The “So What?”

Throughout history, people have recognized the power of language and images.  Authors and designers have been influenced by culture and, at the same time, they have shaped culture.  Identity, power, and knowledge have been gained and affected by design.

Even prehistoric paintings show the ability and desire of the artist to create pleasure in the viewer. And in times of classical literacy, people developed cursives as a way the author could keep notes for himself in a simple and efficient manner.  It was writing for writing’s sake.

As early as 3000 B.C., people had a desire to identify themselves with marks in the sand and handprints.  Despite their assumptions that language was given from the gods, they recognized the value in identifying themselves with symbols.  Even monks, confined to a quiet, solitary life, left self portraits and complaints in their religious copying.

During the 400s, people began to read for sheer entertainment, recognizing that books held knowledge, power, influence, and cultural heritage.   Around the 1500s, the control of print meant political control.  Throughout this time, people yearned for books on any topic in the vernacular.  They wanted to read what they were capable of reading.  In the 1700s, newspapers proliferated.  People wanted what was current and relevant.  Censorship began to exemplify the known power of print.

The 1800s brought a new emphasis on images and the dangers of reading novels.  In response, aestheticism grew.  In the 1920s, advertisers recognized the power of images and began to wield that power.  The modern lifestyle of conspicuous consumption is a product of the design of the time.  Graphic persuasion moved into photography, public interest campaigns, and wartime propaganda.  In the 1950s, corporate images were seen as ways to mask the complexity and risk of investing in a company.

As a result, the 1960s brought pop culture.  With it, designers showed their awareness of their audience by including them in the game of advertising.  As technology progressed, people pushed more boundaries.  Computers left designers in control of every aspect of the design and left much designing in the hands of “anyone.”  The Internet, in turn, gave amateur designers a forum and an audience for their work.

The history of graphic design is married to the history of the book.  Language, design, and images are power.  But, they are only powerful when the author or designer has an awareness of the audience or readers.  As Ong writes, “To formulate anything I must have another person or other persons already ‘in mind’” (173).  The success of prehistoric paintings, cursives, newspapers, propaganda, pop culture, and YouTube are evidence of this.  Each has its place in history because of the role it has played in connecting creators with their audience.


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The Internet Beyond

The Internet has brought with it an easy way for amateur designers to get their work to millions, globally.  Not only can just about anyone create a flyer or brochure, but just about anyone can create a website or blog, for free, and publish it to the world.  As Edward Picot writes, “People’s desire to publish themselves and to look at each other’s efforts is itself a profit motor.”  The success of YouTube videos like “Charlie Bit my Finger” show the power of having the access to the audience of the Internet.  Issues of censorship are a thing of the past as the web allows freedom to publish anything.  Interestingly enough, this has brought “a new system where most creators make no money at all, while publishers do very nicely.”  Creators are now paid through the excitement of hundreds of millions of views.

The connections that creators make with their audience is beyond a mere nod in their direction.  Audiences are able to make a direct connection with advertisers, YouTube pioneers, and authors.  They can write to the creators and get immediate feedback.  Similarly, project such as Michelle Barrett Ferrier’s Digital Story Quilt (found at, trouble the concept of the creator and audience.  The designer has become the audience has become the designer.

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Digital Design After the 1970s

Computers offered designers the ability to control every aspect of the design. (323) This also meant that jobs once only graphic designers could accomplish were now the task of “clerical staff” (326).  Basically anyone could create and design a “flyer or brochure” (326).

It also meant a new understanding of the fact “that design was not just delivering information – it was information” (335).  The design affected the knowledge.  Computers were able to create a finished product so seamless that the hours it took to complete it were invisible in the finished product. (336) They made it seem like the machine itself had done the work.  Complex products became authorless.

And as Drucker and McVarish write, “The change in vocabulary – from international, to multinational, to global – reveals changes in thinking.”  It thinks of all countries as a “single entity” (337).  The computer’s ability to connect people has also connected their image.


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Postmodernism in Design 1970s-1980s and Beyond

Postmodernism is defined by “irreverence” (302).  In their work, designers questioned “the way basic categories like knowledge, power, authority, sexuality, discipline, and disease” previously had been displayed, pushing the boundaries of what had been done before. (319) Many questions arose as to what was appropriate in public design.

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Pop and Protest 1960s-1970s

People and advertising became incredibly self-conscious about their image.  Pop culture defined its image as “free-spirited” (281) with “a sophisticated sense of humor” (282).  It used people and objects as images. (283) Because of this, “Graphic design became chic, designers became hip, and the profusion of images increased” (283).  The audience became more aware of the design.

Likewise, consumers became aware of the persuasive techniques advertising was using, so campaigns were launched with “a knowing wink and nod directed at their audience” (282).  As Drucker and McVarish write, “Audiences responded to an acknowledgement that they ‘saw through’ advertising and were pleased to be included in the game” (285).  There was a glorification of youth, “luxury items, and “sin products” (286).  Graphic design flourished by acknowledging the growing awareness its audience had to its attempt to persuade them.  As Ong writes, “To formulate anything I must have another person or other persons already ‘in mind’” (173).  By keeping their audience “in mind,” advertisers continued to be successful in spite of, and even because of, people’s growing suspicion of advertisements.


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Corporate Identities and International Style 1950s-1970s

Graphic design began to be defined by a new “corporate culture” (259).  Brands became a way to make “complex organizations seem like a single entity” (260).  This was a way for companies to hide the complexity of their work, as well as the possible risk and cost to investors. (261) This branding “not only maintained the identity of a corporation but also added value to its products” (261).  Similarly, a few corporations hired artists to create more aesthetic campaigns. (268) The image of a company became more important as corporations sought to use their image to project a sense of solidarity to their stakeholders.

In the graphic design profession, the job became more dependent on the designers ability to manipulate technology, rather than the drawing board. (269) This trend certainly continued as the technology expanded and abilities grew.

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Public Interest Campaigns and Information Design 1930s-1950s

Public interest campaigns attempted to regulate cultural behavior “by promoting social norms as common sense” (237).  However they “rode a delicate line between informing the public and prescribing conformity” (237).  Similarly, documentary photography became more popular and photographers “often blurred disciplinary boundaries between fine art, commercial, editorial, and personal work” (245).  Public interest campaigns, photography, and wartime propaganda all aimed to “persuade by graphic means” (253).  The proliferation of images and the self-conscious awareness of the designer were heightened during this time.

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