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What can really be learned from the history of graphic design?
COVER: The History of Graphic Design. Vol. 2, 1960–Today by Jens Müller, Julius Wiedemann
It’s a question asked both inside and outside the boardroom, the classroom and even home alone while running your own company. But if you’re still wondering what inspiration you can soak up with graphic design, it’s worth checking out the recently-released Taschen book, The History of Graphic Design Volume 2.
“The exciting thing about graphic design is the fact that it is defined so much by the visual spirit of the times,” says the book’s author, Jens Müller. “I personally believe that it is most important to always find the right balance between longevity and contemporary style.”
The book looks at graphic design history over the past 60 years and features over 3,500 images, but it not only highlights some of the best pieces in design history, but highlights some of design’s greatest thinkers. There are over 100 biographies of graphic designers. From magazine covers to logos and band posters, it shows really how graphic design has evolved from simplicity, to stylistic overload and through the digital revolution. Since the book is organized chronologically, here are the decades covered in the book and the standout designers and some pieces from each chapter.
The History of Graphic Design, vol. 2 Taschen Books
The 1950s: The Industrial Age
In the 1950s, graphic design was riddled with cursive script and seafoam green backgrounds. Another trend was emerging: Geometric design, like the trend of overlapping, transparent squares for promotional material in the music industry and in food adverts. This section shows the colorful results of a repressed decade, including highlights from German designer Ernst Roch to Japanese designer Toshiiro Katayama. From overlapping and multi-colored circles, triangles and squares were used everywhere from Japanese package design to Brazilian record album covers. “The use of geometric forms in graphic design began with the Swiss Style,” writes Müller in the book. “It became one of the most commonly-used basic approaches in design.”
Dylan, poster, 1967 © Designer: Milton Glaser (United States), left from The History of Graphic Design, vol. 2 Taschen Books
The 1960s: The Hippie Era
While mostly Beatles album covers dominate this era, the German editor and writer behind this book offer an alternative—modern, minimalism from Europe. One key highlight is a poster by German designer Hans Hillmann, from 1964. Promoting Kieler Woche (or Kiel Week in English), the poster promotes the world’s largest sailing competition, and it is also a competition for design. Since 1950, the annual event has been hosting poster competitions with a selected committee of designers, and the winning design “reads like a who’s who of graphic design.”
Kieler Woche, poster, Germany, 1964 © Design: Hans Hillmann (Germany)
The History of Graphic Design, Vol. 2 Taschen Books
The 1970s: Post Psychedelia Brashness
Unknown Pleasures is the debut studio album by English rock band Joy Division, released on 15 June 1979 by Factory Records. The design was in fact a computer-generated illustration created by graphic designer, Peter Saville. As lore has it, Saville said the band gave him a page from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy from 1977, and asked him to use it as inspiration for the album cover. “The diagram itself is a cutting of the continuous read out and then a stacking,” Saville told Rolling Stone. “So what you’re seeing is this comparative chart of the frequency and the accuracy of the signal.”
Book cover by Kiyoshi Awazu, Japan, 1970
This section of the book also features a Book cover by Kiyoshi Awazu, a Japanese designer, from 1970, who helped found the new wave of Postwar Japanese graphic design with bright, hand-drawn Technicolor designs that aimed “to extend the rural into the city, foreground the folklore, reawaken the past, summon back the outdated.” This is also the decade when Massimo Vignelli designed the New York subway system’s wayfinding system.
The History of Graphic Design, vol. 2 Taschen Books
“Unknown Pleasures”, Joy Di
vision, promotional sticker, United Kingdom, 1979© Design: Peter Saville (United Kingdom)
The 1980s: The rise of Pop Art
The Memphis Group, a group of designers that began in Milan with a dream to overtake the world with bold, colorful design, are at the heart of 1980s graphic design—the collective of designers were so influential, some claim that MTV had their first logo inspired by the group, which helped influence the entire look of the decade. There’s also pop art and Andy Warhol. One highlight from this era is a Rolling Stones-esque record cover from Croatian band Prljavo Kazalište, designed by Mirko Ilić. There’s also an entire section here devoted to distorted typography, whimsical fonts and words bleeding off the page.
Prljavo Kazalište, record cover, Croatia (former Yugoslavia), 1979 © Design: Mirko Ilić (Bosnia and Herzegovina/United States)
The 1990s: The Grunge Era
Most are willing to recognize that the 1990s were not the most iconic decade for design, it was marked with typewriter fonts, alternative rock, Calvin Klein ads and photos by Helmut Newton. This was just before Kashiwa Sato created the brand identity for Uniqlo, a red square, which proved that logos could be super simple while delivering a direct message. It’s also around the same time Austrian illustrator and typographer Stefan Sagmeister, known for his stunning hand-written designs, was creating Grammy Award-winning covers for albums by Aerosmith and Talking Heads.
Blade to the Heat, the Public Theater, poster, United States, 1994 © Design: Paula Scher, Pentagram (United States) (left). “Set The Twilight Reeling”, Lou Reed, poster, United States, 1996 © Design: Stefan Sagmeister (Austria/United States) (right).
The 2000s: The Digital Age
This section features New York design legend Milton Glaser’s 2001 poster “I Love New York More Than Ever,” which was distributed after the September 11 attacks. New York designer Paula Scher (founder of the design agency Pentagram) took five minutes to design the logo for Citibank, when she penned it on the back of a napkin in the middle of a meeting with bank executives. Many envious graphic designers looked up to her, since she was paid $1.5m for her logo design.
I Love NY More Than Ever, poster, 2001 Designer Milton Glaser United States
There are pages of design work from London designer Neville Brody, who has designed album covers for Depeche Mode, BBC and The Face magazine covers through the 1990s. But he has also written the world’s best-selling book on graphic design—which touches on the stigma of the digital era and design. “The situation has flipped, so that the more you communicate the more you are part of the mass,” he said. “The less you communicate, the more it probably means you are part of the elite.”
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About Nadja Sayej
Nadja Sayej is a culture journalist and photographer who covers architecture, travel, design, technology and art. She writes for The New York Times, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Guardian, Forbes, Harper's Bazaar, among others. She has written four books, including Getting Your S*** Together and Biennale Bitch. Follow her on Twitter at @nadjasayej and check out her work at nadjasayej.com.