An introduction to the history of graphic design

There are three main types of communication: spoken, gestural and graphic. Spoken and gestural communications are in their essences ephemeral, it requires close contact for a message to be sent and received and after the moment of transmission is gone forever. Graphic communication, on the other hand, decouples that relationship. With its invention, it became possible for the first time for a message to be transmitted and preserved beyond a single moment and place in time. It is a very powerful tool, for shaping the world and how we live in it.

Visual Communication Design

Visual communication is the image that appeals to the human sense when it reaches the brain through the eye. It allows the viewer to interpret and response emotionally or physiologically.

Based on the definition from Webster dictionary, graphic design is the art or profession of using design elements (as typography and images) to convey information or create an effect. It is also a product of this art. We can say that it is visually communicating an idea, thought, message or meaning, to create, inspire, teach, persuade, inform, entertain, enhance or even change.

Although the term was not coined until 1922, by book designer William Addison Dwiggins, the history of conveying messages by images and typography goes back a long way in time.

Early examples of graphic design – Petroglyphs and Pictograms

The history of graphic design can easily begin from the cave paintings. Back then, the prehistoric humans were marking their daily lives or the things that they valued, as paintings on the walls of the caves that they were living in. Whether for decoration, keeping track of time, preserving hard-won knowledge, conveying experiences or for religious purposes, the manifestation of human culture can be traced back to 30.000BC to the Chauvet Cave, in the south of France. In other continents and from different time periods, we can find many other rock or cave paintings which are apt testaments to the very long history of graphic design, a history that is shared amongst humanity.

Lions Painting, Chauvet Cave (museum replica)
Lions Painting, Chauvet Cave (museum replica)

When we investigate these paintings, we do not only see the graphic representations of living animals, events and the people but also shared symbols that may have originated back from Africa where these people were coming from. These graphics provide us with rare glimpses into the creative world and imagination of these early artists. They eventually evolved into symbols representing objects or ideas which were man’s first version of writing until alphabets were introduced.


Proto-writing in the prehistory dates back to c. 3000 BC. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr in Mesopotamia and date back to 3300 BC. Early cuneiform writing – distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus –  emerged in 3000 BC.

Blau Monuments
Blau Monuments ~ 3000 BC

The Blau Monuments, a pair of inscribed stone objects from Mesopotamia, now in the British Museum, are the oldest artifact known to combine words and pictures. The founders of the written language, the Sumerians, and other civilizations created their own marking systems to represent the oral language into scribes. They used stone tablets as the medium to preserve these written artifacts. Unfortunately, it was very hard to preserve and transfer the messages that were written on stone. This was the same for the Egyptians who were living along the Nile River until they came up with a revolutionary technology, papyrus.

Egyptians and The invention of papyrus

The development of a papyrus, around 2600 BC, a paper-like substrate for manuscripts, was a major step forward in Egyptian visual communications. In ancient times, the Cyprus Papyrus grew along the Nile River and the stems were stripped, cross-hatched, and hammered until they were a single sheet. The Ancient Egyptians used papyrus as a writing material, as well as employing it commonly in the construction of other artifacts such as reed boats, mats, rope, sandals, and baskets.

Egypt Papyrus
Papyrus from Egypt, anonymous, Egypt.Papyrus.01, CC BY-SA 3.0

We can see that the Egyptians were the originators of what is today defined as “visual communication design”.  Around 3000 – 4000 BC, Egyptians used written messages in combination with images to convey various socio-cultural values that were at the roots of their system of beliefs. They used closely correlated elements both in graphic design and hieroglyphs. The compositions were well balanced, harmonious and adhere to certain minimalism principles.

The weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the Dead.
The weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the Dead

The artists used flat areas of color to enhance order and clarity, and compose figurative scenes in horizontal registers. The figures were portrayed emotionless since artists wanted to avoid the transient aspect of life, as they were interested in eternal features and immortality. Whether carving statues or painting figures, the Egyptian graphic designers used a grid system in order to adhere to a canon of aesthetics, which determined some strict ratios. The grid system thus allowed artists to create striking compositions of harmony and consistency that are scalable to colossal statues or tiny figures in hieroglyphic scripts. The Egyptians believed that the pleasures of life including the times of prosperity could be made permanent by depicting scenes like a feast, hunting in the marshes, harvesting grain, ceremonial offerings, and so on.

Hypostyle hall in Karnak temple
Hypostyle hall in Karnak temple

Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system used for monumental inscription in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom period. During this period, the system made use of about 900 distinct signs. The writing system continued to be used throughout the Late Period, as well as the Persian and Ptolemaic periods. Late survivals of hieroglyphic use are found well into the Roman period, extending into the 4th century AD.

Nora Stone
The Nora Stone or Nora Inscription is an ancient inscription found at Nora on the south coast of Sardinia.It has been dated by palaeographic methods to the late 9th century to early 8th century BCE and is still considered the oldest Phoenician inscription yet found in Sardinia.

From 2000 BC to 500 AD we see the dawn of the alphabets. Unlike cave paintings and hieroglyphs, alphabets are a set of visual symbols or characters used to represent the elementary sounds of a spoken language. From the Phoenician to the Greek and Roman versions, the alphabet kept on evolving into the alphabet we know today.

Invention of paper

As people living in the modern age, we take paper for granted. It is cheap, it is light and easy to obtain. We even think of ways to eliminate it from our lives considering the impact it has on nature. Yet again, we need to acknowledge the importance of paper in human history and the role it took in the evolution of a modern society. The invention of paper has revolutionized a lot of things like the civilization, culture, and education of people.

Since the invention of writing, people have been trying to come up with something easier to write on than papyrus or parchment, and also something easier and cheaper to make. The writing surfaces were made from different materials such as bones, bamboo slips, wooden boards and even tortoise shells. These things were not only heavy but they also took up a lot of space and were hard to carry around.

Yet again it took 3000 years to come up with paper! Paper was invented around 100 AD in China. In 105 AD, under the Han Dynasty emperor Ho-Ti, a government official in China named Ts’ai Lun (or Cai Lun) was the first to start a paper-making industry. It was said that he took bamboo fibers and the inner bark of a mulberry tree. He then added water to these and pounded them using a wooden tool. When they were pounded thoroughly, he poured the whole mixture over a flat woven cloth letting the water drain out. When it was dried, only the fibers remained and with this, Ts’ai Lun realized he had made a material that had a good writing surface and that was lightweight. It was also very easy to make. Ts’ai Lun used other materials for his papermakings, such as remnants or hemp, tree barks, fishnets and linen rags.

Paperbook from China
Oldest paper book, dating to AD 256

Ts’ai Lun’s paper was a huge success and in the following years, the Chinese began to use paper for writing. With paper available, Buddhist monks in China began to work on ways of mass producing prayers. Around 384 A.D. the art of papermaking spread to East Korea and later to Japan. The technique reached to Tibet around 650 A.D and then India. For a long time, the Chinese kept the process involved to make the paper as a secret but six centuries later, in 751 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty war, the Arab Empire captured soldiers and also some paper making workers so the skills were brought to the Arab nations. Through the Arabs, paper making skills were learned and mastered by the Africans and the Europeans. Paper making skills and paper then became widespread all across the globe.   

Diamond Sutra
The world’s earliest known printed book (using woodblock printing), the Diamond Sutra of 868, shows the widespread availability and practicality of paper in China.

The use of paper changed the way people taught and learned. It also promoted and hastened the progress of civilization and culture, and literature. With the invention of a cheap and easy writing surface, it meant that ideas, teachings, and philosophies could now be easily passed on to other people. Education became a much easier task and communication with people from a distance was now simpler.

We will continue to explore the developments following the invention of paper in our next post.

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