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As a complement to the evening classes on Graphic Design I’m taking at Central St. Martin, I’m browsing through the Graphic Design literature; and recently came across something quite unique: The Story of Graphic Design, by Patrick Cramsie (British Library, 2010), a very personal journey through the evolution of Western Graphic Design narrated via stories of designers, design creations, technological innovations and social changes. The Story of Design is richly illustrated – surprisingly, this is not always the case in Design books! – and makes reading itself a very pleasurable experience of transitions between words and visuals.

In 329 pages, filled with examples and case studies, Patrick Cramsie takes the reader through the main stages in the evolution of Western Graphic Design, from its earliest mural, stone and ceramic expressions to the latest digital creations. There are twenty stages, each clearly marked by the emergence of a new way of doing; with many overlaps and coexistence of styles; some radical ruptures and many gradual evolutions. The overall image is that of a relatively linear evolution, driven by constant exploration, accelerated by social and technological change, but also challenged by radical, disruptive approaches.

The twenty stages are:

  1. The origin of the alphabet (c. 34000 – 1100 BC)
  2. Ancient Greece and Rome (c. 2000 – c. AD350)
  3. Illuminated Manuscripts (c. 350 – c.1500)
  4. The Birth of Printing & Early German Printing (c. 1455 – 1530)
  5. Renaissance Italy and France (c. 1460 – 1600)
  6. Dutch Renaissance & Popular Prints (c. 1530 – 1700)
  7. Rococo, Transitional and Modern (c. 1700 – 1820)
  8. Display Types and Victoria Design (c. 1800 – 1880)
  9. Neo-Gothic and the Arts and Crafts (c. 1840 – 1910)
  10. Art Nouveau (c. 1880 – 1914)
  11. Sachplakat and First World War Graphics (c. 1880 – 1920)
  12. Futurism, Dada, De Stijl and Constructivism (c. 1900 – 1930)
  13. Bauhaus and the New Typography (c. 1919 – 1933)
  14. Traditional Typography (c. 1910 – 1947)
  15. Commercial Modernism (c. 1920 – 1960)
  16. Swiss Typography (c. 1945 – 1972)
  17. Illustrated Modernism and Psychedelia (c. 1950 – 1970)
  18. Punk (c. 1975 – 1985)
  19. New Wave and Postmodernism (c. 1970 – 1990)
  20. Digital Expressionism (c. 1984 – )

The Story of Design is narrated from the perspective of style: “that recognizable way of doing or making something”; but a multi-faceted perspective that looks at an artist’s unique production, what is common to a group of artists, commonality of genre and choice of medium. Rather than being analyzed in terms of the social forces, the influence of technological innovation or the creative force of groups of designers and artists shaping graphic design style, the book focuses on the formal property of graphic design, what the salient features of a particular design are and which factors play a role in understanding why they look the way they do. In the case of the style of a logo, for instance, the analysis focuses on the elements that make up its form, the relationship between these elements, and the design’s overall expression to explain what some of the features might be and how they might work.

Also, contributing to the book’s overall clarity is a clear definition of what Graphic Design is (p. 10 – 11):

  • the combination of words and picture, and any of the visual elements in between, such as logos or symbols, which contain various word-like and picture-like qualities;
  • two-dimensionality, whether printed onto paper of illuminated on a screen, graphic design usually exists on a flat surface. An important corollary to this flatness is that invariably it is framed by the simple geometry of a rectangle, with all the compositional forces that this format brings to bear. The contrast of shape, tone, texture and color thrown up by a single spatial plane help to define what is unique about a particular work. They make it recognisable;
  • It is both geared towards and a product of a process of reproduction. Whether a design exists in print or on a screen-based display, its particular form will have been influenced by the technology used to reproduce it. The centrality of reproduction is what distinguishes graphic design from most forms of fine art. Graphic design depends on an image’s reproducibility.

Eclectic is also the selection of examples. Graphic design is everywhere, so examples come from print, packaging, maps, album covers, shopfront, advertisement, cartoons, motion……In the book, one class of graphic design artifacts stands out however: posters, described by Patrick Cramsie as:

The main embodiment of Graphic Design: its single rectangular surface and generous size make it uniquely suited to communicating simple ideas with words and pictures. It produces self-contained graphic statements, it’s stand alone, and can be easily reproduced in other formats.

While retracing the evolution of Graphic Design, there are some innovations that truly stand out and feel transformative. I had this feeling at four transition points.

When Art Nouveau came about (p. 149), illustration took over. Until then, graphic design was dominated by book printing format: “a centered arrangement with a central block of horizontal lines of seriffed letters capitalised and punctuated according to certain accepted conventions”. The full-page illustrations used in posters, book covers, advertising used text sparsely to communicate the overall message, and led the way to a simplified design language made up of simple graphic images with minimal typography.

When words were freed from the rectangular text box layout in Mallarme and Apollinaire poetry first, immediately followed by Marinetti and the Futurists, the expressive power of letters and words was unleashed. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, wavy and circular arrangements created a new sense of space and movement; enhanced by using words of differing size, style, weight: “liberating the text from the rigid frame of four uniform margins and the convention of strict horizontalism and use of single typeface”.

These two radical innovations leading to a new balance between words and images based on pure elements, such as the abstract shapes: line, circle, triangle; a basic color palette: red, black, white (red, blue, yellow); dynamic layouts created by the combination of geometrical alignment and diagonal lines.

A third remarkable innovation is the grid system to allocate specific style and position to each piece of information on the page so as to enhance recognition, reading, understanding and memory; and convey clarity and authority, with the line space and column width of the main text as main organizing units:

Every element of the page is fitted into a series of rectangular sections or ‘fields’ whose height matched standard line space and whose width either matched or was a simple division of the width of a standard column. In this way, all parts of the page could be aligned or related to each other spatially.

Finally, the New Wave introduces layering, together with flexible use of the grid to create various kinds of unorthodox and decorative typographic arrangements, including breaking up letterforms in order to test the limits of legibility.