The History Of Print & Graphic Design

The technology of today allows the creative industry to produce magnificent pieces of work that not only inspire and influence but also help sell products, including newspapers and other publications.

Yet, its origins are fundamentally the perseverance of our language; to pass on words, stories and messages and, as early as prehistoric times these took the form of cave paintings to codex in the Roman Age- humanity strives to record what we see, hear and feel for not just a generation but generations afterwards.

Peinture des grottes de Lascaux II, Dordogne  (24).

Example of cave paintings before the time of civilisation

By tracing the history of print and graphic design in unison, the evolution of these areas can be greatly appreciated in how they benefit the modern age.

Credited with being the grandfather of many of the features of typography still existing today, as well as inventing the printing press in 1455, German-born inventor Johannes Gutenberg’s ’42 line Bible’ does indeed have the honour of being the first ever book printed from moveable type, but the craftsmanship and production of books, manuscripts and scrolls had long existed centuries before.

The earliest printed book is thought to be the ‘Diamond Sutra’ originating in China and dates back to 868CE. The Buddhist holy text, printed with Chinese characters and wrapped around a wooden pole, may not even be the most historic example of print because of the fact paper-making and printing were already well established before this time. The first recorded inventor of paper, courtier Ts’ai-Lun, presented paper and the process itself to the Chinese Emperor around 105AD, therefore the probability of books existing prior to the time of the ‘Diamond Sutra’ are highly probable.


Section from The Diamond Sutra

Two hundred years later, still in China, in 1041, an alchemist named Pi Sheng derived ‘Moveable Type’, consisting of separate pieces each having a chinese character carved on a small block of clay and glue. Only millimetres thin, the process of hardening it by fire made the type as durable as porcelain.

The website ‘‘ describes the process used to undertake Moveable Type, ”He composed texts by placing the types side by side on an iron plate coated with a mixture of resin, wax, and paper ash.”

In Western society before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, text and illustrations had to be all carried out by hand. This duty was mainly undertaken for scribes who lived in Monasteries and worked diligently in rooms called ‘scriptoriums’. In silence, scribes would measure the page layout and then go on to meticulously copy the text from one book to another. Adding designs and embellishments to the pages after the scribe had finished, the illuminators would produce artwork for them.


An Illuminator’s work.

Due to the hours of labour into making just one of these books, only Monasteries, educational institutes and rich people in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages would have been fortunate to of owned one, and normally themed on religion.

But it wouldn’t be until the 15th Century were printing would be revolutionised by Gutenberg’s Press; not only bringing down the price of print but also making it accessible to a much wider audience. The press first used wooden, then later metal moveable type and consisted of ink being rolled over the raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters and then pressed against a sheet of paper. As Mary Bellis, inventors expert, states, ”This method of printing can be credited not only for a revolution in the production of books, but also for fostering rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the transmission of texts.”

Johannes Gutenberg Biography

This method would remain the standard until the 20th Century, with newer technologies being based on Gutenberg’s printing machine; for example, offset printing which is a ‘printing technique whereby ink is spread on a metal plate with etched images, then transferred to an intermediary surface such as a rubber blanket, and finally applied to paper by pressing the paper against the intermediary surface. ‘

The birth of the broadsheet newspaper in the early 17th Century allowed for news to be circulated on a massive scale. And with the invention of linotype machines in the late 19th Century, made the process of setting type easier; producing type made from molten lead and placing them in trays ready to be printed from.

As two main forces, ‘Mechanical’ and ‘Commerce’ became driving forces in the print industry, a further force came into effect- ‘Standardisation’. Contributing to universally accepted areas including measurements, ingredients, terminology and processes surrounding the process.

With all the technical advancements of the 20th and 21st Century, the print industry bloomed. As you can see from the ‘UK Printing Facts and Figures presentation’ taken from ‘’ in 2010 the UK was the fifth largest producer of printed products in the world, in a sector worth £14.3 billion, employing 140,000 workers. Notable successful companies include Penguin, News Corporation and Bloomsbury.

The accessibility of printing must also be noted too; in 1938 Chester Carlson invented a dry printing process commonly known as a Xerox, this would build the foundations in which laser printing was built upon. In 1976 the inkjet printer was invented but it was not until 1988 that printers in the home were to be made available- with Hewlett-Parkard’s Deskjet inkjet printer.


The first consumer printer, the Hewlett-Packard Deskjet.

Advancements made in computer technology and software in recent years has allowed for what can be created and produced drastically easier and comparable to professional institutions. As stated in the article ‘Printing Yesterday And Today’ on The University Of Texas’ website, ”Although some of the printing techniques (we have discussed) are still used, many have been revolutionized by the invention of computers. Today, a student using a personal computer is simultaneously doing the jobs of author, editor, and compositor.”

The digital age and particularly the internet has made content readily available for millions of people on multiple devices, and from this, the requirement for print has lessened and this has been reflected over the previous years in the industry. Midlands News Association, publisher of Britain’s largest selling regional daily paper, announced it would axe 76 jobs. Figures also released indicated that year by year sales of The Express & Star and The Shropshire Star fell in the second half of 2013 by 12% and 15% respectively.


Future Publishing’s CEO Zilah Byng-Maddick

CEO of Future Publishing Zilah Byng-Maddick spoke at the Association of Online Publishers autumn conference in London this year, confessing how the evolution of the industry has led them to no longer consider themselves as a publishing business but to take the philosophy of being ‘creators of content.’

”At Future, controversially, we no longer consider ourselves to be publishers…At the centre of everything we do is to create content that connects. It spins the wheel that drives our business.”

Our culture rests upon design, central in forming notions on beliefs, trends and thought-patterns in general- sometimes subliminally without us even realising it. American typographer William Addison Dwiggins is acknowledged with coining the phrase ‘graphic design’. Producing advertising material, posters, pamphlets and creating two typefaces which are still used today; ‘Electra’ and ‘Caledonia’, the Ohio-born designer said in 1922, ”In the matter of layout, forget art at the start and use horse-sense. The printing designers’ whole duty is to make a clear presentation of the message.”

WAD hair

American Designer William Addison Dwiggins

Graphic Design is distinctive in style and is used in a variety of formats including typography, image manipulation, logo design, packaging and page layout design. There is also an underlying battle between the client and the designer in whether form or function prevails.


1920’s modernist advertisement.

In the 1930’s modernism had entered popular culture, inspiring art featured within the commercial sector and logos; realising the need for easily recognizable visuals. Art Deco, inspired by numerous cultures including Pre WWI Europe, was another popular movement in the early 21st Century that influenced design. Post World War II saw graphic design more readily accepted in society, mostly due to the ever-increasing commercially and the need to catch audiences’ eyes.


Art Deco poster.

Aaron Kitney, a freelance graphic designer wrote on that ”Modernism covered many creative disciplines from design and art to influencing architecture, music and literature. The power of machines forced artists to strategically re-think their practice, the results were revolutionary and still influences designers to this very day. This new technology provided the opportunity for mass production, and the machine itself became a theme in modernism.” Aaron goes on to say how communication, graphic design and typography too changed because of this movement.

Personal computers provided a new platform for artists to create designs from the software tools on offer. Over time, the digital age would allow collaboration between people across the world to work on designs together simultaneously, creating new fields of design including interactive design. Designers today would use software such as Adobe Illustrator or InDesign to produce their work, before that, most would draft out sketches on paper which not only saves on costs but a way to experiment with initial ideas also. Increased diversity in the platforms in which graphic designers can showcase their work, mainly thanks to the internet and social media; with such sites as ‘deviantART’ and ‘RedBubble’ making their work stretch across a large audience and gain accolades virtually instantaneously.

Examples of key graphic designers of our age include Paul Rand, Chip Kidd and Neville Brody. All producing various works for different mediums including book covers, magazine design and typefaces.

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The print industry and graphic design are synonymous with each other and the advancements of each has benefited society on not only an artistic level, but also that of educational, recreational and commercial areas too. And as design evolved, the theory of ‘form follows function’ became stronger in graphic design, each having to compliment the other, as a means of communication through visuals.

A powerful example of a message conveyed through graphic design.

A powerful example of a message conveyed through graphic design.

Simplistic design, yet it sums up the theme of the product perfectly, which is something Chip Kidd discussed in the TED video.

Simplistic design, yet it sums up the theme of the product perfectly, which is something Chip Kidd discussed in the previous TED video.


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