History of Graphic Design.

In essence, I am an artist. Through my years—and even throughout the day—I wear a variety of artistic hats. A morning started as a graphic designer might morph into the afternoon of an illustrator, or the evening of a face painter. Over the weekend I might moonlight as a fine artist, makeup artist, creative writer, paper cutter, sculptor… My passion for art extends beyond medium and into the act of creation itself.

I have always been like that. Even when it comes to art I have always wanted, needed, to learn new things. And so, here we are.

Since one of the goals for this #LearnMeSomethingNew exercise is to develop my professional skills—you know, something practical to add to these hours chasing my new endeavor—I figured the best place to start would be the history of graphic design. I am an artist, yes, but let’s be honest and say that 90% of the art I am paid for is graphic design. It is my bread and butter, so why not learn more about how my profession came to be?

I visited the Library of Kirby and checked out “Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide”.


Graphic forms carry their history encoded as conventions, charged with cultural values—and loaded with social implications.

Okay, I am on page xxii and already this book (which I have read before, I swear) has blown my mind. I guess that’s the difference between reading for the grade and reading for pleasure. My mind didn’t see this tidbit as important the first time around—in 2012 when I was enrolled in Kerry Steinberg’s “History of Graphic Design” class at Otis—because it wasn’t a testable fact. When taking notes for future exams I breezed past this gem, turning it into white noise that wasn’t even worth of being copied into my notebook. Coming back to it now, after working as a freelance artist and graphic design professional currently reading a textbook for pleasure (yes, you read that right), those words hit me in a much different way. Yes, this concept might not be essay question #2 on the final exam, but it is still something important.

It is a spark.

Think about it. How much does design dictate the way you perceive information? Do you read a recipe the same way you read a receipt? A tabloid the way you read the bible? Does your PennySaver have as much authority as the LA Times? Even when looking at examples that share similar content—such as a Fleming’s menu versus the board at your local Domino’s—you still value them differently. Because the manner in which they are designed is a direct manifestation of the reputation they hold.

An official press release from the White House, publicized with hot pink, Comic Sans type and low resolution clipart would be unable to command respect. (Not that our current POTUS can command respect anyway, but that’s a different blog for a different time.) Even if you had two pages in your hand sharing the exact same information, the copy using an effecting grid featuring crisp, black Garamond* type with an official gold foil seal will always leave a greater impact. That is because “the authority of any particular text is often linked to the codes of its presentation.”

The concept is so simple. So straightforward. So everyday. And yet I have never thought about that before.

Do you know how shameful that is, as someone who designs for a living, to admit? But hey, like I said, it was a spark.

And I’m thinking about it now.

*Shoutout to Suvir Mirchandani who initially petitioned the Government in 2014 to “Change your typeface to Garamond, save millions”. It turned out he was incorrect, unfortunately, but it was still a fascinating idea!

The spark started to die around Chapter 1, I’m afraid. I started to feel like I was in school again (not in a good way). My eyes kept glancing over words, zoning in and out of paragraphs so by the time I reached the end of the page I had no idea what I was reading. You know the feeling. I kept trying to read it, to get absorbed and involved and to learn me something new, but it just wasn’t working. I sighed, putting the book in my lap. I was letting myself down.


I’m doing this for me. For growth. For fun. If I didn’t want to read the first chapter, did I really have to? There’s no test at the end of this, no pop quiz, so why not do exactly what I felt like doing: just looking at the photos and skipping ahead to the good stuff?

Jeez, Kirby. Way to take things too seriously.


In the Middle Ages… publishing became an industry, serving specialized needs in medicine, law, and theology.

Hey, that’s me! Well, my career that is. We are in Chapter 3 now, learning about “Medieval Letterforms and Book Formats”, with the above quote grabbing my attention enough to make me finally settle down and read.

In the 5th through the 8th centuries, monasteries became the institutions most concerned with producing texts.

In the briefest of recaps, what we skipped in Chapters 1 and 2 was a discussion of how cave paintings and early mark-making developed into alphabets that eventually needed to be organized to best communicate their message. They needed graphic design. Chapter 3 covers the years 400-1450, beginning with an age where the codex was born (multiple pages bound together on one edge; basically, a book) and everything was handwritten by monks.

In the beginning, reading, writing, and publishing was for religion. With limited resources, only the word of God was deemed worthy enough to be recorded (nothing like today where anyone can publish their very own 140-character tweet, even our POTUS). The ability to write, and the tools to make it happen, was limited to a select few. This not only made the act of reading and writing seem both exclusive and extravagant, it also widened the separation between classes. The notion of teaching everyone to write was, as of yet, a preposterous idea.

Publication was done by hand, but works were produced in multiple copies.

Tangent here. Publication done by hand might look glamorous and sound amazing, but it’s not. Have you ever taken a Typography class at Pasadena City College? One that you think is going to be about how to lay type and design posters but turns into a grueling 3-month lesson on how to write type by hand? No? Well, let me tell you, it’s awful. Your hand hurts, your wrist cramps, you never figure out how to use a French curve, and it is just seriously awful. See that image below? That took me almost two months to create. No, that isn’t an exaggeration. And it wasn’t fun.

Miss Kirby

Back on track (and apparently completely forgetting what I just said above), this idea actually has some potential. Graphic design is crisp and clean, but the trends are slowly flowing into more organic territory. Typography and logotypes are embracing the idea of “open” and “friendly” design, steering away from strong, bold serifs that distance themselves from the viewer and instead favoring wider, more curved, lowercase versions of their ancestors.

In a world of sans-serif posters, wouldn’t something hand-drawn stand out? The spark is back.

Medieval lettering was linked to specific geographical locations… A number of monasteries established in Europe beginning in the fourth century would become renowned for their particular graphic styles.

Since writing was exclusive, lettering and the act of writing was taught to monks, by monks, at specific monasteries. The way you write is dictated by your teacher, not just the way you hold the pen, so essentially, each monastery developed its own style. Its own typeface.

Of course, none of them were perfect. (What, you thought all illuminated manuscripts looked like the perfect ones you see in museums? Goodness, no. Fun fact: most medieval text was ugly, covered in mistakes and notations. Only the beautiful pages were worth displaying today.) Over time, across multiple pages, a monk’s specific handwriting style began to shine though, known as his hand. Some were praised and adopted as the monastery’s specific style, but others were dismissed. “Although individual talent and skill were recognized, copying was the central feature of Medieval writing and art work. Originality was not prized as highly as virtuosity.” During this time, an exact replica was what was desired. They wanted a “competent imitation,” not an original flourish. Definitely different than the art world today, where copyright reigns supreme and even a daycare can be sued for having a mural of Mickey Mouse.

I wonder how many of today’s artists would have been able to survive during that time. How would I handle it, someone giving me something that I had to recreate perfectly? What if it was ugly? And I couldn’t make it pretty? Nope. Couldn’t do it. Fuck that.


*Fun fact: While a perfect copy was desired, forgery between sources was still an issue. When working with pivotal material, they would use chancery—“an elaborately elongated handwriting used for official documents”—to reduce the likelihood of a successful duplicate. Basically, they tried to one-up each other with fancy handwriting.

When scholarly study joined prayer… books acquired chapter headers and other navigational devices.

So, I reviewed this section a few times to try and find a rough timeline of when “scholarly study joined prayer,” and I’m sorry, but I have no idea. In the ninth century we built more churches; and because “books did not circulate,” it meant that books were placed in specific locations and scholars were forced to travel in order to read certain works. Then, in the eleventh century, literacy began to develop, leading to an increased need for written works, so… Somewhere between there? Yea, let’s go with that.

Anyway, while it was acceptable for the word of God to be read as a stream of consciousness, when scholars joined the mix things needed to get a little more organized. Think back to stone slabs. If you only had one foot of real estate, why wouldn’t you cover every inch of it with text? With minimal resources at your disposal, why waste any of it on headers or negative space? There was no grid to follow; your boundary lines were simply the edges of the surface you were working on.


But, once you had to relay specific, teachable information, that technique no longer worked. Think about how hard it would be to reference a specific fact in 200 pages of edge-to-edge, size 8, Calibri font. No paragraph delineations, no bold text, no alternate colors, just pure uniformity… And absolutely useless. Being different isn’t a bad thing; sometimes it’s important to stand out (especially when in a book).

And so they developed a basic grid. Columns, paragraph breaks, chapter titles, indices, and tables of contents were introduced to enhance legibility. We were slowly creating the basics of graphic design.

*Fun fact: Page numbers weren’t seen as a necessary element until the printing industry came to be. Since all books were bound together already, pages were never out of order until they had to be printed and assembled at an outside source.

**Not-so-fun fact: Yes, by now I realize that I have become a little overzealous in my blogging task and have written almost 2,000 words and probably lost the majority of you around the first 1,000… Seriously, is anyone still reading? I am loquacious. I am sorry.

As time went on, publishing advanced. Papyrus (too brittle) turned into parchment (too scarce, made of animal skins) which turned into paper around the ninth century (made of mulberry bark; thanks, China!), which was later made more affordable (made of linen fiber; thanks to the Arabs) and encouraged paper-making to spread to Spain (eleventh century) and Italy (thirteenth century).

*Fun fact: The Church frowned on paper, “because of its associated with Islamic culture.” While that is an embarrassing fact, it is an interesting note to realize that certain types of works were recognizable simply by the materials they were written on.

Mentioned earlier, in the eleventh century “written language became increasingly integrated into social and administrative functions in every area of cultural life.” Books were not just for monks anymore, and not even just for scholars; they were for the people. Everyday life now included the written word, meaning that people needed to see it, read it, and understand it, and we needed to mass produce it. With a wider audience, not only do you gain more eyes on the final product, you now have more requirements to consider. A monk’s needs are different than a scholar’s, which differ from a business’; and differences are not just about content, they are also about the context.

They are about the design.

It’s important to note that around this time illustrations became almost as important as text itself. Botanists could not teach a subject about specific herbs through a solo description. Mathematics and astronomy required charts and graphs. When beasts are described through words alone, you can end up at inaccurate conclusions like the painting below. Illustrations are important.

oudry lion

*Fun fact: This painting is from the collection of Jean-Baptiste Oudry, a fabulous artist and the main attraction for the Getty’s “Oudry’s Painted Menagerie” exhibit I visited in 2007. Unfortunately, while all of his paintings were realistic to a fault, the only animal he had never seen in person was a lion (hence the cartoonish quality of the lion’s face).

The addition of illustrations changed the essence of design, as well. Words and pictures began to interact with one another, playing off each other’s lines and boundaries, placing a distinction between them. And without the ability to simply erase one’s mistake, true writing (and illustration!) talent became even more highly valued. Flaws in maps, anatomical drawings, and star charts had larger consequences than a misspelled word, as any distorted information was then taught to the next audience, and corroded even further which each sequential copy. It was the worst game of telephone ever played, and “irregularities caused by artists of varying skill were an impediment to scientific knowledge that only the standardization brought by print technology in the fifteenth century could overcome.”

But alas, we are not there yet. We have only just reached the 14th century… So that is a story—or blog—for another time.

In the final lines of their copying, monks often commented on the tediousness of their work, on their cramped hands, aching necks, or weary eyes.

And on that note, me and my weary eyes are out.


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