What is Graphic Design?

An Introduction to Graphic Design and Its Many Applications

Saul Bass Graphic Design
Saul Bass Graphic Design. Getty Images

The dictionary definition of graphic design is:

The art or skill of combining text and pictures in advertisements, magazines, or books.

While that's accurate, it also barely scratches the surface of what graphic design really is, and how important it is to modern society.
 

A Brief History of Graphic Design

Also known as visual communication, communication design, and commercial design, graphic design has been a part of human life for centuries.

There is evidence of graphic design in Greek and Roman architecture, Incan art, and illuminated books and manuscripts from the dark ages. However, the actual term "Graphic Design" was not coined until 1922 by William Addison Dwiggins, an American calligrapher and type designer. 

In the 1700s, graphic design and advertising techniques were employed in newspaper ads, albeit in a very rudimentary fashion. And over the 18th and 19th century, these techniques were developed not only in newspapers, but trading cards, public notices, and classified ads. 

However, it was in the early 20th century that the graphic design industry that we know today was born. The signage created for the London Underground, for example, is considered a masterpiece of the modern era. It used a typeface specifically developed for the project by Edward Johnston, and is still used today. 

Over the next 80-90 years, the design industry exploded.

Jan Tschichold's legendary book New Typography, published in 1928, was incredibly influential. Germany's minimalist Bauhaus school of design took the art to the next level, and set a strong foundation for today's graphic designers. And of course, designers like Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Adrian Frutiger, Milton Glaser, Alan Fletcher, Abram Games, Herb Lubalin, Neville Brody, David Carson, and Peter Saville took graphic design to a whole new level.

It now serves a crucial role in commerce, pop culture, and many aspects of modern society.
 

Applications of Graphic Design

Look around you. Take it all in. Graphic design is everywhere, from the wrappers on candy bars, to the logos on your mugs and office supplies. In fact, you will see hundreds of examples of graphic design every single day, and most of the time, you won't even realize the impact it is having on you. 

Graphic design can serve many functions, and to that end, it wears many hats. Just a few of the uses of graphic design include:

  • Signage
  • Corporate identity/ Branding
  • Packaging (everything from bottles to appliances)
  • Printed materials (books, flyers, magazines, newspapers)
  • Online (banners, blogs, websites, etc)
  • Album covers
  • Film and television titles and graphics
  • T-shirt and clothing designs
  • Greeting cards
     

This is only a small fraction of the many uses of graphic design. On some occasions, such as signage design, it must provide very clear and easy ways to covey information. The London or New York undergrounds maps are a prime example of this. The design simplifies something quite complex, making it easy to navigate and get to your destination. If the design were overly complex or artistic, it would impede the very function of the map, rendering it useless.

 

On other occasions, graphic design can go in the opposite direction. It can be jarring, hard to read, or make a statement that takes a while to "get." This is often seen in artwork on album covers, as well as poster designs, greeting cards, and other forms of disruptive design. Increasingly in this digital world, graphic design and web design go hand-in-hand. Magazines must have an online presence, and so to do newspapers, grocery stores, hospitals, and any other kind of business or charity you can think of. Therefore, the designers involved have to maintain a consistent look and feel across the many disciplines, with the digital design often guiding how the rest of the identity is created and executed.

But, however it is used, it's safe to say that without graphic design, modern society would literally fail to function.

It's not just to make things look pretty. It is a crucial part of commerce, and life. 

Five Notable Graphic Designers

You cannot talk about graphic design without referencing some of the greats of the industry. While there have been hundreds of superb, talented designers over the last few hundred years, the following five men created work that redefined the industry. 

  1. Saul Bass
    If you have seen a Hitchcock film, it's likely you know of the design skills of Saul Bass. His work on North by Northwest and Psycho was truly exceptional, as was other work for directors including Billy Wilder, Stanly Kubrick, and Otto Preminger. Bass is also responsible for some of the most famous logos in brand history, including Bell System, AT&T, Continental Airlines, and United Airlines. 
  2. Paul Rand
    Best known for his work on the IBM logo, Paul Rand (originally named Paul Rosenbaum) was a creative powerhouse that gave many brands their identities. Perhaps the most famous story about this revolved around the late Steve Jobs, and his company NeXT. Jobs approached Rand and asked for a logo, expecting him to come up with several options. Rand said "No, I will solve your problem and you will pay me. You don't have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people." Jobs did not talk to other people, and paid Rand $100,000 for his work.
  3. Milton Glaser
    Glaser is famous for two iconic pieces of graphic design - the I ❤ NY  logo, and the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, which he did in 1966 for his Greatest Hits album. In 2009, Glaser was awarded the National Medal of Arts by then president Barack Obama, and his wife Michelle, at the White House. Glaser's work continues to influece designers to this very day. 
  4. Alan Fletcher
    As one of the founding partners of Pentagram, Fletcher is not only considered one of the greatest designers of his generation, but of ANY generation. His work spans decades and is an exercise is simplicity, smart thinking, and understatement. His work on the V&A museum looks as good today as it did back in 1989, when he first created it. 
  5. Herb Lubalin
    If the name sounds familiar, you have almost certainly used the Lubalin font at some point in your career. Herb Lubalin was an exceptional designer and typographer, and created many fonts that are still widely used today, including ITC Avant Garde, Lubalin Graph, and ITC Serif Gothic. He also worked on magazines including Eros, Fact, and Avant Garde. His logo for Mother & Child magazine is a materpiece.