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 Designhistory.org

From 15th century typography to the digital revolution of graphic design, Designhistory.org 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 Amazon.com
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 Amazon.com
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.