Graphic design, the art and profession of selecting and arranging visual elements—such as typography, images, symbols, and colours—to convey a message to an audience. Sometimes graphic design is called “visual communications,” a term that emphasizes its function of giving form—e.g., the design of a book, advertisement, logo, or Web site—to information. An important part of the designer’s task is to combine visual and verbal elements into an ordered and effective whole. Graphic design is therefore a collaborative discipline: writers produce words and photographers and illustrators create images that the designer incorporates into a complete visual communication.
The evolution of graphic design as a practice and profession has been closely bound to technological innovations, societal needs, and the visual imagination of practitioners. Graphic design has been practiced in various forms throughout history; indeed, strong examples of graphic design date back to manuscripts in ancient China, Egypt, and Greece. As printing and book production developed in the 15th century, advances in graphic design developed alongside it over subsequent centuries, with compositors or typesetters often designing pages as they set the type.
In the late 19th century, graphic design emerged as a distinct profession in the West, in part because of the job specialization process that occurred there, and in part because of the new technologies and commercial possibilities brought about by the Industrial Revolution. New production methods led to the separation of the design of a communication medium (e.g., a poster) from its actual production. Increasingly, over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advertising agencies, book publishers, and magazines hired art directors who organized all visual elements of the communication and brought them into a harmonious whole, creating an expression appropriate to the content. In 1922 typographer William A. Dwiggins coined the term graphic design to identify the emerging field.
Throughout the 20th century, the technology available to designers continued to advance rapidly, as did the artistic and commercial possibilities for design. The profession expanded enormously, and graphic designers created, among other things, magazine pages, book jackets, posters, compact-disc covers, postage stamps, packaging, trademarks, signs, advertisements, kinetic titles for television programs and motion pictures, and Web sites. By the turn of the 21st century, graphic design had become a global profession, as advanced technology and industry spread throughout the world.
Typography is discussed in this essay as an element of the overall design of a visual communication; for a complete history, see typography. Similarly, the evolution of the printing process is discussed in this essay as it relates to developments in graphic design; for a complete history, see printing.
Manuscript design in antiquity and the Middle Ages
Although its advent as a profession is fairly recent, graphic design has roots that reach deep into antiquity. Illustrated manuscripts were made in ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. While early manuscript designers were not consciously creating “graphic designs,” scribes and illustrators worked to create a blend of text and image that was at once harmonious and effective at conveying the idea of the manuscript. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which contained texts intended to aid the deceased in the afterlife, is a superb example of early graphic design. Hieroglyphic narratives penned by scribes are illustrated with colourful illustrations on rolls of papyrus. Words and pictures are unified into a cohesive whole: both elements are compressed into a horizontal band, the repetitive vertical structure of the writing is echoed in both the columns and the figures, and a consistent style of brushwork is used for the writing and drawing. Flat areas of colour are bound by firm brush contours that contrast vibrantly with the rich texture of the hieroglyphic writing.
During the Middle Ages, manuscript books preserved and propagated sacred writings. These early books were written and illustrated on sheets of treated animal skin called parchment, or vellum, and sewn together into a codex format with pages that turned like the pages of contemporary books. In Europe, monastic writing rooms had a clear division of labour that led to the design of books. A scholar versed in Greek and Latin headed the writing room and was responsible for the editorial content, design, and production of books. Scribes trained in lettering styles spent their days bent over writing tables, penning page after page of text. They indicated the place on page layouts where illustrations were to be added after the text was written, using a light sketch or a descriptive note jotted in the margin. Illuminators, or illustrators, rendered pictures and decorations in support of the text. In designing these works, monks were mindful of the educational value of pictures and the capacity of colour and ornament to create spiritual overtones.
Manuscript production in Europe during the Middle Ages generated a vast variety of page designs, illustration and lettering styles, and production techniques. Isolation and poor travel conditions allowed identifiable regional design styles to emerge. Some of the more distinctive medieval art and design approaches, including the Hiberno-Saxon style of Ireland and England and the International Gothic style prevalent in Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, were used in manuscript books that achieved major graphic-design innovations. The Book of Kells (c. 800 ce), an illuminated Gospel book believed to have been completed in the early 9th century at the Irish monastery of Kells, is renowned as one of the most beautiful Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts. Its page depicting the appearance of Jesus Christ’s name in Matthew 1:18 is called the “Chi-Rho page.” The design presents the monogram XPI—which was used to signify Christ in many manuscripts—as an intricately designed pattern of shimmering colour and spiraling forms blossoming over a whole page. The Book of Kells’s Chi-Rho page is a paradigm of how graphical form can become a metaphorical expression of spiritual experience: it clearly conveys the sacred nature of the religious content.
From the 10th through the 15th centuries, handmade manuscript books in Islamic lands also achieved a masterful level of artistic and technical achievement, especially within the tradition of Persian miniature painting. The pinnacle of the Shiraz school of Persian manuscript design and illustration is evident in a page illustrating the great 12th-century poet Neẓāmī’s Khamseh (“The Quintuplet”). This page depicts the Persian king Khosrow II in front of the palace of his beloved, Shīrīn. Human figures, animals, buildings, and the landscape are presented as refined shapes that are defined by concise outlines. These two-dimensional planes are filled with vibrant colour and decorative patterns in a tightly interlocking composition. The calligraphic text is contained in a geometric shape places near the bottom of the page.