Get your pencils ready! We’re about to embark on an in-depth lesson about the history of graphic design. Why? Because graphic design exists everywhere around us—on web pages, social sites, mobile apps, business logos, billboards, TV commercials, restaurant signs, paper flyers, and more. And if you’re using graphic design to fuel your business, reach marketing objectives, and engage audiences, it helps to know how this art form evolved and where it might be beheaded.
First, let’s nail down a comprehensive definition. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, graphic design is “the art or profession of using design elements (such as typography and images) to convey information or create an effect.”
Historians can trace the origins of graphic design all the way back to cave paintings in 38,000 BCE. However, with a focus on business and marketing, we’re going to start our lesson with the first instance of graphic design as we know it today.
So, without further ado, let’s take a trip through history to explore the beginnings of graphic design, discover how it led us to where we are now, and consider what the future of graphic design might look like.
The history of graphic design
The term “graphic design” first appeared in a 1922 essay by William Addison Dwiggins called “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design.” As a book designer, Dwiggins coined the term to explain how he organized and managed visuals in his works.
Still, we can go back even further than that for our history of graphic design
The 1760s: The Industrial Revolution and lithography
The Industrial Revolution, which sparked in the late 1700s, brought with it new technologies for increasing the efficiency and production of manufacturing processes—including design. As one professor noted in his lecture on the history of design systems, “Graphic design is a relatively young way of expression, primarily a response to the needs of the industrial revolution.”
Lithography was of the biggest design exports of the Industrial Revolution. Invented by Alois Senefelder, lithography is a method of printing that involves inking your design into a stone or metal surface and transferring it to a sheet of paper. This innovation also gave way to chromolithography, which is simply lithography but with colored prints.
Here, for example, is a chromolithographic poster advertising a train system in Boston.
With this new method at their fingertips, people could easily design eye-catching posters for products, events, political movements, and even home decor. Lithography also freed artists from the constraints of the printing press, allowing them to hand-craft and mass-produce their own designs, instead of only using pre-cut blocks of text and imagery.
The 1890s: Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a global design movement that heavily influenced architecture, fashion, and graphic design in the late 19th century. As stated on the Tate Museum website, art nouveau is characterized by sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes based on plant forms.”
You’ve definitely seen art nouveau posters in the wild, like this famous one from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1893. It depicts a dance performing at the Jardin de Paris.
Art nouveau was significant because it encouraged artists to convey their subjects not exactly as they are, but rather through interpretive forms of expression, movement, and abstract representation.
1903: Wiener Werkstätte
At the birth of the 20th century, painter Koloman Moser and architect Josef Hoffmann founded the Wiener Werkstätte, meaning “Vienna workshop” to be a “productive cooperative of artisans” who valued high-quality craftsmanship.
In response to increasing industrialization, this collective prioritized individual expression, and avant-garde creations. However, it did spark a trend of design characterized by its geometry and modernism, and “square style,” as in this poster:
These stark patterns and sharp lines even foreshadow the digital designs and graphic templates yet to come.
Modern graphic design as we know it today can be traced back to the Bauhaus school in Germany. Founded by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus launched a new way of thinking that combined arts and crafts, classical and avant-garde styles, form, and function. Bauhaus designs incorporated minimalism, geometric shapes, and simplistic, new typefaces.
As Meaghan O’Neill wrote for Architectural Digest, “The result revolutionized how ordinary people experienced everyday life through the objects they touched, used, and relied on. If you’ve ever admired a teapot from Target or appreciated the elegance of an iPhone, you already inherently understand the Bauhaus’s impact.”
1947: Paul Rand’s corporate logos
Paul Rand redefined advertising when he helped some of America’s biggest corporations shape their brand identities with logos. Think IBM, UPS, ABC, and American Express—all huge companies that were transformed by Rand’s designs. In fact, the IBM logo he created in the 1970s is still in use today—proving that effective design doesn’t just bridge the gap between companies and people, but also stands the test of time.
“Rand’s ads have words and pictures, but they’re all fused into one symbol,” said Donald Albrecht, curator of a Rand exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. “He thought he was bringing art to advertising.”
He was—and the effects of his work are still seen today in how brands market themselves and engage consumers with the power of just one symbol.
The 1970s: Postmodernism
Postmodernism emerged as an evolution from and rebellion against modernist ideas. By its very nature, postmodernism doesn’t subscribe to a certain set of ideals. But postmodern designs often questioned authority, flipped ideas on their heads, and approached all that came before with skepticism and irony.
Image: Marilyn Monroe (1967) by Andy Warhol from MoMa website
In the history of graphic design, this movement is often associated with others such as conceptualism and pop art. So in this era, you’ll see Andy Warhol deconstructing American icons like Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe’s portraits. And you’ll see Jackson Pollock ditching his easel for more experimental and expressionistic forms of painting.
The 1990s: Digital tools
In the late 20th century, digital tools took pencils and paintbrushes from our hands and provided new, revolutionary ways of creating and distributing graphic designs. Photoshop, for example, was launched in 1990, as a graphics editing platform that anyone could use to build professional-grade designs. More rudimentary programs like Microsoft Paint also made graphic art accessible to the masses.
Even the way we interact with graphic design changed. In 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer. It contained a simple, user-friendly interface and said “Hello”—introducing us to the computerized world that was created for consumers and that invited consumers be creators themselves.