The Hidden History of Graphic Design

When we think of the “greats of graphic design history,” names like Saul Bass, the Bauhaus style movement, or even the “See America” posters come to mind. Graphic design and design as a whole is constantly evolving to match the needs of both patrons and consumers, and current design has been influenced by everything in its history.

By Amber Evans

A large part of this history, however, is often overlooked; the stories of where or who a design came from are oftentimes untold. Understanding current trends (and oppressions) in design goes hand in hand with understanding its origins.

While design history is often seen as starting with Western-driven printing technology, the base of commercial design was first created in China as early as 500 CE. Song dynasty artisan and inventor Bi Sheng created the first printing technology with movable type, but this didn’t replace hand-cut blocks in Asia largely due to the sheer number of blocks that would be needed to accommodate the large amount of characters in Asian languages. It wasn’t until 1450 AD that movable print was re-invented in Europe. By then, Asian woodblock printing had evolved into full color images using several blocks for different colored ink, and printing technology had spread from China to Japan and across Central and South Asia.

Graphic design as we know it began to take shape in the late 1800s, and the term was coined in 1922. As the British Industrial Revolution brought even cheaper and more efficient means of printing, posters and the Art Nouveau style became very popular with early designers. Art Nouveau marked the European art world’s opening to Asian influence, as the British Arts and Crafts movement met Japanese ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world,” were a genre of Japanese prints popularized in the 1800s, which began the movement away from fine art and toward the commercial. Like poster artists in Europe, ukiyo-e were very popular with the masses and brought art to the average townsperson. The commercialization and commodification of art across the world provided new opportunities and mediums to spread messages to a larger audience than ever; in many places, new art forms gave silenced, oppressed groups a new voice.

Pushes for women’s rights in particular began to open mainstream graphic design to political activism. One example is Hilda Dallas, who, along with her sister Irene, protested fiercely for British women’s suffrage through poster art. Activists, like Dallas, used male-dominated mediums to empower themselves and make information on their causes accessible and relatable. Print artists used recognizable figures, such as Joan of Arc or popular actors, to appeal to a new set of consumers outside the world of fine art. Including notable individuals boosted the effectiveness of these activists’ messages. 

While women won their right to vote in Britain in 1918 and in the United States in 1920, some groups were still discriminated against, especially in the art and design field, despite their massive contributions. Cipe Pineles, born in 1908 in Vienna, Austria, was one of the first women to work as a director at a major magazine. She worked at Seventeen, Charm, and Glamour during her career in New York, as well as working as an illustrator and the Director of Publication Design at Parsons School of Design in the 70s. She redesigned magazines to be more minimalistic and focused on women, and her style still influences editors today. Additionally,  the work of designers like Muriel Cooper, along with computer-age designers including Susan Kare and Zuzano Licko, women remained at the center of the graphic design world.

In the 1968 article “The Black Experience in Graphic Design,” Dorothy Jackson writes, “The fact is, of course, that there are still just relatively few black designers in the field. Yet the very existence of even these few designers would indicate that it is possible for young black people to receive adequate training in the design profession…. The problem – for everyone – is to get more black people into positions where they can make their own unique contribution as designers.” While often overlooked, BIPOC graphic designers have made significant contributions to the field of design. Charles Dawson, who is known as one of the leading Black designers of the 1920s and 30s, was the first African American admitted into the Arts Students League. As a designer, fine artist, account manager, and salesman, Dawson is known as a leader for African American designers that followed him. Another Chicago artist, LeRoy Winbush, was also a “great motivator for designers of color,” Vernon Lockhart of the Professional Association for Design explains. Winbrush made a name for himself through his bank window displays, airbrush work, creating his own brand, and many other contributions to the field.

BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ people have always been a part of and made notable strides in the art and design communities, yet their history has tended to not be as publicly recognized. Often, their voices are not heard, or they do not get the proper access to physical resources, positions, safe places to work comfortably, or education that they need to reach their fullest potential and become more recognizable to the public. Current designer Bobby C Martin Jr. says, “Graphic design is about communication. We need a more diverse mix of industry gatekeepers. We need design writers to seek out more inclusive stories—and to help rewrite history.” It is not a question of where past and future graphic designers are, but a question of why we don’t see them. Increasing the visibility of these artists through viewing, studying, promoting, and sharing their work comprises just some of the ways that we as consumers of art and design can help bridge the gap of inequitable visibility for these creators and ensure that their work is recognized and celebrated.