McCoy, Katherine, 'American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography', Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.
The debate continues-- is graphic design an art, science, business, craft or language? Graphic design in the United States has operated under multiple identities since its inception with each of these identities dominant at one moment or another. And each may predominate from one project to the next in a designer's practice today. Often, graphic design is defined as a duality, combing two of these definitions, such as craft/language or business/art. This identity crisis is confirmed by the lack of agreement on a name for the field. Graphic design, visual communications and visual design are all thoughtful names in current use. A variety of archaic terms persist including commercial art, layout and graphics design.
Unlike its venerable cousin architecture, graphic design is a very new design expression, a phenomena of the last hundred years. A spontaneous response to the communication needs of the industrial revolution, graphic design was invented to sell the fruits of mass production to growing consumer societies in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rapidly expanding reproduction technologies provided the means for graphic design's participation in the vast economic, political, technological and social changes of that era.
American graphic design's roots lie in European type cutting and book printing. This precursor to the profession was imported to early America as part of our European cultural inheritance. For literally centuries, from the invention of moveable type in the early Renaissance to the twentieth century, bookmaking, typesetting, and type design were an integrated craft and industry centered in publishing houses. This long tradition approached typography and book design as the visual presentation of verbal language, with a premium placed on clarity and legibility. Decisions in type design emphasized clarity rather than expression, relying on the words themselves for the expression of content. Typography was neutral to the message and made no attempt to be interpretive. Craft was highly valued and books developed increasing elegance and refinement as the years progressed, codifying this classical book approach into the standardized traditional text format that continues as the standard of book text today.
However artful the book design, the element of function relegated this activity to craft status rather than fine art. The predominance of text made this tradition largely a verbal language expression. Illustrational imagery was used sparingly in early books due to technical difficulty. When used, it represented literal phenomena and rarely mixed with the text or headline typography. Interpretive symbolic imagery was left to painting, or "high art". Through the centuries painters have employed whole vocabularies of visual nonverbal symbols to convey meaning to their audiences, who were able to decode meaning through learned associations, the result of shared cultural experience.
It was not until the early twentieth century that meaning was embedded in visual typographic form. The early Modern revolutionary artists of Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, and De Stijl turned their attention to text and visual communications as well as the more traditional areas of fine art, rejecting the traditional divisions between the fine arts, applied arts, and crafts. Functional expression was embraced as well as the "purer" self-expressive goals of high art-- function was not viewed as the enemy of art. In particular, the Russian Constructivists retained their artists' identities even as they took on the role of public communicators in the Russian Revolution. The Bauhaus unified art, craft and design in a coherent philosophy and sense of identity. Several early...