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 the 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 (Dwiggins, William Addison) 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...