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Evolution of Graphic Design: The Past and The Present

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Evolution of Graphic Design – From television to online ads and brochures, graphic design plays an essential part. In the last 60 years, it has seen exceptional growth and is advancing rapidly with the emergence of digital art tools. Though at present, it is used across modern applications, the actual term ‘graphic design’ goes back to 1922 when William Dwiggins had coined it. Since his personal work involved book design, lettering, typography, and calligraphy, he had used the term to describe what he was good at!

Even before the term was coined, graphic designing professionals drew by hand. The earlier designs included typography for books and newspapers. Many also argue that the cave paintings were a part of ancient graphic designing. In the 1900s, posters were a significant form of expression. In propaganda posters, slogans were short to their point, and graphics were added to set the tone.

Graphic design technically began after the advent of the printing press, which dates back to 1440, but the traces of visual communication stretches back to the early man/ caveman times. The date goes back to centuries, even before the world was ready for it. Learning about the history of graphic design can also inspire and inform modern designers with innovative ideas.

Evolution of Graphic Design

Cave paintings (38,000 BCE)

The early man inscribed the caves with subjects of animals, handprints, and scenes of hunting. Though historians have debated on whether they were trying to communicate with themselves or their gods, it is evident that humans had the knack for communicating through visuals.

Sumerian Written Language (3300-3000 BCE)

The Sumerians were the first to invent the written language. The first words were mere illustrated icons, not phonetic sounds. This conveys the natural ability of human beings to communicate complicated messages through visuals. For instance, in the modern context, designers use the magnifying glass icon to convey zoom in/ out in a limited space.

Chinese Printing (200 CE- 1040 CE)

Way back in 200 CE, the Chinese used wood reliefs to print and stamp on silk materials and later in the paper after its discovery. It was in 1040 that they invented the moving printing machine. But the similar technology took about 400 years to reach Europe.

Calligraphy (700s)

During the period of middle age, typography started to take off with humanity’s expansion of aesthetic horizons in letters and words. During this period, the texts were produced and replicated by human hands, and this artistry made the books more valuable. Especially in Islamic culture, typography was considered hugely important, as figurative arts were seen sinful.

European heraldry (~1100)

This led to the creation of, technically, the world’s first logo. It was the coat of arms logo used as a symbolic representation of family houses or territories. Like a logo, a house’s coat of arms is aimed to establish the values, characteristics, and styles of peoples.

Storefront signage (1389)

During the 14th century, beer and ale were popular as most of the water sources were polluted. King Richard II of England made a rule that all the alehouses must have signboards for the public to easily recognize them. This was not only first signage but also a branding tradition that is alive and kicking to this day.

Renaissance and industrial era

When the printing press was established in Europe, people started recreating texts and designs on a massive scale for lower prices. By the late 15th century, printing played an essential role by making knowledge from the ancient world available to all readers. This was when typeface designs emerged toward what are now called Old Style types. These were inspired by capital letters found in Roman inscriptions and lower case letters found in manuscripts.

Gutenberg press-1439

Johannes Gutenberg was the man who introduced movable type printing machines in Europe. This type of press removed the burden of lengthy reproduction of books, making literature available to the masses at an affordable price. It was the Gutenberg era that paved the way for commercial graphic design.

First print ads – 1620

Corantos, which were early information broadsheets are the precursors to newspapers. They were the first to feature printed advertisements at that time.

Chromolithography – 1837

The technological innovations started to fuel the progression of graphic design. It brought the ability to print in colors or chromolithography. Brands started recognizing a lot of marketing tools that are familiar to today. The characteristic color schemes started getting implemented. This made designers build emotional connections by creating colorful ‘slice of life’ scenes. The emergence of chromolithography brought a degree of realism, allowing advertisements to capitalize on attractive models and artistic usage of colors.

After the 1950s

It was from the 1950s the world slowly started approaching a digital era that we are currently enjoying. The mass adoption of home computers is a technological advancement, comparable to the invention of the printing press. This ushered a new age for mass communication, granting access to esoteric art styles and digital software for new methods of crafting art.

The invention of the designing giant ‘Adobe Photoshop’

The year 1990 saw significant advancement in graphic designing with the invention of Adobe Photoshop. Features like combining images, adding effects, and texts and editing were seen as a boon for designers. It made designing- faster, easier, and simpler.

There have been many historic moments in the evolution of graphic design. But sometimes. the influences, attitudes, and approaches combine to form a coherent movement that has a knock-on effect around the world. Many art and design movements have emerged over the centuries. Some of these centered over styles or approaches of a group of artists in a specific place. There are few influential art movements of the 20th century.

Impressionism and post-impressionism

This influential fine arts movement was started in France in the late 19th century by a small group of painters. They painted contemporary landscapes and scenes from modern life that focused on recreation. They completely abandoned the traditional-emphasis on the historical or mythological subject matter and were more interested in capturing the fleeting moments. The impressionists paid more attention to the transient effect of light, sound, atmosphere, and movement. Post-impressionism embraced the spirit of its predecessor’s movements, but also rejected some of its limitations. It used similar brilliant color palettes with short brush strokes but made the work less transient and experimental.

Arts and Crafts

There was a rise in mass production and a corresponding decrease of artisan craftsmanship during the Industrial Revolution. The reaction to this was a comeback of decorative arts across Europe, known as the Arts and Crafts movement. Such intricate handicrafts in the modern world were intensely criticized, but we can see how much the movement endures.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was majorly an ornamental movement in both Europe and the USA. The distinctive character of this style is the usage of organic asymmetrical linework instead of solid uniform shapes. These were applied across architecture, interiors, and jewelry as well.


Unlike depicting the natural conditions in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Cubism was about creating flat, two-dimensional, distorted objects, leaving away the accurate perspective in favor of surreal fragmentation.

Art Deco

It is a significant international movement that made waves across Europe and the USA. It takes many of its elements from Art Nouveau as well as Bauhaus and Cubism. Style, elegance, and sophistication are its main characteristics. It communicates through streamlined shapes, geometric ornamentation, and elaborate usage of expensive materials.

Abstract Expressionism

During the 1940s, this movement fueled the development of modern art. A huge canvas filled with powerful applications of paint strokes evoked everything from violence to sensuality and everything in between.

International Typographic Style or Swiss Design

Following World War II, graphic designers in Switzerland and Germany created a cohesive, unified and modernist movement that became to be known as Swiss Design or the International typographic style. This was all about crafting logical, modular grid systems that provided a structured framework to align different elements, which is now considered essential for most graphic design forms.

Pop Art

Majorly a British American cultural phenomenon that gained popularity in the late 1950s and 60s. It depicts everything from television to comic books to advertising. It ignores the pretensions of ‘high art’ and the expressive and subjective nature of expressionism that favors bold graphic printmaking.


It explored the essential elements of an art form, stripping away the additional details and emotional expressions, favoring the objective and purely visual aspects. It was hard edges, simple shapes, and clean lines that dominated the two-dimensional graphic artworks.

In this year 2020, graphic design has achieved new milestones. We are in the dawn of a new decade, and graphic designing is poised to reach new heights with designers exploring newer tools and experimental methods to unleash their creativity. It has brought a strong feeling that we are heading towards the next evolution of graphic designing. Let’s have a look at the graphic designing trends of 2020, which have already started to work.


Isometric projections makes three-dimensional object depicted on a flat two-dimensional surface. Being able to see the side and top of the design drive people to know more about it. Especially for businesses who give whose product or service looks good in 3D, isometric can work wonders. This technique also allows you to show more detail with less clutter.

You can also have a read on Graphic Design Psychology Explained

Shiny Metals

The usage of metallic materials in graphic designing has become ultra-trendy for branding, identity, and product design. It requires an overall minimalist design as the focus falls on the metallic effect. Commonly. designers use gold as it conveys luxury, class, and good taste. The same metallic effect can also be achieved using shiny surfaces on the top of matte surfaces in any color.

Earthy colors

By using the nuances of earthy colors and hand-drawn ink illustrations, graphic designers create compositions that convey the feeling of 50’s designs. This vintage style is used for brand identity, package design, typography, and lettering.

Ultra-thin geometry

Lines are the fundamental elements of graphic design that express the form and nature of the object. Geometric lines represent human-made and technical objects, whereas curvy lines illustrate more natural and organic forms. In 2020, designers combine these forms to create impossible shapes. These designs are based on stable geometry, and they look ethereal. They offer a metallic look but drift like smoke. Ultra-thin geometric shapes are sleek, abstract, and challenging to deconstruct without computer assistance. That is why this trend is prevalent in technology and industrial branding.

Paper cut-out collages

Collages trick your eye by showing one cohesive image where several others exist. But the pictures in 2020 have nothing to hide. Designers combine illustrations and photographs, leaving behind those with angular edges and white outlines that are made from cutting and pasting. This effect straddles the line between contrast and harmony, bringing together the different elements in style.

Hand lettering with a big personality

In recent years, typography has become bigger, bolder, and experimental in ways that we have not seen since print ads. Designers are proving that bold typographic forms put in white space can conventionally work in branding.


Unlike geometric shapes with strictly fixed edges and curves, liquid shapes suggest creativity, agility, and motion. They leave the edges to get a smooth and soft look, which many designers would want to recreate.


Graphic designers have started using monochromatic effects on images through various tones of a single color. It has become a trend that is being increasingly adopted in the digital world. This style encourages viewers to focus on the content, rather than the colors within the design.


Vintage-inspired look offers a complete feeling for any graphic design trends. In 2020, you will witness Victorian or medieval, art deco or art Nouveau and other prominent past art styles merging with modern designs in one particular chronological collage called Hyper-pastiche. The biggest challenge of pastiche is to make the contrasting aesthetics feel like they belong to a single cohesive piece.

Bevels and chisels

This movement created 3D forms from hard lines bringing back the classic struggle between skeuomorphism and flat design. But, designers have come with a trend to incorporate both. On the side of skeuomorphism, these designs subtly bring out real-life objects, but they are constructed out of flat colors. The result is a flat image that looks realistic.

The fundamental role of a graphic designer has changed. They have emerged from a one-off contractor to an essential part of any company’s team. Today all the brands rely on these graphic designers, not just for logos and tactical communication, but to establish their presence in the digital world and gain brand recognition. Graphic design is no more just an artwork but a process of establishing a real connection between customers and businesses using words, imagery, design, tone, and technology.

Today’s primary goal of graphic design is remembering that visuals aren’t just about making a brand look attractive, but rather about contributing to overall customer experience. Be it logo design or the images you post on each blog, graphic design is the key to great visual exposure. As the designers of the present and future, it is essential to know where graphic design came from and where it is heading towards.

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