Graphic designer at his desk

The Rise & Fall of Graphic Design

Origin Story (Abridged)

Graphic design has existed in one form or another since, probably, the cavemen decided to communicate their feats in those wall-painted sagas. Monks in the Middle Ages laid out illuminated and hand-written books according to well-established form. And the Romans were famous for their raunchy street graffiti.

However, the XIX century saw the advent of advertising as an industry and the current flood of visual and auditory stimuli slowly came to be what it is these days. And yet, the profession of “graphic designer” wasn’t defined back then either. Design choices were made by different players, from typesetters to printers to artists and illustrators.

Fast-forward to the beginning of the XX century, in particular the work of groups like the Dadaists and the Bauhaus as well as individuals such as Cassandre, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy or Jan Tschichold in Germany, Switzerland, France, etc. These practitioners of what was then labeled “commercial art” set the foundational methods for the profession of graphic designer.

Regardless, there weren’t too many professional designers as such and the role was far from widely admired or, even less, recognized at the company board level.

The Rise of Graphic Design (Abridged)

In the middle part of the XX century, graphic design came to its apex and the era of the celebrity graphic designer saw its dawn. Who in the industry hasn’t heard of Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Josef Müler-Brockmann, Armin Hofmann, Milton Glaser, Alexander Girard or, later-on, Neville Brody, Emigre, Paula Scher or Susan Kare?

At their hands, we saw the implantation of a distinctly rationalistic, modernist and international design style that culminated in the amazing programs and (by now cult) brand identity manuals for NASA, British Rail, IBM, Correos y Telégrafos, and so many others.

This is a time during which, briefly, design was admired worldwide even though it would never truly achieve the respect it craved in the form of the (proverbially absent) “seat at the table.” Back then, newbies had “idols” to emulate, designers who were in a constant pursuit of excellence and meaning in their work.

Personally, my first exposure to graphic design dates back to the late 80s and early 90s while I was in college. I purchased my first Macintosh computer (image by appleclub.pl) in 1988 and that started a decades-long dedication to graphic design as a discipline. First for print, and then for the web.

Around 2010, with the relative maturation of app and web design/development, I began to observe that the conversation in graphic design circles shifted from the perpetual request to be thought of as key and strategic to, finally, having what was then called “design thinking” enshrined in the pantheon of corporate jargon. This was right around when people started referring to graphic design as “visual design” because they thought “graphic” was an old ugly word borne out of, yuck, PRINT!

We had arrived at the final nirvanic destination. Or so we thought.

The Fall of Graphic Design

These days, the democratization of design and wide access to extremely powerful digital tools that were first introduced during the 80s with the popularization of the Macintosh, have come home to roost.

Now, everyone with a computer can (and do) hang their shingle and start charging for their graphic design services.

There are many good things about this democratization. There are also many bad things. I wouldn’t be the endearing and curmudgeonly old me if I didn’t focus on the negative for this post.

In most countries (there are a few known exceptions) the graphic design we see in our public spaces is south of ugly — and also hard to read and use — and barely north of atrocious, on a good day. The web is no different, again with notable exceptions.

As I said, this is due to how easy it is to work as a freelance graphic designer, how low the barrier of entry has become because everyone has access to very powerful and cheap applications and stock libraries online — and let’s not consider the recent spate of AI programs.

Just go to Fivrr or Upwork and marvel at how people claim to produce your logo for $50 or your money back — I haven’t looked, but I assume this is true-ish.

Canva and its templates can make a “graphic designer” of anyone’s great grandma. With respect to older generations.

The result is that we have such deluge of bad — and quite a bit of good — graphic design that we don’t know what to do with it all.

But you know what? The world keeps on circling the Sun, industries flourish and die, people make money or not, commerce keeps on keeping on, and capital is generated while vast wealth accumulates in places other than my pocket.

Because, let’s face it, society has been right all along in not making graphic design to be more than what it is. A software engineer can build a website on his/her own while a designer without coding skills never could. A construction company could set up signage for an airport without a designer, but a designer could never install the signs, let alone build an airport.

Would these designer-deprived websites and airports be beautiful, interesting, fun to visit? No. But they would do the job they were meant to do, more or less.

At the same time, those professions that are considered key — doctors, engineers, lawyers, bankers, soldiers — allow society and its barely upheld civilization to survive…but what would we survive for without beauty, interest, fun…pleasure, enrichment, poetry? What would life be like in such a colorless world?

So, are designers all that frivolous in the end?

All I know is that this all-you-can-eat access to design industry news, inspiration, tools, and contacts through Behance, Dribbble, and so on is “doin’ me ’ead in!” I’m an old curmudgeon so I wish we had a little more curation, less noise, more meaning, less empty style and decoration, more rigor again, in sum.

Oh, those old Emigre magazine issues! Who knew ye!