More than Inks and Colors: The Wonderful History of Graphic Design

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A famous comedian, Demetri Martin, famously said, “Earth without art is just eh.” As humorous as the phrase may sound, it is extremely crucial to the art community and the significance of art in the globe. Can you picture a world without graphic design?

For instance, would anyone purchase a bag of chips with merely the word “chip” printed in strong black letters on a blank background? Moreover, how would consumers differentiate between brands without logos, and how would companies market their products creatively for their target consumers? In essence, art is vital to our everyday lives and to the economy. Graphic designs are seen wherever we look. This art form dates back millions of years and has unlocked the historical past of our ancestors.

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The term ‘graphic’ is derived from graphein, an ancient Greek word which means ‘mark-making’ and encompasses both written and sketched signs. Meanwhile, ‘design’ was derived from both the French word and the Italian word dessiner and disegno, that signified sketching, planning, and designing (Barnard, 2005).

The word first appeared in print in William Addison Dwiggins’ 1922 article, “New Kind of Printing Requires New Design” (Spiro, 2022).

Later, the term was used to numerous design-related publications, establishing a new topic field and art form. Kalman (1991) presents a concept of graphic design that is quite inclusive. He describes it as a “medium” and “a mode of communication” comprising of “the employment of words and pictures on almost anything, almost everywhere”.

The beginnings of graphic design may be traced back to cave drawings from around 38,000 BCE. These earliest types of cave paintings were used between generations as means of communication. The first cave artwork, titled ‘Pettakere,’ was carved in Sulawesi, Indonesia, around 35,000 years ago (Galvan, 2020).

However, scientists do not yet fully understand their precise function. Ancient humans painted walls with a mixture of dirt, charcoal, and spit or animal grease. Most subjects in these cave artworks were weapons, handprints, animals, and hunting. Although what they were discussing remains unknown, scientists and historians are certain that they communicated through visuals.

History and Development

The development of graphic design leaps in a greater height through languages and its visual representation using the alphabet. Cuneiform is an ancient Mesopotamian writing system created by the Sumerians c. 3500 BCE (Mark, 2022). During this time, only logographic records existed. Researchers emphasized that this logographic method of developing a language demonstrated humans’ innate capacity to employ visual representations to express complicated concepts.

The evolution of graphic design has progressed to enhance the era of printing. The origins of commercial design date back to 500 B.C.E. in China. Song dynasty craftsman and inventor Bi Sheng devised the first printing technique with moveable type, but this did not eliminate hand-cut blocks in Asia due to the vast number of blocks required to fit the vast number of letters in Asian languages (Hoh, 2021).

The late 1700s marks the start of Industrial Revolution. This age introduced modern technology for enhancing the efficiency and output of manufacturing processes, including design. Lithography was one of the most important design exports that came out of the Industrial Revolution. Alois Senefelder produced lithography, which is a way to print by putting ink on a rock or steel surface and transmitting the template to a piece of paper (Ives, 2004).

This breakthrough also led to the creation of chromolithography, a type of lithography that uses colored prints. As a result of the British Industrial Revolution’s introduction of cheaper and more effective printing methods, posters and the Art Nouveau style grew extremely popular among early designers.

Art Nouveau signified the opening of the European art world to Asian culture, as the British Arts and Crafts revolution encountered Japanese ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world,”. It was a famous genre of Japanese prints throughout the nineteenth century, which marked the transition from fine art to commercial art (The Art Story, 2018).

Like European poster painters, ukiyo-e was popular with the public and provided art to the everyday city dweller. Art nouveau was crucial because it pushed painters to depict their objects not precisely as they are, but via interpretative forms of expression, movement, and abstraction.

Voice through Art

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The global industrialization and commercialization of art brought new chances and means to transmit messages to a bigger audience than ever before; in many locations, new art forms provided suppressed and silent communities a voice. Efforts for women’s rights and justice started to include political activity into mainstream graphic design (Fussell, 2018).

Hilda Dallas, together with sister Irene, used poster art to vigorously advocate for British women’s suffrage. Activists like Dallas utilized male-dominated platforms in empowering women and make data about their demands more accessible and relevant. Print artists employed known characters, such as Joan of Arc or famous actors, to attract wider segment of customers outside of the fine art world.

The inclusion of renowned persons increased the impact of these campaigners’ statements. Even though women obtained the freedom to vote in the early 1920ss, discrimination persisted against some groups, particularly in the art and design profession, despite their substantial contributions.

Dorothy Jackson says in her 1968 article “The Black Experience in Graphic Design” that there are still comparatively few Black designers in the industry. Nonetheless, the very existence of these few Black designers suggests that it is attainable for young Black people to obtain proper training in the field of design.

Despite being sometimes disregarded, graphic artists of color have made major contributions to the area of design. Charles Dawson, one of the most prominent African American designers in the early 1920s to 1930s, was the first African American to join the Arts Students League. As a creator, visual artist, account executive, and marketer, Dawson is regarded as a pioneer for subsequent African American designers.

Women, persons of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals have long been a part of the visual arts community and have made significant contributions, but their history has not been as well acknowledged. Often, their views are not heard, and they do not have access to the physical resources, jobs, safe locations to work securely, or lack the education they require to fulfill their maximum potential and get greater public recognition.

The Letterform Archive (2020) replicated Jackson’s piece in which a current designer, Bobby C. Martin Jr., asserts that most jobs supporting Black culture were still handed to White designers. Martin remains optimistic, stating that the graphic design business for people of color is in the hands of young designers.

Graphic Design in the Philippines

In the Philippines, graphic design plays a vital role in delivering multimedia solutions for a vast array of sectors and applications. The use of graphic symbols to communicate thoughts and information may be dated back to the earliest days of the Philippines’ history.

The Baybayin, which is derived in Sanskrit, an eastern type of letters, is an early design form that is now termed typography. The renowned Laguna copper plate preserves the Baybayin script, making it one of the rare surviving objects and evidence of this writing system (Ruiz, 2019).

As a result of the arrival of the Spaniards and their propagation of Christianity, the people they touched altered the way they formed patterns. The first Filipinos designed patterns with sun symbols, spirit creatures such as the snakes, frogs, and other spiritual symbols.

Under the influence of the Spanish, these designs evolved into crosses, triangles, and other geometric patterns. Even the Katipunan, the clandestine revolutionary organization which fought liberation from the Spaniards, employed imagery influenced by Freemasonic emblems.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cigarette producers employed images of nature and even the visage of the national hero Jose Rizal on their packaging. Numerous Filipino companies have utilized Rizal’s picture on their packaging.

Other items, like matchboxes, had drawings depicting provincial culture and life on their packaging. Jowee Alviar, a graphic designer and co-founder of Team Manila, remarked that these designs were influenced by European typography and patterns. However, their semantic substance is distinctly Filipino.

Contemporary Influences

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Presently, the graphic design industry in the Philippines continues to expand and change, with designers utilizing the most recent technology and design principles to produce effective visual messages that are both inventive and efficient.

Internet expansion and the emergence of digital media have also had a substantial influence on the graphic design business in the Philippines, presenting designers with new opportunities and problems.

During the recent elections in May 2022, it has also been seen how graphic designs seem to the youth and people of the Philippines. Tarantadong Kalbo (TK) and other graphic designers have utilized their platform to advocate for their preferred presidential candidate.

In the era of Facebook frames, more aspiring young artists have risen to advocate for national elections and campaign for the truth using infographics. In the Philippines, graphic design plays a crucial role in delivering visual solutions for a broad range of disciplines and applications.

From the earliest forms of human communication to today’s complex designs, the history of graphic design in the Philippines is a fascinating and ever-changing tale. The rich history of Graphic Design has demonstrated that the art form has played a crucial role in the evolution of our society, proving that art is more than just inks and colors.


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