle Gallant
    I know exactly how you feel! History was never my thing and I think a lot of it comes down to how we are often required to learn a history that we aren’t particularly interested in while at school. So we just end up thinking of history as a sour medicine that needs to be swallowed.

    It’s also hard to understand how the importance of cultures and events of the past when we’ve hardly lived through any as it is. It’s kind of like spending 3 years learning how a plane works without ever actually seeing one take off or in flight.

    But once we hit the industry and start producing work and seeing it move into the community, we start to see the plane lift.

  9. Fantastic Article Alex, Really great, especially when compared to the “In-Depth” articles about Graphic Design that can be found floating around the internet.

    I sincerely hope your blog continues to flourish!

  10. i find old design fascinating. i love going through old posters or other print material. visual design was such a refined and an expert field long long before I was around. it’s all very inspiring for me.

  11. Many thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough blog, Alex. I’m a designer and teacher of design that stumbled upon your wonderful site when looking for material on Milton Glaser. I had a fair amount of information to share, but your article added another brilliant facet to Mr.Glaser’s story. Thank you.

    I really appreciate this post on the importance of design history. Whenever I teach design or typography, I always add design history to complement the skill-based teaching. I use icons (individuals or studios) of design as vehicles to the skills. So far, it’s been a great way to teach, as it provides a good balance of theory and application.

    Heads up: I shall be directing my students to study your site from head to toe. Your enthusiasm and quality of content provide a very valuable design resource.

  12. Tanisha Clark January 21, 2011

    After reading this, learning about the history of Art and Graphic Design is clearer and easier! It is true that one has to learn about the past and history to make a great design. I now understand a lot more!

  13. This site is real benefit for the designer.

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  15. Morris proved that a market existed for works of graphic design in their own right and helped pioneer the separation of design from production and from fine art. The work of the Kelmscott Press is characterized by its obsession with historical styles.

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