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A Brief History of Graphic Design

The term “graphic design” entered the English lexicon 100 years ago, in 1922, when William Dwiggins coined the phrase to describe the art of using graphics, icons, or other visuals to convey design messages. But humans have been practicing the underlying principles of graphic design – representing complex ideas in simple visuals – since the earliest cave paintings were completed thousands of years ago.

Pre-Graphic Design Graphic Design

The earliest examples of graphic design by humans came from pictography – the use of symbols to represent words and meanings – which was the birth point of all world languages. Pictography merged into typography, the design of letters and fonts, in Latin and other alphabet-based languages, while languages like Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean adopted logographic forms. Earlier still, in ancient times humans practiced graphic design through cave paintings, which varied between pictograms, symbols used to represent physical, extant concepts, and ideograms, symbols used to represent abstract and nuanced ideas.

1800s to 1940s: Enter Graphic Design

Two events spurred the creation of graphic design as its own discipline and, eventually, industry. The first was the Industrial Revolution, which revolutionised production processes across the Western world in the early 1800 but decimated the living conditions of the working classes. By the early 1900s, workers’ rights movements had begun a redistribution of wealth away from the wealthiest 1%, giving regular citizens disposable income and kick-starting the advertisement industry and modern Western consumerism.

The second was the World Wars of the early 20th century, which introduced the use of graphic design for political propaganda. During the 1940s, graphic design produced persuasive patriotic propaganda designed to vilify the enemy and encourage citizens to join the war effort. Famous examples from World War II include the British “We Can Do It” poster with Rosie the Riveter and the US “We Want YOU” poster featuring Uncle Sam.

1960s: Products and Advertisements

By the 1960s graphic design was at the heart of Western consumerism. In British and American homes, adverts using graphics to capture the reader’s attention adorned every newspaper, and products covered in bright colours and impactful images lined the shelves.

By the end of the 1960s televisions were becoming a common sight in UK homes and graphic design began being used for television adverts and commercial shows.

1990s to Present Day: Technology and Computer-Based Graphic Design

In the 1990s technology began revolutionising graphic design as we know it. Software programmes like Photoshop joined the industry, allowing professionals and amateurs alike to experiment with new techniques and test the limits of computer graphic design. For the first time in human history, graphic design was no longer produced by hand.

Fast forward to today, and the technological advancements around graphic design have created near limitless ways we can manipulate images or create graphics from scratch.

Graphic design has reached a point where, if you can imagine it, you can create a visual representation of it. The graphic design industry has also never been more accessible, with countless options available for basic graphic design software available on the internet for free, anybody with a net connection can start designing graphics, icons, and visuals.


Here at Gareth Wright Design, we can design you a unique eye-catching business card Based in Tameside, Manchester we cover all aspects of print and social media design.

Visit our website at Gareth Wright Design and social media platforms.


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