Graphic design has been historically intertwined with developments in technology, politics, and media at large. This is the basic premise of the new book A Visual History of Graphic Design, which takes a broad view of culture through the lens of graphic design. Written and designed by Jens Müller and Julius Wiedemann, who both have backgrounds in graphic design, the book shows more than it tells. Covering the span of 1890 to 1959, it includes decade maps that illustrate design advancements alongside historical events. Some of these have clear visual implications, like the founding of Pepsi-Cola in 1898, the formation of the Disney corporation in 1923, and the opening of the Empire State Building in 1931. Other events have political significance, like the founding of the Nazi party in 1920, the stock market crash in 1929, and the founding of NATO in 1949. We don’t often think about the reverberations of historical events such as these on visual culture, but as the book shows, visual culture both shapes and is shaped by culture at large, dramatically impacted by world events.
Consider the decade map of the 1940s, during which the US entered and ended World War II. The war engendered a deep sense of patriotism in the West. War visuals seeped into popular culture: in 1942 Casablanca premiered with a poster adopting the visual language of war propaganda posters, a color palette of red, yellow, and blue with bold lettering across it. Muller highlights that the success of the war left Americans feeling prosperous and caused a boom in industry production. Advertising and magazine publishing became driving forces in the new economic boom. It’s interesting, then, to note the start of the French newspaper Le Monde in 1944, a paper devoted to world politics as the war was winding down, and Ebony magazine in 1945, an American lifestyle magazine targeted to African-Americans. The chronology does not analyze each event it lists, but rather leaves them open to our connections. It’s hard not to draw a line from the economic success in the States leading to the opportunity to create a magazine for the African-American community. These decade timelines provide an opportunity to visually scan what was happening over the years, connecting history to visual culture before digging into the graphic details.
Within each decade there is a spotlight on designers, companies, or inventions that impacted the period. The 1800s highlights lithography and the integration of multiple colors and image and text. Alongside the commercial printers were artistic designers like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose work now hangs in museums, but whose theater posters were iconic of 19th-century Paris. Alphonse Mucha, an Art Nouveau artist, also designed theater posters. He became famous for his iconic “Mucha woman,” a seductive, otherworldly creature. In addition to recognizing fine artists, the chronology also includes important art world developments. It spotlights artistic movements that were particularly influential, such as Futurism, De Stijl, Dada, and Bauhaus, which each challenged the established use of design elements like type, blank space, and color.
A Visual History also emphasizes the link between politics and design. Both World Wars led to propaganda posters and realized the power of political images to carry messages to the masses. The women’s suffrage movement effectively utilized this graphic power. In the United Kingdom, H.M. Dallas made posters that integrated the slogan “Votes for Women” with simple illustrations of women in long dress holding newspapers and picket signs. In the US, newspapers featured allegorical visuals such as one titled “The Awakening,” showing a woman dressed in flowing garments like Lady Liberty, marching from the West Coast towards the women on the East, who grab towards her and the vote. In Brazil, O Malho (1902–54) the first color magazine in the country, popularized images directed specifically at the working class. The artwork favored the use of few bold colors, as in a black and yellow cover showing a sign painter quickly scrawling the magazine title on a wall.
In the 1950s, though the Cold War continued, a sense of optimism spread as humans raced to reach space. The first rocket was launched in Florida in 1950 and nine years later NASA was founded. Alongside this, television and broadcasting expanded, bringing color news and entertainment to people’s homes, where eventually they would eagerly watch evolutions in space travel. With this optimistic spirit and new potential for advertising came new design languages — in the US, type became increasingly stylized, in Switzerland they pioneered sleek minimalist modern design, and in Poland they embraced expressionism in their posters. In the early 1950s the New York Times began a new advertising campaign, directed by George Krikorian and Louis Silverstein, that played off of the minimal qualities of text. Breaking up the Time New Roman logo against basic geometric shapes and colors, the designs were visually legible and easy to digest, effective for a publication with a worldwide audience.
A Visual History is sprawling in size and scope. While not an in-depth study of graphic design, the book is like a zoomed-out map, pulling at various threads throughout the years to reveal the constant rippling effect of global events on visual culture.
A Visual History of Graphic Design: Vol. 1, 1890–1959 by Jens Müller and Julius Wiedemann is now out from Taschen, 2018.